During Hanukkah, when December’s days grow shorter and darker, the words of a new poem by Boston’s poet laureate will illuminate the facade of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, piercing the darkness of the season.
Porsha Olayiwola’s “Black as Light,” will be projected on the MFA’s historic Fenway entrance through an original design by award-winning photographer Erik Jacobs.
A few miles away, in Dorchester, the Bowdoin Street Health Care Center will shimmer in “The Light From Within,” by South African-born Israeli-American artist Caron Tabb, in a collaboration with teens from Artists For Humanity and staff of the clinic. The silvery silhouette staff portraits celebrate the resilience of the community, hard hit by the pandemic, and reflect the essence of Hanukkah.
In Chelsea, a city teeming with immigrants that was once home to a vibrant Jewish community, a wall will glow with Clint Baclawski’s light installation of a photographic image that symbolizes the nine-branched Hanukkah menorah.
The trio of public art installations, along with five others, are part of “Brighter Connected,” an uplifting Hanukkah-themed project produced by Jewish Arts Collaborative.
JArts paired local artists with eight Boston-area neighborhoods, continuing the group’s trailblazing support of Jewish-inspired public art that connects the area’s diverse communities through engaging cultural programs. The works will be on view across Greater Boston Dec. 9-18.
Public art is a way to draw attention to the miracle of Hanukkah, which is a mitzvah, and it’s an opportunity to showcase the holiday’s relevance, JArts executive director Laura Mandel told the Journal in a phone conversation. “Even if you are not Jewish, there’s a way to connect,” Mandel said.
“Brighter Connected,” a safe, social distanced outdoor activity, is one of four Hanukkah programs the group is producing. In addition to “Black as Light” and “Brighter Connected,” JArts will also produce an augmented-reality Hanukkah gallery for a home-based experience; and a new, virtual edition of the annual Hanukkah celebration at the MFA.
For the past seven years, the hugely popular program has attracted some 3,500 visitors to the museum.
This year, during the pandemic, the public is invited to tune in from the safety of home on Dec. 9, at 6 p.m. with a menorah lighting, music by Klezmer master Hankus Netsky, a dance program, and a look at the museum’s Judaica with MFA Judaica curator Simona De Nepi. A family program begins earlier, at 5 p.m.
The event is supported by Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, the Consulate of Israel to New England, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and others.
The ambitious collaboration between Olayiwola and Jacobs at the MFA is the largest of the art installations. The illumination, controlled by a laptop, may require up to four projectors, according to Jacobs, of Medford.
His building projections include the nationally acclaimed Boston StandsWithImmigrants, which emblazoned larger-than-life photographs of immigrants and refugees in Greater Boston on Fenway Park, the Zakim Bridge and Symphony Hall, among other iconic locations.
Olayiwola, a Chicago-born Jamaica Plain resident, is a rising star in the poetry world, garnering both the Individual World Poetry Slam championship and the National Poetry Slam championship. Drawing on Afrofuturism and Afro science fiction, Olayiwola’s poetry explores the black experience, lyrically flowing between past, present and future. Her work is currently on view at the MFA in its “Women Take the Floor” exhibit.
While she is not Jewish, the ritual of lighting the Hanukkiah kindled a spark that connected the Jewish holiday to Black American history, she told the Journal in a phone conversation.
A line in the poem, “lantern weighting the window,” refers to the candles that were hung in homes along the Underground Railway, a sign of safety for Blacks escaping slavery.
“I thought of those intersecting moments. We are so much closer than we think,” she said.
For Jacobs, the poem on race and identity is a touchpoint at a time when the country is divided.
“We are trying to put a small dent in the racial divide we face as a nation,” Jacobs said. “Poetry is a way for people to transport themselves into someone else’s shoes.”
Baclawski’s light installation on a vacant Chelsea storefront (440 Broadway) will remain lit for 24 hours a day during Hanukkah, he said in an email. Photos of a eucalyptus forest in California, which recall the trees common on the Israeli landscape, are transformed into a Hanukkah menorah, reflecting the significance of trees and light in Judaism.
Also north of Boston is Emily Bhargava’s stained glass installation at 45 Pleasant St. in Woburn.
In Newton Centre, artist Tova Speter teamed up with students from eight Jewish day schools including Epstein-Hillel in Marblehead to create “Collective Luminescence.”
“Drawn in Light,” by TJ Reynolds, highlights portraits of people of African descent including a poignant portrait of local sculptor Fern Cunningham, who died earlier this year. Another is of Boston area Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum, who leads education at Brookline’s Temple Beth Zion.
For more information and to register for events, visit jartsboston.org.