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‘Mother Opium’ traces the root of addiction’s pain

CM 08/09/2021


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Some three months before I entered the dimly lit, underground halls of the Mamuta Art and Media Center – the gallery, research and residency hub hosting artist Sagit Mezamer’s solo exhibition, Mother Opium – I was rapidly walking to a dinner party held in Shapira.
The south Tel Aviv neighborhood, located some 50 km. away from the Jerusalemite venue where Mezamer is showcasing the fruits born of three years’ worth of creative labor, is known for its gritty population. Those who frequent this quarter regularly would not be surprised to find an urban hodgepodge of asylum seekers, homeless individuals, prostitutes and drug addicts. On the night of my visit, a homeless man, seemingly gripped in the throes of an intense withdrawal episode, was slouched over on a street corner. The man was gaping his mouth as if to scream, but no sound came out. Instead of yelling, he repeatedly thumped his chest with a gnarly arm marked over and over by wounds presumably caused by injections. At his feet was a used syringe and broken plastic bottle. “Keep walking,” a friend who accompanied me told me when she noticed that I had stopped and stared, mesmerized by the choreography of the man’s silent plea. “This is just pain behavior.”
As I slowly paced between the walls of the gallery, taking in the intricate details of the mostly black-and-white ink drawings Mezamer displayed, I couldn’t help but think back to my exchange with my friend. It seems that Mezamer, a Jerusalem-based creator, curator and psychologist, had turned the space into a visual journal guided by the same instinct. She, too, did not want to avert her eyes from what my friend instinctively and rightfully called “pain behavior,” a psychological term hijacked by laymen philosophical discourses to describe self-destructive tendencies.

With a handful of sculptures, scrolls densely populated by long-limbed creatures partaking in various drug-related ceremonies and a petrifyingly personal video work about the life of a somewhat recovered addict – Mezamer is doing the exact opposite of looking away.
The artist, a teacher at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design who also obtained her master’s degree there, has created an environment that immerses its visitors gently but relentlessly in the world of opiate consumption. It might be more precise to point out that the kind of art Mezamer is showcasing looks and sounds like a visual research of pain behavior, of the kind that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued can only be experienced, isolated and transcended through language.

The commitment to return

In a conversation with The Jerusalem Post, Mezamer explains that the topic of her artistic inquiry hit especially close to home. For well over two decades, the artist has been accompanying her older brother, Haim, as he struggled with the mental roller coaster of his addiction to heroin. The family believed that his addiction began during his army service, when he experienced post-trauma in the wake of the Lebanon war. In 2016, Mezamer’s mother, who had been the primary caretaker of Haim, passed away from cancer. Thereafter, Haim’s condition deteriorated, “and he was finally willing to ask for help.”
Their painful journey took the siblings away from Israel to the hilly planes of the Portuguese countryside, where Haim underwent alternative treatment to try and be rid of his addiction for good. The unconventional cleansing method, which is illegal in Israel and in many other countries, consists of a guided consumption of ibogaine – a plant-based psychedelic substance with strong dissociative properties, which is said to help counter the addiction to opiates.
Once there, Mezamer relied on the virtual assistance of a man she met through a friend: Dani Levy, an Israeli former DJ and recovering heroin addict who treats himself with ibogaine and helped many other addicts.
Mezamer described her brother’s ordeal with ibogaine at length in a flinchingly candid visual essay published by the Journal of Extreme Anthropology in 2019 and titled “To the Roots.” In it, she wrote: “My brother was asked to sign a contract headed Your Commitment to Return. The two paragraphs explain that Iboga takes you deep inside yourself, and also outside yourself. You might meet the dead; you might receive an invitation. But it is important to remember that you are loved and needed here, and your departure would be very distressing for your loved ones.”
Some of the artworks featured in the essay also found their way into the exhibition. Dream-like in quality and difficult to take in, these include an installation made of torn synthetic fabrics emulating her mother’s carpet that was covered by heroin and cigarette burns from periods Haim sheltered there, or a drawing in which a woman turns into a wolf – a nod to a hallucination her brother had about their mother while treated with ibogaine.
The artist stresses that neither her essay nor her exhibition espouse the use of drugs, but that through her creation and by sharing her brother’s story she hopes to offer a better-rounded perspective about addiction and the different methods of coping with it. “Treatment via ibogaine is not like taking other drugs,” she says. “You go through 36 hours of complete suffering. It’s like you see a film about your own life flashing before your eyes and encounter implicit memories that suddenly rise. Ibogaine is not a magic fix.”
Asked whether she doesn’t believe that addicts should try to abstain from substances altogether instead of turning to other drugs, Mezamer chooses her words carefully. “People who seek the iboga treatment don’t approach it thinking they will find redemption. They wish to arrive at a new kind of understanding of the world and of themselves. I’m not an addict myself, but I can understand that desire. Sometimes I also want to be able to conceptualize my viewpoint and my pain differently.”

Meeting another brother

This desire, Mezamer shared with the Post, sent her on a quest that gave birth to what would later become the exhibition currently on view at Mamuta. She began interviewing different individuals who suffer from myriad drug addictions, with the hope of “creating a visual map of addictions throughout Israel.”
This chapter of her project led her to cross paths again with Levy, who had now returned from a sober five-year stint in the Netherlands, where he was helping addicts on the mend. Newly based in Holon, the middle-aged Levy tries to live a quiet life and steer clear of drugs. Mezamer began conducting a series of interviews with him, which she had recorded. The strong connection they formed eventually led Mezamer to drop the broader series of interviews and focus solely on Levy.
The most riveting work on view in Mother Opium is a short video, filmed primarily in black and white, which features a day of Levy’s life as he converses with Mezamer about his routine and his challenges during the latter’s visit at the former’s modest residence. Seated in his living room or strolling in a nearby grove with his dogs, Levy speaks honestly and eloquently about living for decades in the shadow of his addiction. He castigates society for its prejudices against addicts and for the fact that ibogaine is outlawed in numerous countries. “That’s why there is no God. It’s clear to me that this is not what He intended. We built a world that God isn’t related to at all,” he ruminates. In between moments of utter lucidity, the quivering and skillfully unobtrusive camera follows Levy’s distressed body language – the only telltale sign of his pain.
“I worked on the video in collaboration with the artist who filmed it, Dan Lahiani, and the artist who edited it, Sara Siegel. I gave them both the liberty to make their own choices and respond to my project in their ways. The same goes for the artistic decisions made by Roi Carmeli, a Glasgow-based artist who created two clay sculptures on view in the show, and who collaborated with me on some of the drawings,” Mezamer notes. “The work was very intuitive. I recorded dozens if not hundreds of conversations with Dani over the years. When I listened to these recordings, it became very evident to me that Dani had always spoken under the influence of various substances. Then, at one point, Dani told me that he was willing to be filmed and not just heard as a voice, only if it was in the context of him speaking about iboga.”
The single shooting day, Mezamer continues, “was stronger than all the hours of recordings during which he was completely high. Suddenly I saw Dani facing the camera and communicating things I heard him say before, but in a much more direct way.”
The final result, replete with an uplifting rock soundtrack selected by Levy himself, is a hybrid creation somewhere on the fringes between video art and documentary footage. Mezamer likes to think of it as a “docu-installation.” Asked whether she was afraid the work would be perceived as a cynical appropriation of Levy’s life story, she willingly and openly addresses the ethical issues her creation gives rise to. “There were moments when I felt that both Dani and myself were victims of this process. We entered a very intense journey that we’re both thankful for, because we experienced a strong and interesting encounter. I met something through him and he met something through me. Together we put words on it. He was paid a salary for his participation, and I think of him as a co-creator and an artist in my exhibition. Dani is an artist in his soul, and without him none of this would have been possible.”

In treatment

While the exhibition is due to shutter in a matter of days, Mezamer’s research and keen interest in the pathology of addiction is far from over. Having obtained a master’s degree in psychology from Tel Aviv University, she is now in the process of completing her residency to become a clinical psychologist. The artist is particularly interested in assisting individuals who suffer from post-trauma and drug addiction, and has trained under the auspices of physician Gabor Maté, the Hungarian-Canadian addiction expert. Mezamer is an advocate of Maté’s approach and recently promoted the translation of his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, whose Hebrew version she scientifically edited with Prof. Shauli Lev-Ran.
Her life experience, her academic background and the hands-on work she now conducts as a therapist-to-be have all taught her that “it’s important not to merely focus on the decision that people make but rather on the pain that can be found at the root of their decision-making,” she said. 
“When I meet a patient who is doing drugs, I have to remind myself that it’s not because they want to get high. They do the drugs because those help alleviate their pain, which is caused by mental issues or by withdrawal symptoms.
“We all have physical and mental pains. Drugs can be used in a proper, healthy and community-oriented way, as was the habit in the history of mankind – from the Bronze Age until the late 19th century. I felt that there was value in making this information accessible and presenting it in a manner that is also aesthetic.”
As I exited Mezamer’s exhibition and returned to the sunny ground level, I thought about the so-called “pain behavior” that I had witnessed on the street back in Tel Aviv; the very same behavior exhibited by Mezamer’s brother, by Levy captured in her video, by the countless patients she will go on to treat. With the memories of her creation still fresh on my mind, I wondered if the cycle of addiction can ever be broken. Perhaps the pain never truly abates, but through therapy and visual storytelling, it might be tamed.
Mother Opium is on view at Mamuta Art and Media Center, 14 Gedaliahu Alon Street, Jerusalem until September 10.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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CM

The host of Coffee Mouth Scare Crow Show and CEO of 452 Impact, Inc. Here is food for thought. Romans 6:23 "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." John 3:16 "For God so love ed the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall be saved."

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