Shared Dreams of the Sea: Bonny Nahmias at Root Division

Installation view of Bonny Nahmias's work. A long, horizontal image made of felt hangs on the wall. There are orange poppies flowing into a seascape with humanoid figures in the waves. Three enormous felt poppies droop along the wall and on the floor, where there is a circular felt rug that resembles a mati.
Bonny Nahmias, Shirat Ha-Yam (installation view), 2020. Courtesy of Root Division.

I’m holding a piece of my dream in my hands. Or is it Bonny’s dream? As part of her exhibition Shirat Ha’Yam // Song of the Sea at Root Division’s Frank-Ratchye Project Space, Bonny Nahmias has asked viewers to answer the question “what dream did you have at sea?” In return, she mailed us a piece of the exhibition. The first segment of work was virtually on view in January 2021 while installed in Root Division’s gallery in San Francisco, and in the second segment was created for each of us and exhibited in our homes.

Holding the notebook-sized panel in my hands, I first wanted to put it under my pillow. The panels are bound with visible stitches—a visual metaphor carried into the virtual exhibition, where similar stitches and linear gestures lead us through a series of dreamlike imagery: a bird holding a branch in its mouth emerges from the mouth of a fox, which emerges from the bloom of an enormous orange flower, perhaps a poppy, as smaller versions of the flower border the scene.

An image made in overlapping pieces of soft felt depicts large blue ocean waves with tan rocks jutting out of them. Most islands have a humanoid figure lounging or standing on it, the figures are entirely white, featureless, with a mati on their chest
Bonny Nahmias, Hamsa Hamsa No Evil Eye With Poppies, 2020 (detail). Felt, variable dimensions. Courtesy of Root Division.

Nahmias calls this “an online and dispersed exhibition.” I love the word “dispersed” here, because it gives me the sense that something was collected in the first place. I don’t need to tell you how dispersed life feels right now—the excavation of isolation and loneliness that so many of us have been forced to live with during the pandemic. Nahmias’s work is a gentle resistance against this force: a yielding while still making.

It was nearly the one-year anniversary of the pandemic when I received a piece of Nahmias’s exhibition in the mail. In writing, it is more correct for me to refer to the artist by her last name, but something about sending her my dreams and receiving a soft panel of felt with watery images makes me feel that we are on a first name basis. We, meaning Nahmias and I, but also the “us” operating now as the exhibitors of Shirat Ha-Yam, the us for whom she made the second phase of the exhibition, based on dreams that we submitted to her.

A rectangular image made in felt pieces. Long, horizontal scraps in deep blue create an ocean horizon, above which a deep orange sun sits. In the bottom left corner, a nude, pregnant woman is on all fours with her hair covering her face.
Bonny Nahmias, Shirat Ha-Yam, 2020 (detail). Courtesy of Root Division.

The at-home version of the exhibition exists on dining tables and altars, in the middle of couch pillows and piles of laundry. In this era when only one household gets to touch something at a time, it feels like Nahmias has relinquished her work: once in her bubble, it is now in ours. The virtual exhibition also channels the viewer through spaces that are usually divided: a path of flowers leads us to a series of flying birds, and then to a group of humanoid figures trapped on islands amidst waves. Nahmias’s figures have a blue bullseye on their chests, a symbol that is also enlarged as a carpet on the floor of the virtual exhibition. The imagery is psychedelic, unwilling to shake off the impulsive or associative. The work de-emphasizes separateness, instead repeating forms (a blue crest, an orange shard) that conjure different objects on different panels or scenes: orange becomes flower, strand of hair, fish; and blue becomes wave, sky, dolphin.

The blue eye is especially important here, and recurs elsewhere in Nahmias’s work, variously representing the human bodies as targets for violence, a message sent from the heart, and the blue stone eye used in many Mediterranean and West Asian spiritual traditions to ward off evil. In Nahmias’s recent painting La Oración De La Nona (The Prayer of the Grandmother) (2020) the blue eye leaps from the figures into a series of beads held in a hand. By revisiting this symbol across a variety of contexts, Nahmias performs a protection rite: here, take this with you wherever you like, wherever it will serve you.

The image I received in the mail also feels pulled from its context. It has a few blue felt swipes with stars on them, some orange figures, perhaps hands, and spheres that could equally be a sun or a ball floating above the waves. Nahmias illustrated my dream, and I received Nahmias’s reflection of it, a kind of collective unconscious. My felt panel arrived accompanied by a poem-meditation Nahmias collaged from the fragments of the dreams submitted.

A photograph of sixteen rectangular images made in felt. All the images feature the ocean or water in some way, but each one has a different scene. They're arranged in a grid on a wooden table.
Bonny Nahmias, Shirat Ha-Yam, 2020 (in progress view). Courtesy of Root Division.

“Welcome this light. / You are now a part of collective dreaming,” the poem begins. I scanned it for identifiers and parts of my interiority or references to people I know. Dreams can be fascinating or boring, depending on whether or not we care about the person speaking, the jumble their brain makes of information and desire. Reading, I was reminded of the poet Carolina Ebeid, and her poem that begins:

You ask me to talk
about the interior
it was all roadside flowers & grasses
growing over the cities
was made of wilderness & sky
with God washed out of it
was the foreign prayer-word
it was a list of missing persons

Ebeid departs from the specificity of the personal into a windswept landscape full of reference to potential belief and tragedy, but remains vague. This lack of specificity resonates in Nahmias’s work: instead of trying too hard to cohere, the work is honest about being divided. I hold a piece of felt in my hands that is mine only, though linked to the dreams of others. The work invites us to be okay with dividedness while staying connected to shared experiences, even when they are allegorical or slippery.

The exhibition’s name originates from a biblical poem chanted during Jewish morning prayer, and references Moses parting the Red Sea to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt toward a kind of salvation. In Nahmias’s images, the seas part: the sections of blue waves literally separate from one another on the felt panels, and individual panels peel apart into each of our homes. I don’t expect these parting seas to re-integrate with one another or to take me to any promised land. Nahmias’s work emphasizes the parting, not the resolution. As we move into a second year of the pandemic, this acceptance seems to be the main comfort available: We are parted, here we are, parted.

Bonny Nahmias, Shirat Ha’Yam
Frank-Ratchye Project Space, Root Division
January 2021