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Scents of Purpose: Artists Interpret the Spice Box

May 4, 2005–Sep 5, 2005

In the longstanding tradition of The Museum, the Invitational encourages artists of all backgrounds from around the country to make us think afresh by creating original interpretations of traditional Jewish ritual objects using a variety of media. This year, the spice box, or besamim, takes center stage. During the havdalah ceremony, performed at the end of Shabbat, the spice box is passed around and its fragrant scents inhaled—a moment marking the bittersweet transition between the day of rest and the resumption of the everyday. Enjoy the delicate beauty of the spice boxes, sending sweetness into the coming week.

about the exhibition

In the Jewish tradition, a beautifully crafted box full of aromatic spices is passed from person to person and inhaled during the havdalah, a prayer service at the end of the Sabbath on Saturday evening. This is the moment of transition—when holy time is linked with ordinary time, the spiritual with the material, light with dark, rest with resumption. The inhalation of the spices helps keep the sweetness and peacefulness of this day of rest lingering in the memory for the week to come. With no Biblical proscription for what the spice box should look like, artisans over the ages have been free to let their inspiration take wing. In Europe, however, the boxes most often took the form of a tower or spire with rich architectural details that mirrored local buildings.

With the exhibition Scents of Purpose, the spice box gets a 21st century makeover. Participating artists were encouraged to interpret the traditional object from a modern perspective, exploring its ongoing relevance and universality. The pieces in the show reflect a wide range of approaches and ideas from the whimsical to the poetic, the provocative to the pious. Participants include critically acclaimed artists Lee Mingwei, Tom Marioni, Gay Outlaw, Allan Wexler, Helene Aylon, Richard Shaw, Kiyomi Iwata and renowned architects Daniel Libeskind, Chong Partners Architecture in association with Berkeley Mills & Earth Resources, Robert A.M. Stern, C. David Robinson and Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture.

The Museum has also developed several displays to enhance the exhibition of the art pieces and provide visitors with a deeper understanding of the history and meaning of the spice box. Included in the exhibition are a number of historic spice boxes and related havdalah ritual objects; a map of early spice trading routes highlighting Jewish involvement in the spice trade; and a scent station where museum-goers may inhale the fragrance of traditional Jewish spices.

Additionally, an audio listening station allows visitors to hear the havdalah blessings and related songs from Jewish communities all over the world. The Museum also invited members of the Bay Area’s interfaith community to share examples of their scent-related ritual objects, which will be displayed alongside written reflections on the objects.

As is customary with the invitational exhibitions, all of the unique creations featured in the show are available for purchase, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting The Museum’s education programs.

gallery photos
about the invitational

The Invitational tradition began soon after The Museum’s founding in 1984 with The Sukkah Competition, in which Bay Area architects were invited to submit designs for a Sukkah, the traditional booth associated with the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. Many of these same architects such as Stanley Saitowitz and Susie Coliver have returned to participate in the Scents of Purpose show. Other popular invitational exhibitions have included Light Interpretations: A Hanukkah Menorah Invitational in 1995, L’Chaim! A Kiddush Cup Invitational in 1997 and the recent Making Change: 100 Artists Interpret the Tzedakah Box.


Scents of Purpose: Artists Interpret the Spice Box is organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum. The exhibition is made possible through major support from the Walter and Elise Haas Fund and The Simcha Foundation, with additional generous support from an anonymous donor, David Friedman and Paulette Meyer, Roselyne Chroman Swig, ARCS Commercial Mortgage, and Ruth Stein. The catalog is made possible through the generous support of the Shenson Foundation, in memory of Drs. Ben and A. Jess Shenson. 

The Nu Wa Project by Lee Mingwei has been supported by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts as part of the multi-year collaborative project Awake: Art, Buddhism and the Dimensions of Consciousness.

Image Credit

Header image and gallery photos: installation views of Scents of Purpose: Artists Interpret the Spice Box, on view May 4–Sep 5, 2005 at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.