“Clay Sculpture by Six Ethiopian Israeli Artists” opened in the east rotunda of Powell Library Nov. 1. On Wednesday, Nov. 2, co-curator and psychologist Michael Weinstock from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel will discuss how the sculptures and lives of the six Ethiopian Jewish women artists reflect the social change and psychological adaptations of three generations of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Light refreshments will be offered immediately after his lecture.
The artists are the last members of the Ethiopian Jewish Arts Workshop in Be’er Sheva, Israel, which was created to preserve the artistic heritage of Jewish Ethiopian immigrants. Now grandmothers with an average age of 70, all were born in Ethiopia and most of them made clay works there before emigrating to Israel. The sculptures are on loan from the Michael Hittleman Gallery of Los Angeles, where they were first shown in the United States. Co-sponsoring the show are the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and the African Studies Center (ASC) of the UCLA International Institute. Said ASC director Steven Nelson, professor of African and African-American art, “The exhibit is a great way to bring people from different parts of campus together who might not normally work together.”
The exhibition has its beginnings in research being conducted by Weinstock and UCLA psychology professor Patricia Greenfield, who stumbled upon the sculptures as part of background research for a collaborative study on three minority populations in Israel: the Israeli Arabs of northern Israel, the Bedouins of southern Israel and the Ethiopian Israeli community. Specifically, Weinstock and Greenfield are looking at the impact of social change on gender roles and romantic partnerships in the three respective communities. The research on the Ethiopian Israeli community is sponsored by a grant from the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation.
Said Greenfield: “Michael Weinstock had heard about (the Ethiopian Jewish Arts Workshop), and so before we even started our research with the Ethiopian Israeli community, we visited the workshop. I was just blown away by what they were doing. But at the same time, I was distressed that it wasn’t being appreciated as art.”
The arts workshop is part of a social service agency, said Greenfield, and the clay works were viewed more as a hobby than as art. The workshop did not sell many of sculptures, and the revenues from what they did sell were reinvested in the workshop to keep it going.
“I was concerned that it wasn’t appreciated as art, either within the Ethiopian community or in Israel outside the community,” Greenfield said. “And I was worried about the preservation and transmission of this art form to the next generation.”
Greenfield recruited gallery director Michael Hittleman to her cause. “He’s a rare person who’s interested in both African art and modern Israeli art,” she said. “In fact, he had just been to West Africa when I first contacted him.” Hittleman saw a photograph of a statue, loved the work and enthusiastically agreed to host an exhibit in his Los Angeles gallery. In July 2016, Hittleman, Greenfield and Weinstock visited the Ethiopian Jewish Arts Workshop and selected 31 works; they were shown in October 2016 as part of the Hittleman Gallery’s 40th anniversary celebration.
Today, Greenfield is more confident that the art form will not be lost. “Because of Michael Hittleman's purchase of the pieces in the exhibit and the fact that the proceeds have gone to the workshop,” she said, “the administrators of the Ethiopian Jewish Arts Workshop are now very interested in organizing extended workshops so that the artists can transmit their techniques to the next generation, which was our goal.”
Ethiopian Jews have had a difficult history in both Ethiopia and Israel. Oppressed and discriminated against in Ethiopia, their transition to life in Israel has not been easy, where their community continues to experience discrimination. Noted Greenfield, “The exhibit is intended both to gain respect for the art of this community in Israel, as well as to gain respect for the community itself, which has been quite disrespected.” At present, she noted, a museum for Ethiopian Israeli art is being built in Be’er Sheva, “so the timing for this exhibition is very good.”
Gallery owner Michael Hittleman describes the works … (Read the complete story at the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israeli Studies.)