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Sculpting their Dreams
- Ethiopian Artists in Israel

by Sara Hakkert

Ethiopian pottery The legend of the ten lost tribes of ancient Israelites has caught the imagination of writers and poets during the centuries, finding them was the quest of many. It came partly true when, during the last century, small communities of Jewish people that called themselves Beita Israel (The House of Israel) were discovered in Ethiopia. It is believed that their unique identity was preserved because they lead a tightly knitted social life in secluded areas, tenaciously clinging to the Jewish religion and to the dream of being redeemed in the Holy Land. This was accomplished with the establishment of the state of Israel and their miraculous emigration to Israel in the early eighties.

The story of their settlement and integration into the life of the modern state of Israel, which is still taking its course, is a complex of success and failure; the story of the ceramic artists from this ethnic group seems to be different.

Ethiopian potteryTraditionally, pottery in Ethiopia, linked to crafts in general, was among the less honorable occupations. It may have had to do with a rigid social structure or, as anthropologists suggest, it may be linked to magic and the secret of fire; those who know are feared and kept at a distance. Never the less, the necessity for household utensils for daily use in the past centuries, made pottery common among men and women. Alongside, flourished other sculptural and decorative clay work.

Among the Ethiopian immigrants that came from Gundar area and other central locations, were a few ceramic artists who had already studied and worked in Ethiopia. Thenat Awaqa, Eli Aman, Mulu Geta, Menachem Dincau and a few others, are in recent years, capturing the attention of the public with interesting work. They live in different parts of Israel, with no or little knowledge of each other, yet their work shows admirable consistency. Not only does it share distinct common stylistic features, that are characteristic also of works done in Ethiopian community centers in Israel, but an emotional affinity prevails over all.

The figurative aspect and the narrative themes are the most striking traits of the Ethiopian sculptural work done so far. Small figurines, measuring about fifteen to twenty cm., are the most common and popular sculptures. These were produced in Ethiopia, along functional ware, for sale in the market place to tourists; they continue to attract attention of this slice of the market till today in Israel.

Ethiopian potteryThe figurines are based on a cylindrical body upon which a large head is resting. Arms, pipelike, are attached to the body terminating in incised fingers. Legs and feet are usually not outlined in the more simplified versions, since the body is covered in a long gown. Legs, again pipelike, when present, are placed with feet flat on the ground in a rigid position. Female and male figures are depicted, differentiation centers on the head and upper part of the body, i.e., females have large breasts, men have beards. All artists work with a low firing clay, unglazed but burnished with simple natural tools.

In Thenat Awaqa’s work females have large heads due to the high coiffeur covered with a handkerchief appropriate to Jewish married women. Faces are elongated with quite large holes for eyes. Men have beards and are bareheaded, their hair presented by incised lines. There is little attention to anatomical precision, body and features are simplified, some are expressively exaggerated. Incised lines create a linear decoration to enhance the planar surface.

Ethiopian potteryThenat Awaqa, a 34 years old mother of four daughters, lives in Israel since 1991. She comes from a family of potters in the Gundar area, she trained in Adis-Abeba where she received a diploma in ceramics. At present she is working at home, hand building and also working on the wheel “I like to sculpt my dreams” she points out in an interview, and this innocent remark gives deep insight into her spiritual and creative world.
Thenat, and all the other artists who live now in Israel, continue to work in the tradition they were trained and practiced in the past. The works of Thenat, Eli, Mulu, Menachem Dincau and a few others, although exhibiting individual qualities, are deeply rooted in the art and culture of African tribal art with emphasis on the domestic and mundane. The folklore of the native Ethiopian village is recreated in their art, in an innocuous and a somewhat idealized way. The women are engaged in household chores; carrying water, preparing food and tending their children. Men are doing the more strenuous work of gathering wood or pounding wheat. Families are gathered around the table eating their meals.

Eli Aman who emigrated to Israel in 1984 completed his craft education in Israel, he is forty one years old. He already took part in group exhibitions, had several one man shows and his work is shown at private galleries. Eli’s figures are more sophisticated, some are larger reaching up to fifty cm., although this is a technical limitation due to the size of his kiln. He concentrates on the male figure which is depicted in a dignified way becoming the elders of the village, monks and teachers. The figures are more varied and the modeling more plastic, both body and dress show a pronounced three dimensional presence. The same goes for Menachem Dinkau who made some very interesting figures of musicians, pregnant women and a group compositions of a preacher addressing his flock.

Ethiopian potteryMulu Geta (b.1949) studied pottery in Adis-Abeba and also in Israel, he too is a known figure among the Ethiopian artists. His style is much more personal, realism and fantasy figure side by side with a dash of humor. Some of his sculptures deal with the same topics such as parenthood, but his artistic imagination is given a freer hand, as in the two small (about 20 cm. high) works titled Family1 and Family2. By joining two almost complete spheres Mulu succeeded, in these sculptures, to build an expressive human figure despite its anatomical incongruity, which is also very rewarding, from a modern, sculptural, point of view. Arms and legs that follow the abstract decorative pattern on the body are in harmony with the whole composition. His sense of humor comes out again in the Musician, a group seated on a grinning frog, or in the Seated Man, a typical figure of his repertoire but dressed in a western suit and wearing a ridiculous pair of glasses.

The high quality of Mulu’s art is again expressed in the complicated composition of the Mourning piece. It comprises a group of people mourning an outstretched dead body on the village background. In a very tight space he cramped together people and huts with a multitude of essential details, that created a claustrophobic and somewhat surreal ambiance befitting the grief experienced. The theme of death preoccupied Mulu for a long time after his arrival in Israel being a direct response to the hardship and death that befall the Ethiopian community during its exodus.

Ethiopian potteryAlthough living in Israel for almost two decade during which the artists, as well as their community at large, came in contact with the local people, they have somehow remained outsiders. Because of a huge gap between the Ethiopian way of life in the past, and that found in modern Israel, a gap which comprises religious, social, economic and cultural differences, they live in a permanent dilemma. Modern society exerts a continuous pressure towards assimilation in the new, strange but alluring culture of the present, a pressure that clashes with the innate wish to cling to their old traditional way of life. This conflicting existence pervades their life in general, and it is striking in their art. They all, as Thenat pointed out, work from memories which draw upon the same source - the familiar, beloved, but lost way of life.

Some inevitable questions arise; for how long can these artists nourish on memories that tend to fade in time? What will happen to the distinctive traits of their art that have sprung from a culture that is not theirs anymore? Will the strong western bearings of Israel’s modern and sometime abstract art obliterate their unique innocent vision of the world or their realistic tendencies? Will they be able, in the future, to sustain the spirit and humanism of their past work?

Their art, as of present, is certainly in danger. The better artists, no doubt, will find their own mode of expression, although the outcome is difficult to predict. Others may continue to produce the same figurines or bird adorned bowls in a commercialized vein, for which stagnation already looms. In any case, it seems, the story of the art of the Ethiopian artists in Israel, is inevitably going to change in the future. The work done in the recent past should therefore be much more appreciated and preserved.

Article courtesy of Sara Hakkert. © Sara Hakkert

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