Exhibition of Ethiopian Israeli art opens Nov. 1 in Powell Library
From left: Mother with Dog, Food and Bird, by Tziona Yahim; Mamit and her Child, by Mamit Sheto; Mother and Daughter, with Mother Holding Child, Dog and Bird, by Tziona Yahim. (Patricia Greenfield, UCLA.)

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

Exhibition of Ethiopian Israeli art opens Nov. 1 in Powell Library

The clay sculptures featured in the exhibit blend Ethiopian and Israeli influences.

“What we see in the pieces are examples of how changes in the immigrants' social environments produce different psychologies and forms of expression.” Michael Weinstock

Exhibition of Ethiopian Israeli art opens Nov. 1 in Powell Library

UCLA International Institute, October 31, 2016 — “Clay Sculpture by Six Ethiopian Israeli Artists” opens in the East Rotunda of Powell Library tomorrow and runs through November 10. Cosponsored by the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and the African Studies Center (ASC) of the UCLA International Institute, the exhibit features art on loan from the Michael Hittleman Gallery of Los Angeles, where it was first shown in the United States. The UCLA exhibit kicks off with an opening reception on November 1st from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., complete with traditional Ethiopian food. (To RSVP, click here.)

The show features the artwork of six Ethiopian Jewish women who migrated to Israel. They 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 made clay works there before emigrating to Israel. Their sculptures reflect not only the cultures of both countries, but also the impact that migration has had on their work.

For UCLA, says ASC Director and Professor of African and African-American Art Steven Nelson, “The exhibit is a great way to bring people from different parts of campus together who might not normally work together.”

How ethnographic research led to an art exhibit

Two of the co-curators of the UCLA exhibit, Professor Patricia Greenfield of UCLA and Professor Michael Weinstock of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, more or less stumbled onto the artwork as part of background research for a larger collaborative study.

The two psychologists are conducting a study of three minority populations in Israel: Israeli Arabs of northern Israel, the Bedouins of southern Israel and the Ethiopian Israeli community. Specifically, they 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.

“Michael Weinstock had heard about this clay workshop and so before we even started our research with the Ethiopian Israeli community, we visited the workshop,” says Greenfield. “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 workshop, she explains, is part of a social service agency and the clay works were viewed more as a hobby than as art. The workshop did not sell much of their clay 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,” continues Greenfield. “And I was worried about the preservation and transmission of this art form to the next generation.” And so the idea to organize an exhibition of the artwork was born.

Greenfield recruited Michael Hittleman to her cause. “He’s a rare person who’s interested in both African art and modern Israeli art,” she relates. “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 recounts, “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. Notes 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 points out, a museum for Ethiopian Israeli art is being built in Be’er Sheva, “so the timing for this exhibition is very good.”


Artists, administrators and supporters at the Ethiopian Jewish Arts Workshop, Be’er Sheva, Israel. From left: Tziona Yahim, artist; Jaklin Haliva, director, cullture department, YA Community Center, Be'er Sheva; Mamit Sheto, artist; Hana Yaacov, artist; Michael Hittleman, Michael Hittleman Gallery — Fine Israeli Art, Los Angeles; Professor Patricia Greenfield, UCLA; Yamai Buglah, artist; Professor Michael Weinstock, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; Rita Kuznetsov, director, Ethiopian Jewish Arts Workshop, Be'er Sheva; Aviva Eshto, artist; and Adiseh Baruch, artist. (Photo: Carolyn Hittleman.)


Art that is both African and Jewish

Gallery owner Michael Hittleman describes the works in the exhibit as follows: “These sensitively rendered sculptures run the gamut from a more primitive fertility image to complex groupings. The images are reminders of life in Africa with religious and family rituals, but that content has been modified by more sophisticated experience in Israel,” he explains. “The form blends a mixture of clay forming techniques from Ethiopia with modern clays and kilns in Israel. The works represent an infusion of Sub-Saharan African art that roils the waters of an Israeli art world struggling with whether it’s European, Middle Eastern or de novo.”

Co-curator Michael Weinstock, who will give a talk about the Ethiopian Israeli community at UCLA on November 2, points out how the work of these women has changed since they arrived in Israel. “What we see in the pieces are examples of how changes in the immigrants’ social environments produce different psychologies and forms of expression,” he says.

“Except for one of the artists, none had made figurines in Ethiopia,” continues Weinstock. “Their work with clay in Ethiopia was making pots for their own everyday use. But to bring in money to benefit organizations supporting them, over the years they have transformed the repetitive, non-individual representations found in earlier Ethiopian figurines used as models into people with expressive faces, in some cases representing actual people, and created personal scenes recollecting their lives in Ethiopia.”

African art specialist Steven Nelson brings another perspective to the artwork. “What is so interesting to me about these pieces,” he says, “is that they are coming from an international development model in which philanthropic and/or development organizations began creating art workshops with groups of Ethiopian women in the 1980s and 1990s, both Jewish and non-Jewish. This is not new for Ethiopia, or for other — often female — art groups. It tends to be a model that, for better or worse, people use to help people foster either artworks for commerce or for forging communities, usually of women.” 

Although most artists in the exhibition did not participate in such workshops in Ethiopia, says Greenfield, one woman evidently did learn her technique with a teacher from an international Jewish organization. However the women began working in clay, it is clear that the Ethiopian Jewish Arts Workshop has indeed helped them preserve a legacy that may now be handed down to a younger generation of Israelis, both inside and outside the Ethiopian community.


Don't miss this related event:


Adaptation and Creativity in the Ethiopian Israeli Immigrant Experience:
Manifestations of Social and Psychological Change

Come hear Michael Weinstock of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev discuss how the art in
UCLA’s Ethiopian Israeli sculpture exhibition — and the lives of the artists — reflect the social
change and psychological adaptations of three generations of Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016
4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Powell Library, East Rotunda

Cosponsored by the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and the African Studies Center, with
support from the UCLA Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.


Published: Monday, October 31, 2016