On weekdays, the alleyways of Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market are a bustle of shoppers and sellers, a place bursting with sights, sounds and smells. Weekday evenings are similarly busy, with recently opened restaurants and bars attracting young people out for a night on the town.
But on Saturdays, the Jewish day of rest, the market has traditionally been empty and silent, with the shutters of the stalls rolled down and locked.
About a year ago this began to change as a street art gallery started to appear in the market. This gallery is visible in its entirety only on Saturdays, when large murals of famous personalities painted on the closed shutters appear. Famous contemporary and historical faces gaze at visitors as they stroll through the market’s alleyways, amazed to find art where there are usually stands piled high with fruit, vegetables, nuts and spices.
Jewish World War II hero Hannah Szenes, wearing her military uniform with its paratrooper’s insignia, stares off to the left below a fishmonger’s sign. Influential American Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel looks out from the entrance to a spice stall. Sixteenth-century businesswoman and benefactress Doña Gracia Nasi appears in regal costume, with an advertisement for “Dudu’s Candy” hanging above her. Indian independence movement leader Mahatma Gandhi peeks out from under a “Strictly Kosher” sign.
These huge, captivating spray-painted portraits are the work of a 22-year-old unschooled British-born artist named Solomon Souza, who works all night to make the market as colorful when it’s closed as when it is open.
Souza began painting these murals in January 2015 at the urging of his friend and former fellow yeshiva student Berel Hahn. Inspired by the film about famed elusive street artist Banksy, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” and the work of Korean-American graffiti artist David Choe, Hahn had a vision of turning the market into a place bursting with art and color.
Solomon Souza is the Jewish grandson of famous avant-garde Indian artist Francis Newton Souza
With Souza doing the painting, the Crown Heights Brooklyn-born-and-bred Hahn, 26, assumed the role of producer for this project, which they have named The Shuk Gallery (shuk is Hebrew for “market”).
Souza comes by his talent genetically. His maternal grandfather was Francis Newton Souza (1924-2002), a founding member of the Progressive Artists’ Group in Bombay and a leading member of the Indian avant-garde. Some of his paintings have sold for millions of dollars.
F.N. Souza — sometimes referred to as the “Indian Picasso” — was born in Portuguese Goa to a Christian family. His second wife was Liselotte de Kristian (née Kohn), a Jewish Czech refugee from Nazi Germany whom he met in London, where she was studying drama and he had gone to advance his career. Their daughter Keren Souza-Kohn, an artist living and working in Safed, is Solomon’s mother.
“I grew up surrounded by my mother’s art, and I had a good high school art teacher when we lived in Hackney, London, but otherwise I am self-taught,” Souza told The Times of Israel at the home he shares in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood with Hahn and another roommate.
‘I’ve been doing graffiti and street art for years, but I’m a lone artist. I’ve never been part of a collective or the graffiti scene’
“I’ve been doing graffiti and street art for years, but I’m a lone artist. I’ve never been part of a collective or the graffiti scene,” Souza added.
Souza and Hahn are taking a grassroots approach to their Shuk Galley project. To this point, they’ve preferred to go it alone, without the support of grants from businesses and foundations or any help from the Jerusalem Municipality.
“The red tape involved in that would take the fun, freedom and spontaneity out of it. We’ve decided we will finish up what we started with only the help of our friends and the public,” Hahn said.
The pair have used their own savings and donations from friends and a few of the market vendors to cover the cost of the spray paint.
Aware of past initiatives to liven up and bring cultural events to Mahane Yehuda — such as the urban art project Tabula Rasa and the Jerusalem Season of Culture’s Balabasta festival — Hahn and Souza said they would be pleased to cooperate with similarly minded organizations in the future.
Once all 360 of the market’s shutters are painted, Hahn and Souza would like to give regular Saturday art tours through the market. Inspired by the various contemporary figures depicted, they hope to get other people similarly interested in and inspired by them. Hahn even envisions embedding a microchip on or near each mural that visitors could access with their smartphones in order to get information on the person shown.
Having worked in spurts throughout 2015 and into early 2016, Souza has thus far painted 140 of the shutters — some are of famous people, and others are of biblical and other scenes. Up until now, it hasn’t been difficult to get the permission of the shopkeepers to paint their shutters. Some have asked Souza to paint a favorite rabbi or the family patriarch who was the original owner of their stall.
The partners hope that word of mouth will keep support for the project going in terms of people donating money for supplies, sharing ideas for figures to paint and volunteering to help with social media and public relations efforts. Their goal is to ultimately turn the project into an expanded not-for-profit venture advancing artistic and cultural expression related to the land and people of Israel.
Souza still has some 220 shutters — and many nights of painting — ahead of him. He and Hahn keep track of progress on a map of the market they have painted onto a bulletin board hanging in their living room. On it, they pin miniature photographic versions of each mural according to the location where the mural was done. The paintings are clustered in different areas of the market. It’s easy to see that, to date, only Rehov Hashezif (Plum Street), one of the market’s east-west alleyways, has a painting on every shutter.
If things go well, Souza can paint a portrait (such as the one of reggae and hip-hop star Matisyahu he did this past Saturday night, as seen the video above) in an hour to an hour and a half. On a good night, he can finish four murals.
‘Even if one of these paintings affects just one person, then it’s worth it’
The artist doesn’t want to rush things. “I’ll stay until a painting is done. I listen to my inner voice. I want to invest myself in the work and be satisfied with it,” he said.
“Quality is definitely more important than quantity,” echoed Hahn.
Despite their desire for the Shuk Gallery to have a long-term impact on its viewers, Souza and Hahn are reconciled to the ephemeral nature of street art.
“Even if one of these paintings affects just one person, then it’s worth it,” said Hahn.
The young Souza is already used to his work being painted over.
“I understand it. It happens for a reason. Life is impermanent,” he commented.