Out of the shadows, Jerusalem mayor’s wife finds her voice in bold strokes

Beverly Barkat’s new art installment, ‘After the Tribes,’ to feature at Rome’s Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi, in honor of Israel’s 70th

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Beverly Barkat in her Jerusalem studio, a few weeks before the final completion and assembly of 'After the Tribes' (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Beverly Barkat in her Jerusalem studio, a few weeks before the final completion and assembly of 'After the Tribes' (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Beverly Barkat likes to say she had five years to learn how to paint with oils and develop her own style, spanning from 2003, when her husband, Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, first ran for mayor and lost until 2008 when he ran again and won.

Now, a decade after first developing her particular technique of brushing oil paints on large swaths of PVC canvas, Barkat is set to exhibit “After the Tribes,” a four-meter (13-feet) high installation at the Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi in Rome, in celebration of Israel’s 70th anniversary. The exhibit opens October 10, 2018, and closes December 31, 2018.

The set of paintings is a massive recreation of a traditional Jewish tribal breastplate, echoing the gem-encrusted piece worn by the high priests in the ancient temple. Like the breastplate, it denotes the 12 tribes of Jacob, the biblical forefather whose 12 sons became the tribes of Israel, the branches on which the future Israelites were based.

Barkat created 12 circular paintings on translucent PVC fabric, each one meter (3.2 feet) in diameter. The circles appear to float in the 12 square metal frames that make up the installation, each instilled with symbolic colors denoting the tribes.

They’re painted in the colors of the biblical regions where each tribe settled — from the grapevine-covered hills of the Judean Hills to the dusty sands of the desert and the blue seas of the Mediterranean.

Beverly Barkat’s ‘After the Tribes’ installation on display in a forest in Israel. The artwork will be on display later in the year at a museum in Rome. (Courtesy Michael Amar)

Each circle echoes the distinct characteristics of each of the tribes, said Barkat, yet hangs together in one work because each one is “so much larger than just that circle.”

The work is meant to parallel modern Israel as well, the Israel that is currently celebrating 70 years of existence, she explained.

“When we’re together — working together, we’re so strong,” said Barkat. “But when we speak out against one another, we weaken ourselves. Who are Israelis, thousands of years after the tribes no longer exist?”

The 12 tribes became the core of the work, the basis for what creates Israel’s current DNA, added Barkat. In figuring out the scope of the piece, she thought about a variety of questions, about what pushes Israelis to be creative and innovative, about the connections there are in Israel’s DNA to what once was, and to what exists now.

At Beverly Barkat’s studio, as she worked on the final assembly of ‘After the Tribes.’ (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The installation is a professional and creative arrival for Barkat, who had another large-scale exhibition last year, “Evocative Surfaces,” which was shown at the Venice Art Biennale 2017 in the Museo di Palazzo Grimani. The exhibit of paintings was highlighted as a top 10 must-see by The Independent UK and praised in Italy’s Corriere Della Sera newspaper, as well as in Architectural Digest and other publications.

Three of those Biennale works reflected Barkat’s oversized approach to paintings, with large-scale works hung from ceiling to floor that have now become a permanent installation at the museum and part of its collections.

Beverly Barkat, working in her Jerusalem studio. (Courtesy Beverly Barkat)

Barkat, 52, was born in South Africa and moved to Israel with her family when she was 10 years old. Her and Nir’s families were neighbors in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Hamivtar. Her parents were both artists and she studied at the Bezalel Academy for Art and Design, later working respectively with clay, metal and glass before delving into architectural projects and the building and renovation of communal spaces and elementary school libraries.

It was much later that she decided to seek her skills in painting, studying with artist Israel Hershberg, and searching for her own painting style.

“I was looking for myself, for my own lines and color,” she said recently, walking through her studio, a spacious, two-floored area in downtown Jerusalem.

The four-square-meter-high installation of ‘After the Tribes,’ created by Beverly Barkat on display on the coast of Israel. (Courtesy Michael Amar)

As a spouse married to a public figure, Barkat has worked hard to balance her painting with her husband’s career, first as a successful venture capitalist and then as mayor of Jerusalem. With Nir’s demanding schedule, she made time to be more at home for their three daughters, especially when they were younger.

Barkat finds that the long days in the studio now give her energy to deal with the other sides of her life, what she must do in order to “go out and be the mom, the wife,” she said. “In the studio, I create for myself.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Her family’s presence is felt in the studio, in the black and white photos of their daughters, and another one of Nir and Beverly, who only became involved as a couple when they were young adults in their early twenties.

But the studio is her private lair, a personal space where Barkat doesn’t need to play any of those other roles.

Still, she allows her family to be part of the process, perhaps more now that she feels secure in her role as a contemporary Israeli artist. For “After the Tribes,” Barkat spent time traveling around Israel with her husband, heading north and south, looking for the rocks, sands and colors that identified each region, and each tribe.

They brought them home to the studio and Barkat ground them down, learning how each material “communicated” with the other, much like the ancient tribes did in biblical times.

“I had to learn about the twelve tribes to create the palate I worked with,” she said.

Dozens of clear plastic cups filled with earthy sands and pearly white shells cover the top of one table in her studio, a massive color scheme for this project. The colors represent all the elements of life, said Barkat.

A tabletop of crushed sands and soil used for Beverly Barkat’s artwork. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Painting has become a trajectory for finding Barkat’s own expression and success, as she sought to express her voice as well, and her presence in the contemporary art world.

Now established as an artist, with exhibits taking place abroad and locally, Barkat said she has found her own rhythms as a painter. She starts with drawings, multiple studies that are later carefully filed away in the metal drawers around the studio, before she moves onto painting those same images, sometimes returns briefly to draw different elements again before committing them to oil paints.

“I intuitively know when I need to stop painting,” said Barkat of her process. “Sometimes I need to put it aside and catch up to it later. I need to work out what it is, what gets me to that magic, how do I connect to those moments. It’s about looking at the color within myself.”

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