Skin color accounts for everything in the individual and group portraits that comprise “Nzuri,” Michal Mamit Vorka’s collection of 23 works painted in Tel Aviv that weave a tale of other people’s struggles, and her own.
The collection made Vorka, 36, the winner of the 2019 Miron Sima Prize for the Visual Arts, grouping her with a new generation of artists of Ethiopian origin who, identifying with their community, can present their ongoing struggle for acceptance within Israeli society.
The collection is currently on display at the Jerusalem Artists’ House through May, and afterward will be at the Hezi Cohen Gallery (33 Lilienblum Street, Tel Aviv).
The acrylic paintings are figurative portraits, dreamy representations of individuals or groups of people. A woman standing by a potted plant, her white, filmy scarf floating around her shoulders; a man in chef’s garb, standing in a nondescript white corner of a building; another with a white shawl looped around his dark hoodie.
There are graphic scenes as well, one titled “Shabbat,” featuring an Ethiopian kes, rabbi, who happened to be walking by a basketball hoop. In “Sigd,” three people are dressed in white, presumably about to celebrate the Ethiopian Jewish holiday. “After School” features a mother and her children, as they appear to be confronted by a policeman, also of Ethiopian origin.
Not everyone is obviously an Israeli of Ethiopian origin, but all are dark-skinned and are often painted against white or light walls, tiles and floors, their expressions serious and intent, outwardly silent but sometimes seemingly inwardly teeming or angry.
The white backgrounds, said Vorka, represent Tel Aviv’s white Bauhaus architecture. She is introducing the collective Ethiopian and African community into that pristine, established landscape.
Many of Vorka’s subjects were strangers to her. They’re all of African origin, but not necessarily Ethiopian-Israelis. Some are African migrants, asylum seekers living and struggling in Tel Aviv; others have different stories and backgrounds.
She met some while at work at a Tel Aviv cafe, others as she sat on a bench watching the people passing by. She had to find the courage to ask these strangers to pose for her, a task she found difficult almost every time. Most would say no, especially the women.
“The cafe is how our paths cross, because of who we are,” said Vorka. “We’re the same thing.”
Vorka, a Shenkar graduate who also studied painting and drawing at Israel Hershberg’s Jerusalem Studio School, eventually found her muses. She’d make arrangements to meet them, and usually completed her sketches in about an hour.
As she sketched them — generally an hour-long process — they opened up to her about their lives, sometimes sharing a little, sometimes a lot.
“I ask about their life, their day,” said Vorka. “I draw and focus on everything that is Ethiopian and African about their life, as they see it.”
Those items are seen throughout the collection, such as the white handwoven Ethiopian netela scarves with their colorful ends, and woven baskets sitting in a corner of a living room in “Sigd.”
The portraits and scenes present questions about identity, said the artist, and there is criticism embedded in the works through small details or seemingly ambiguous titles.
One painting, named “Barkan Wine Behind the Blacks, 2018,” features a lone wine bottle peeking out behind the model’s shoulder, her gauzy netela drifting about. The title refers to the 2018 removal of Ethiopian employees from the Barkan Winery in order to comply with kosher regulations. That decision was later reversed after a loud public outcry.
A large canvas titled “Waiting for Avera Mengistu, 2018” refers to Avraham Avera Mengistu, an Ethiopian-Israel man with psychological issues who crossed into Gaza in 2014 and has been missing since. The Ethiopian community has continually protested that his case has not received the kind of attention given to Israelis of Ashkenazi descent.
Vorka’s voice, that of an artist, a woman and an Israeli of Ethiopian descent, is powerfully represented in these lush, carefully observed portraits. She has placed herself in the world in which she lives, and made space for others as well.
“Nzuri” by Michal Mamit Vorka, Jerusalem Artists’ House, March through May 11, 2019.