Artist on a Mission
by Loolwa Khazzoom

“The art world likes to see itself as avant-guard, the most open-minded enclave of society,” remarks Israeli art critic Ktzia Alon. “But Shula Keshet has put a mirror in front of those who share this view. They have discovered that they are a closed, elitist, hermetic group.” Keshet is a revolutionary, according to Alon, and it is just a matter of time before key museums and art magazines throughout Israel follow her lead.

“I am not the kind of artist who sits in a studio, disconnected from the world, thinking that what I am doing is more important than what is happening in society,” Keshet says of herself. “On the contrary, the core of my artwork is my connection with people and their struggles for justice.”

This sense of connection has led Keshet to launch an ongoing series of exhibitions, where her own installation art fuses with the work of individuals from Mizrahi (Middle Eastern/North African Jewish), Ethiopian, and Arab communities in Israel. “I want to break the standard relationship between artist and subject, where the artist is the one looking and the one producing art. My art bears the imprint of many different people, all speaking for themselves.”

Keshet challenges the Israeli idea of art itself: “There is a separation between ‘high’ art and ‘low’ art,” she asserts. “So-called ‘high’ art is Western-influenced. Mizrahi, Ethiopian, and Arab art is not perceived as ‘high’ or ‘true’ art, but rather as handicraft. It is my goal to elevate people’s conceptualization of these art forms, to bring other narratives into the Israeli art world.”

Shlomo Akale, director of Bahalachin Center for Ethiopian Culture, welcomes such a change. “There is a lot of hierarchy in the Israeli art world,” he concurs. He explains that common measures of artistic worth - such as graduation from a prestigious art academy - are irrelevant in an Ethiopian context. “In Ethiopia, everyone did something connected to art - weaving, pottery, carpentry, embroidery. We didn’t have schools for art. Art was life. In Europe, people had to go to schools, study for a period of several years, and receive certificates. In Ethiopia, however, boys learned art from their fathers, and girls learned art from their mothers.”

Keeping to the mother-daughter artistic tradition, Mira Tezasu and Tasamach Mengestu both displayed their artwork as part of Keshet’s installation on Ethiopian art, Halom Yerushalmi Mehabash, at the Einstein Contemporary Art Gallery in Tel Aviv in 1998. Tezasu displayed poetry and paintings. Her mother, Mengestu, displayed pottery. “Ethiopian art such as baskets, pottery, and embroidery serve people in their everyday lives,” Keshet says. “I was making a statement by including daily art alongside the paintings and drawings, because art should not just be something you look at. It should be something you use. It should not just be something the elite sell, without touching it.”

Tezasu feels Keshet was successful in making her statement. “The exhibition helped show that art like my mother’s is real art. Finally people valued her work and recognized how beautiful it is. Suddenly my mother had exposure and began receiving invitations to display and discuss her art.” Tezasu explains how her mother gained prestige that elders of the Ethiopian Jewish community lost after arriving in Israel. “The exhibition really empowered my mother,” she explains. “Elders in the Ethiopian community are often ignored here. But through this exhibition, my mother got the honor she deserves.”

Tova Mered, director of the Ethiopian Art Center, elaborates on the phenomenon of losing status: “Every Ethiopian child in kindergarten thinks she is wiser and more important than her parents and grandparents, because she knows how to write her name in Hebrew.” Mered works to turn the tables by providing a center where elder women of the community teach Ethiopian art to Israelis of all backgrounds and ages.

Ilana Shamai, program director of Inbal - a center for Mizrahi cultural advancement - looks forward to the day that this expression will be standard. For now, she asserts, “Mizrahi artists who do not completely erase their Mizrahi identity are automatically cast aside on the peripheries of the art world.”

Keshet, however, demands the room to express herself as a Mizrahi while receiving full-blown recognition in the mainstream. Indeed, she seems to be getting her way. Her exhibitions have been well-attended and reviewed in key Israeli periodicals including Ha’aretz, Studio, HaIr, Yediot Ahronot, and Ma’ariv.

Keshet’s next installation will focus on the theme of common identity between Jews, Muslims, and Christians throughout the Middle East and North Africa. “This installation will emphasize the connection between Mizrahim and Arabs, Mizrahim and Palestinians,” she says. The theme of a Mizrahi-Arab connection is nothing new for Keshet, who created a series of self-portraits fusing images of herself and Islamic art.

Keshet’s self-identification and forthcoming exhibition may be shocking to some. Then again, Shula Keshet does not pull punches. She is an artist on a mission.

Loolwa Khazzoom has published widely in such periodicals as The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Marie Claire, Yoga Journal, and Elle Girl. She is the editor of The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage (Seal Press), and she is an Israel correspondent for Jewish Telegraphic Agency. More about the author at: ( articles.html)

Artwork by Shula Keshet