Saturday, July 13, 2024
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Ethiopian Israeli painter preserves her past for the future

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The Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Israel Museum, and various galleries have scooped up the emotional, vivid award-winning works of Nirit Takele.

If you’d expect Nirit Takele’s artist studio to be splashed and splattered with paints a la Jackson Pollack, think again.
The room is neat, dabs of colors on small pieces of paper hanging on the wall like Post-it notes, and stacks of acrylic paints lined up according to color like orderly vertical rainbows.
Takele, who says she’s 37 or 38 (“I have to check, after I reached 30, I sometimes get confused!” she said, smiling), is an Ethiopian-Israeli artist who does emotional, vivid paintings that make you want to keep looking at them.
During my visit, I noticed a woven basket typical to Ethiopia. She explained that she uses it to make injera, fermented Ethiopian bread, “if I have time, which is almost never.” It takes three days for injera to develop its special sourness, but when she eats it, she feels healthier.
The story of how she and her family came to Israel sounds like a fusion of folktale, grueling journey, and dream.
‘We walked for four days’
“We came from a small village, Kunzila, in northwest Ethiopia,” Takele said.
“We walked for four days and I was about five years old. I don’t remember anything except for a river. I sometimes thought about a boat on the river but I thought it was a dream. When I asked my parents, they said it was real. We had to take a motorboat as part of our trip to Israel in 1991.”
This was during Operation Solomon, when more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in 36 hours, including Takele and her parents and three siblings; three more were born in Israel.
She can recall crying during one of her first meals at a hotel in Jerusalem where they stayed with other immigrants.
“Everything about the meal was white,” she recounted. “The plates, the hard-boiled eggs, the cheese. Color was missing. And that was when I cried.”
Her father found work in construction and her mother took care of their house in Rehovot, where they eventually settled.
Takele got good grades in elementary school and was chosen to go to a boarding school. There, she taped drawings on the wall of the school. She always liked to draw, and for her major, she chose art and communication.
The focus was on art history, not practical arts, but this is where she first encountered Michelangelo. One of the few pieces of art in her studio is a copy of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” with hands reaching out to each other.
‘I wanted to paint’
After graduation, Takele served in the army, and then got a job at a factory working 12-hour shifts, feeling like “I’d lost my soul.”
She began lessons with an art teacher once a week to learn the basics. “I needed to learn everything. I didn’t even know what oil paint was.”
While trying to figure out where to study, she stumbled upon Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan.
“I didn’t think about my future,” she said. “All I thought about was the present and that I wanted to paint.”
Then it was “four years of survival,” studying during the day and working as a supermarket cashier at night to pay for art supplies and rent.
Because turpentine gave her a headache, she switched from oil paints to acrylics, which are “suitable for my style. They’re very clean.”
Despite her challenging schedule, she received an award for academic excellence. When her paintings were included in student exhibits, she began to get noticed.
Then, in 2017, she received the Young Artist award from the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sports as well as the Sotheby’s Under the Hammer Prize during the annual Fresh Paint art fair in Tel Aviv.
Since then, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Israel Museum, and various galleries have scooped up her work.

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