Anisa Ashkar: Black Gold

Anisa Ashkar’s exhibition at the Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures, Be’er Sheva, is significant in being the museum’s first one-person contemporary art show. Her work takes a complex view of cultural connections in this region, thereby fitting the ideal of cultural integration – between East and West, past and present, contemporary art and Islamic traditions – promoted by the Museum.

A prominent artist on the Israeli art scene, Ashkar is a recipient of numerous awards, and has presented her work in many venues in Israel and around the world. Born in Acre in 1979 to a Muslim family with eleven children, she was drawn to art from a young age. At the age of nine she started taking calligraphy lessons – habitually a male pursuit – under a traditional calligraphy artist. At the age of fourteen she decided, on her own initiative, to study at the Christian Mar Elias high school at the Arab town of I’billin in the Galilee, where she took art-history and design lessons. She then continued her art studies at Hamidrasha School of Art, Beit Berl College.

The exhibition is comprised of recent works by Ashkar, including pieces produced especially for the Museum’s space. Prominent in the show are two large self-portraits with inscriptions on the artist’s face. For almost twenty years, Ashkar has inscribed a phrase in Arabic on her face daily, and this has become a key feature of her work and public persona. In one portrait her face is inscribed with a traditional Arabic saying about women’s lot in life, and the other is American slang transliterated into Arabic, which draws a connection between food and the Middle East. In both, Ashkar proposes a multifaceted view of herself as a woman artist who is also an Arab, living in-between the traditional and contemporary, and between East and West.

Onto abstract, expressive works produced sweepingly by pouring, dripping, and splashing paint on canvas, Ashkar mounts refined decorative plates that express longing for distant worlds. They are mounted on the canvas like eyes gazing westward, at the same time reflecting the changes such decorative ware has undergone through the ages. Some of the commercially produced ceramic ware feature prints of romantic Rococo paintings, while others are printed with realistic images by the Spanish mid-seventeenth-century painter Murillo.

Ceramic ware is also included in additional works by Ashkar, presented in display cabinets: Dinner consists of white plates stained with thick, coagulated red paint, and a group of fancy cups were treated with red and gold splashes that bring to mind affluence as well as blood. Blue-and-white Delftware mounted onto the large portraits was similarly handled. Ashkar collects these pieces in admiration of the cultural and aesthetic tradition to which they belong, and then, using them as support for her painterly action, she disrupts their perfect, dignified look – turning them into part of her own work and, at the same time, making her work part of that tradition.

The ideals of life as a couple and family, which have been a longstanding subject in Ashkar’s work, are expressed in the exhibition in several of the paintings that incorporate plates. This subject is also pursued in the series Parents, where she affixed photos from her own family album to abstract paintings in gold. A connection between abstraction and narrative or verbal elements is manifest in the series Pronouns in Arabic, where words resemble figures and the inscription points verbally to identity – She, You (m. sing.), They (f.), You (m. pl.), They (m.), etc. The paintings rest on the sand dunes constructed by the artist within the Museum, alluding to her childhood roots in the seashore town of Acre.

The work Black Gold, hanging under the dome at the center of the hall, brings into the Museum a memory of the circular hoop chandeliers in Ottoman mosques, recalling Acre and the Al-Jazzar Mosque. Coated in date paste (date trees and fruit have a special standing in Islam), which the artist scattered with gold leaf, like glimmering light shining from above – food for the soul – this is yet another instance of her interweaving the physical and spiritual, the precious and the popular, basic needs and an aspiration to the sublime.

The sounds that envelop the space are a five-chapter sound work by the musician and sound designer Ian Richter, inspired by Ashkar’s imagery and the mosque architecture. Three of the chapters are musical compositions. One chapter includes a recording of a conversation between Ashkar and her father about the family album photos taken by the latter. The other two are historical recordings, musical readymades of sorts. One of these is an instrumental piece of Turkish classical music, the other a recording of a middle-eastern love song.

As Anisa Ashkar explains, “I’m driven by sensitivity. For years, that’s what has been driving me as an artist and as a human being, extending between pain and sadness, joy and love, hope and prosperity – all of the above. As an artist, I’m not detached from reality. I try to be very precise, and at the same time with total freedom. Art is above ordinary life. I bring art to daily life.”

Dalia Manor, Sharon Laor-Sirak

Curators of the Exhibition