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Mamit and Her Child (in Hebrew letters) by Mamit Sheto

Exhibition To Benefit Artists of The Ethiopian Jewish Arts Workshop

October 16-29, in conjunction with a party for our gallery's 40th anniversary.

This project began when Patricia Greenfield, a developmental psychologist at UCLA, contacted the gallery about showing the clay sculptures of Ethiopian Israeli artists living in Be’er Sheva. She had discovered their amazing work while doing research in the Ethiopian community with Michael Weinstock, a developmental psychologist at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

The six women work at a community center in Be’er Sheva that houses their workshop. They sculpt in clay, which is low-fired in the workshop’s kiln. The clay figures reflect images from their memories of Ethiopia. The workshop started with many artists; however, only six remain, and they are all elderly. Others either died or got jobs.

One goal was to enable the artists to conduct classes where they would pass on their techniques and skills to the next generation of Israelis, both in the Ethiopian community and in other Israeli communities. The purchase of 31 pieces for this exhibition provided funds to the community center workshop that can begin to support the development of long-term apprenticeship activities. As pieces are sold at the Hittleman Gallery in Los Angeles, profits will be shared among the six artists.

Me with Patricia and Michael in the back and all the 6 artists and Jaklin Haliva (2nd from the left), Director of the Culture Dept. at the YA Community Center, and Rita Kuznetsov (3rd from the right), Director, Ethiopian Jewish Arts Workshop.

Mother and daughter, with mother holding child, dog, and bird, by Tziona Yahim


The clay figures they produce may have originated in the 1970s with an Ethiopian woman who started making figurines for Jewish and other tourists interested in Ethiopia. Apparently Christians have continued making them after the Jews left Ethiopia.

In July, 2016, my wife, Carolyn, and I went to Israel on a buying trip for the gallery. We spent four days in Be'er Sheva visiting the Arts Workshop, meeting the artists and seeing them work, and purchasing works for this exhibition. Patricia Greenfield and Michael Weinstock followed up with interviews of the artists (see biographies below).

The artists are: Aviva Eshto, Hana Yaacov, Yamai Buglah, Tziona Yahim, Mamit Sheto, and Adiseh Baruch.

The exhibition will open on October 16th in conjunction with a party for our gallery's 40th anniversary. The exhibit will continue at the gallery until October 29th when it will travel to UCLA and be exhibited at the Powell Library from November 1st to the 10th.

Exhibition: Clay Sculpture by Ethiopian Israeli Artists, Nov. 1-10

Powell Library, UCLA - East Rotunda
The exhibition is co-curated by Patricia Greenfield, UCLA and Michael Weinstock, Ben Gurion University of the Negev
Visit Exhibition Website

Mother with dog, food, and bird, by Tziona Yahim



Background: The Emigration from Ethiopia to Israel

The primary motivation was religious, the belief that Jews should live in the Holy Land. For Jews around the world since the destruction of the Temple, the longing to return to Israel was expressed as a central Jewish concept. The name of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Ethiopia was Beta Israel (the house of Israel). They did not refer to themselves as "Jews" but as "Israelites." Note that this does not have to do with modern Zionism and the state of Israel, but identifying with the land of Israel and considering themselves as descendants of tribes of ancient Israel.

When Israel was established, there began to be some consideration of moving to Israel, and there was a trickle over 35 years until Operation Moses starting in 1983. But first Emperor Haile Selassie forbade them to emigrate, and then the communists until they fell in 1991 (soon after which there was Operation Solomon). There was some loosening of restrictions around the civil war in 1983 which allowed Jews to leave in secret, although officially forbidden. The situation then and through the 1980s was exacerbated by the communists' anti-religious, anti-Israel stances. So, along with the underlying religious longing to make Aliyah, those who left in Operation Moses were also motivated specifically at that time by increasing oppression and famine.

(Note that of the artists, Mamit spoke openly about coming to Israel to fulfill religious desires.)

Material contributed by Michael Weinstock, Ben Gurion University of the Negev


The Artists

Adiseh Baruch

age 65, from a town near Gondar. She speaks Amharic. She attended school in Ethiopia and has five children and 20 grandchildren. Her husband left her and she needed money, so she turned to pottery. She worked with clay in Ethiopia and had a wheel to make bowls. Her figurines look like what she did in Ethiopia where she had an art teacher from Addis Ababa. She took private lessons. She said only Jews worked with clay, so her teacher was Jewish. She saw both styles of head, flat and round, in her home town and from her teacher. She came to Israel with Operation Solomon. She has been at the workshop 18 years.

Aviva Eshto

age 75, from near Gondar, Ethiopia. Grew up in a village. She has five children: two girls and three boys. Amharic is her language, but her children barely speak it. She has spent 25 years in the workshop. There were 57 people in the beginning. Many of them found other work and left the group. She came to Israel in 1982, before Operation Moses. She did pottery in Ethiopia, but mainly large pots. She discovered the workshop when one of the staff came to her house. She had to help clean it up because it was formerly an iron works. A teacher in Ethiopia taught her to make lions.

Hana Yaacov

age 74. Came to Israel with Operation Moses (1984). Had no formal schooling. Speaks Amharic but her children don’t (though they understand it). Her grandchildren don’t understand it. She has been in the workshop for five years. She is also from a village near Gondar, Ethiopia. She and others used clay from the ground near where they lived. She prefers the clay they use now which comes from Germany and is cleaner. In Ethiopia they only made practical items, especially for cooking.

Mamit Sheto

age 70. Came to Israel in 1984 right before Operation Moses. She has been in the workshop 26 years. She was not from the same area as the previous artists. There were only a few Jews where she lived. She speaks Amharic. In Ethiopia she did not work with clay. She is acculturated to Israel and speaks Hebrew. She started work at the center because she was bored at home. Though she did not go to school in Ethiopia, she went to an Ulpan. She has four boys and two girls and six grandchildren. She has gone back to Ethiopia to visit friends.

Tziona Yahim

Born in the time of the Italians. (Italian Ethiopia dates from 1936 to 1941.) She is from a small city in Tigri (both a region and a language). Came with Operation Moses via Sudan. Her children were born and went to school in Ethiopia. Her children understand Tigrit, but not her grandchildren. Her daughter is a teacher. She has a total of five children: four boys and a girl. In Ethiopia she made pots but not statues. She has been at the workshop many years. She switched from pots to statues because the kiln was not big enough for her pots She saw figurines in Addis Ababa but learned to make them at the workshop.

Yamai Buglah

age 56. She has been in Israel 25 years. She came with Operation Solomon in 1991 after spending a year in Addis Ababa. She is also from a village near Gondar and came to Israel directly from Ethiopia. (In Operation Moses people had to be rescued from Sudan.) She is an Amharic speaker as are her children. But her four grandchildren do not understand it. Aviva, Hana and Yamai are from different villages near Gondar. But Hana and Yamai are related and knew each other in Ethiopia. She made pots in Ethiopia. Most women made pots—only women. Men worked in iron. She has worked 20 years in the workshop.

Ahuva Toshai

Deceased. No information available.

Photos of artists and sculpture by Patricia Greenfield

The Future

The Ethiopian Jewish Art Workshop is moving to its own space and will will likely open in 2017. It will have room for exhibitions and other activities. It will also feature a space for photography. The building has been acquired and is in the old city of Be'er Sheva. It is being renovated with the help of the city of Be'er Sheva and private donors, but will be solely under the auspices of the workshop (which is a program of the non-profit cultural and educational organization, Kivunim).

Photos from October 16 Exhibition Opening