Dazed and Refused

A Mexican artist of Jewish ascent exhibits a portrait of his rabbi at a ‘salon des refusés’.

A PORTRAIT of Rabbi Moshe Bendahan (photo credit: Courtesy Jair Leal)
A PORTRAIT of Rabbi Moshe Bendahan
(photo credit: Courtesy Jair Leal)
The Dazed and Refused portrait exhibit opens today at The Arch Gallery in London, displaying the work of painters whose portraits didn’t make it into a competition organized by the National Portrait Gallery.
The concept of a “salon des refusés” originated in 1863 Paris, when 3,000 artists whose work was rejected by the Salon de Paris, including Edouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, were exhibited elsewhere by order of the French emperor Napoleon III.
Mexican-born painter, sculptor, graphic artist and writer Jair Leal is among those exhibiting at the Dazed and Refused exhibition which opens the same day and hour as the National Portrait Gallery exhibition. The painting he created for the competition is of Rabbi Moshe Bendahan, from Madrid.
Brought up as a Christian, Leal says that from a very young age he “felt an inexplicable empathy for the People of Israel and their history.” As a teenager he abandoned Catholicism, because, he says, “it was not my faith, it was not what my soul wanted or felt, it was not ‘true’ for me.”
“I would read as much as I could about the history of the Jewish people, I did research and sought answers. I began to study Jewish philosophy as an end in itself. I felt that my soul wanted to be reborn,” he says.
At the age of 23 Leal decided to move to Israel to investigate his Jewish identity, and worked as a volunteer at Kibbutz Kvutzat Shiller, also known as Gan Shlomo, in Rehovot.
“When I decided to go to Israel I talked to my paternal grandmother about it. She was happy and admitted some family secrets that surprised and moved me. She told me my father had always wanted to go to Israel, and that until he married my mother he always kept Shabbat in some way,” he says.
The deaths of Leal father and two of his brothers made his childhood a difficult time and he was forced to grow up quickly. He says these tragedies made him stronger and gave him the opportunity to understand, “in a very deep way, the meaning of life and death.”
Art, he says, “is a mausoleum in which we glorify and bury our desires and our fears, in which life and death are both present and in which the pleasures and necessities of life manifest themselves without shame. This dichotomy makes art a universal tool and gives it a function; it becomes a tool with which we can create or destroy, and it is useful because it allows us to build bridges and communicate.”
At 13 Leal sold his first painting – to the social worker of the arts school he attended. At 16 he started writing and studying poetry, which he says increased his artistic abilities. By 18, he was supporting himself by his artwork, and threw himself into the study of graphic design and printing. In 1995 he started work at a design studio, published poetry and founded the literary magazine Cain with friends, which within two years received a grant from the Mexican National Fund for Culture and the Art. Today Leal writes an art column called “Roads to Ithaca” for a Mexican newspaper.
His grandmother also told him that he had Jewish ancestors and that she grew up “very close” to a Jewish family. She did not clarify how close they were or whether she was related to them, says her grandson.
“She asked me to go to Haifa to look for Ya’akov Vulfovich and tell him she was still alive. She told me that he and his family had left Morelia for Israel and that they had a tractor or truck company.” Unfortunately, Leal never made it to Haifa because he returned to Mexico to accept the Alfonso Michel Biennial Prize for Painting.
The following year he took part in his first collective exhibition at the Alfredo Zalce Museum of Contemporary Art in Morelia, Mexico and received another grant, this time from the National Center for Arts for a course in printing and lithographs. Also in 1998, Leal won his first prize for painting in the Efraín Vargas competition.
After nine months in Holland in 2003, where he worked with gallery owner Ine Koopman, Leal returned to Mexico as guest artist at a printing workshop at the Manuel Felguérez Museum of Abstract Art en Zacatecas, México where he now has a permanent exhibition.
By the end of that year a scholarship from the Complutense University of Madrid moved Leal to the Spanish capital with 52 euros in his pocket and four paintings to sell. He connected with the Madrid’s Artificial Galley right away. A guest appearance on the Spanish TV series El Comisario earned him enough money to rent a studio to paint in. A year passed and he was able to open a bar and began a master’s in Art and New Technologies at the European University in Madrid. In 2005 he sold a piece of art to the well-known French art collector Hervè Acker, whom he met while taking part in ARTISSIMA international art fair in Turin, Italy.
While in Madrid, still searching for answers to his Jewish stirrings, he met Rabbi Moshe Bendahan, “who opened the door of his synagogue” to him and who he says “supports and advises me on my road back to Judaism.”
Leal’s grandmother died last year in Mexico. The day before she died he sent her a letter by email which he asked his sister to read to her. He also asked her to say the Shema prayer for the matriarch.
“Now I continue along the path to Zion and my conversion and to join the marvelous People of Israel, which is where I belong,” he says.
Leal’s latest project, “Current Perceptions,” consists of 30 oil-on-canvas paintings and a short film. “The theme of this project is the [economic] crisis in Spain and its effect on individuals, and in particular on their social and virtual interaction,” Leal says.
Leal has exhibited in Mexico, Spain, Italy, Chile, Holland, the United Sates, Switzerland, Austria and the United Kingdom.
“Art unifies rather than separates, it makes everyone equal. Art is the safe-conduct for freedom of thought and dialogue,” he says.
Due to what is known as “la crisis,” Leal has developed “a fast-painting production line” alongside his usual system of painting. He says it is painting “adapted to the present [economic] context and with a considerable dip in production costs so as to make the purchase of a work of art accessible to everyone.”
This new system has had “extraordinary results” and Leal finds he is selling “more than ever” which both increases his income and gives others the opportunity to buy art at undreamed-of prices.
“Being consistent with the present context and making creative alternatives available is part of my objective as an artist,” Leal says.