Twelve circular paintings on translucent plastic, each one meter in diameter, appear to float in 12 square casings, secured to a four-meter metal frame.The towering structure is firmly planted on the ground, yet it is somehow fluid, for the circles of art can be subtly and even completely transformed depending on from what position you are looking at them.Each of the 12 squares represent one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. And each square is individually animated by a specific color palette defined in ancient Jewish texts.
Welcome to “After the Tribes,” artist Beverly Barkat’s latest site-specific solo exhibition, which will open in October at the Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi in Rome.The exhibit, painted in Jerusalem, is being curated by Giorgia Calò.But this is not the story of an exhibition but of an artist and her subject matter, which is both thousands of years old, on the one hand, future-looking on the other, and somehow exemplarily contemporary.According to the Bible, the Twelve Tribes of Israel were related by blood, yet each was unique and commanded his own territory. Practically, the tribes were distinguished by a specific color scheme on their flags and gemstones, which were arranged in four rows of three on the High Priest’s breastplate.According to the mystical writings of the Zohar, the colors – as physical as the gems – emit energy that influences the spiritual experience, acting as transmission channels or bridges between heaven and earth. Thus, the High Priest wore the tribes’ stones over his heart to connect them to the cosmic energy.Barkat researched the tribes, their stones and where they lived to create her new piece. And in her art, which draws inspiration as much from the classical tradition as from modern art movements like Abstract Expressionism – she retraces the history she learned, which reaches back across millennia and merges into the present.“I wanted to understand the DNA of the Jewish nation,” said Barkat of her research. “What I found is that this is the DNA of a vibrant nation with out-of-thebox thinking, pushing forward all the time.”Further, Barkat’s art is driven by her love for a land rooted in the sands and soils of thousands of years. Barkat, who moved to Israel from South Africa at age 10, hand-ground in a pestle and mortar shells, semi-precious stones, sand and rocks from across Israel – Mitzpe Ramon, along the sea coast, in the Galilee – and mixed them with pastels and/or acrylics to make the paints she used for “After the Tribes.”“I went back in time to the way they used to paint,” Barkat said, noting that if she lacked a tool she needed to create her work, she simply made it.She said she would gather information and meditate on it. Then, when her body felt the need to physically explode from the information, she would wipe her mind clean and paint as an intuitive reaction to the information.But Barkat admits she could not keep her own life story out of the work. As she painted, she said, she related her own connection to the modern State of Israel to her art.Barkat is the wife of Mayor Nir Barkat and the daughter of two artists. Her mother crafted many of the clay street signs on the Old City walls. She said it took her several years to define how she would ultimately apply her own gifts.She studied under Israel Hershberg at the Jerusalem Studio School. She then spent three years working in a small downtown studio off Agrippas Street.“I was looking for my line – charcoal or pencil or drawing – and then my color, how to paint. I knew how to paint, but I didn’t know how I wanted to paint,” Barkat said, glancing around her present, light-filled apartment studio, with its stark white walls and white floors, a contrast to the magical colors of her art. She renovated and designed her current space, near King George Avenue, on her own.“Since then, I have been using it to carry on working on that voyage of looking for myself within the art world,” she said.Barkat’s first big success came last year, with “Evocative Surfaces,” an exhibition shown during the Venice Art Biennale. The large-scale banner paintings on PVC (polyvinyl chloride) were shown in the Museo di Palazzo Grimani and highlighted as one of the top 10 exhibitions to see. The art was so well received that the museum requested three of Barkat’s pieces become a permanent installation at the Venetian Renaissance palazzo, and part of its collection.“After the Tribes” was commissioned soon after by the Israeli Embassy in Italy, which was looking for a way to honor Israel’s 70th birthday in Rome. The piece will be displayed at the Boncompagni Ludovisi Decorative Arts Museum of Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art, once the site of Julius Caesar’s villa.“I went searching inside myself, asking what it means to be Jewish, what and who are we as a Jewish nation, and can I bring the vibrant landscapes of Israel into a museum in Rome?” said Barkat.In her self-exploration she came to realize that Israel is “not really 70 years old,” she said. “We are a modern Israel with all of our history behind us. Israel today is just the layer we have on top of all that past.“I don’t think we should look at ourselves as one modern statement.”Barkat said through the tribes she began to understand how the Jews did things in biblical times, and who the Jews are today, as a Jewish nation in Israel, and how this is impacted by the tribes’ stories.Tribal art Barkat paints the tribe of Gad in ochres and sand colors mixed with fragments of amethyst into a powerful sphere that hints at the bravery and strength of this tribe, who led the Children of Israel to victory in the conquest of the Promised Land, then returned to its inheritance on the eastern side of the Jordan.She hangs Issachar and Zebulun side-by-side, depicting the brothers’ bond based on the equilibrium they struck in their roles.Zebulun would sustain Issachar by conducting business that leveraged its location on the seashore, while Issachar stayed in their tents studying Torah and sharing that knowledge with Zebulun.“Zebulun was more external and Issachar internal, yet together they had total strength,” Barkat explained.Levi is highlighted by the emerald green that Barkat said connected all the tribes. The sphere is wrapped in spirituality, with what almost appears as a huge figure praying with arms out and down.Joseph’s sphere starts with a weave of colors to hint at his coat of many colors. Agate is ground for Naphtali.On one side of Asher’s sphere the viewer can almost see his olive trees – Asher worked in agriculture – and on the other side, rings of growth reminiscent of aged bark.“But I don’t want it to be a gimmick. It needs to be real,” Barkat said.“The interaction with the real story and real materials is to get into the physicality of the tribe itself – to understand each tribe from its point of view.”On one side of each PVC, the texture is stones. On the other, it is as if the artist has sliced through this rock to reveal its internal shine, depth and history. The rough side begs you to touch it. The other side is like glass and the visitor is looking through this window to color.Neither side is the front.Barkat said she sees each tribe is as important as the next.“Taken together they bring this rich being into who we are as a nation,” she said. “Today, we must be very clever in the way we keep everyone together, not telling each other what to do – one tribe doesn’t tell the other tribes how to live. We must enable them to live next to you, with you, as one big group – that is where our strength comes from.”The art of unity It sounds familiar, like something Jerusalemites have heard many times from Barkat’s husband, the mayor.There are those that say Nir Barkat is being groomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be his successor.“The dialogue of being together and knowing how to live together in Jerusalem, where everyone feels a part of Jerusalem and no one is overpowering another – that is how my husband ran Jerusalem, and I definitely learned from him,” Barkat said. “We are on two parallel paths, and somehow we get to the same bridges that connect his world and mine.”Barkat is not religious in the way it is currently defined. But she said her relationship to the Bible and Israel is “totally spiritual.”“I am interreacting with the life of the Bible, and through these studies I now better understand why things happened because of the lands these tribes were living in,” she said. “I don’t know where we are going as a nation, but I do know that we are incredible as a nation.”She continued, “In this dialogue between me and myself as a Jew and an Israeli with the Bible and the tribes, I have come to see us as a united group going forward.”