A show of good luck

Yifat Naim’s stop-motion video clip ‘Shaming’ addresses a disturbing incident (photo credit: SHAY BEN EPHRAIM)
Yifat Naim’s stop-motion video clip ‘Shaming’ addresses a disturbing incident
(photo credit: SHAY BEN EPHRAIM)
If you feel you may not have been getting the rub of the green of late, you might want to pop along to the Museum of Islamic Art. There are amulets in abundance there – 555, to be precise – in the “Khamsa Khamsa Khamsa: The Evolution of a Motif in Contemporary Israeli Art” exhibition that opened last week.
Most of us have encountered a khamsa – khamsot in the plural form, often spelled without the “k” – at some stage. They are all over the place, according to curator Dr. Shirat-Miriam Shamir, who shares responsibility for the exhibition layout with Ido Noy. That is patently evident from the layout at the museum. There are khamsot of practically every kind, shape, size, material, color and artistic genre going. The exhibits also span broad tracts of history, and feed off different cultural, ethnic and religious sensibilities.
“Ido and I are basically curators of Jewish art,” Shamir explains. “The exhibitions we curate address Jewish art. We take artists, put out a request for works.
Here we have khamsot by 48 artists, out of the 80 we originally selected.”
The range of items on display at the museum certainly indicates the breadth of imagination, and sources of inspiration, behind the finished products – and they all come from experienced hands and eyes.
“All of the artists are department heads at places like Bezalel [Academy of Arts and Design] and Shenkar [College of Engineering and Design],” Shamir notes.
Ask most people about the origins of the five-fingered amulet and most would probably suggest an Arabic backdrop. After all, “khamsa” does mean “five” in Arabic.
“The khamsa comes from Islamic countries and was adopted by Jews who lived in those countries,” explains Shamir. “There were lots of cultural exchanges between Jews and Muslims; it was a reciprocal relationship.”
Reciprocity and eclecticism are evident throughout the exhibition. There are Muslim, Jewish and Christian khamsot in there, taking in pieces that date back centuries, primarily from the delectable contribution from William Gross’s Judaica collection, to the most contemporary, cutting-edge technologically-crafted creation. There is also an intriguing video work in there by Erez Gavish, in which we see a khamsa dangling from a car rear-view mirror as the driver approaches a checkpoint on Highway 443.
“That’s a dangerous road,” observes Shamir. “You need luck if you’re going to drive there.”
As Jews have roamed across the globe, they have frequently immersed themselves in the local culture, taking on customs from the dominant society. That’s, basically, how the khamsa found its way into Jewish tradition.
“The Jews took on the khamsa and integrated into in their culture, and into all aspects of the body culture,” says Shamir. “Jewish women wore khamsot around their neck, and the khamsa was even incorporated into Judaica. You find the khamsa on the Holy Ark, in the synagogue. You find in synagogues in Turkey, and even on Torah scrolls, as ornaments.”
As Jews from Arab countries began to make aliya, the khamsa became more prevalent in Israeli society.
“People from Morocco, Iraq, Algeria and Tunisia came here with the talisman. For them it was protection against the evil eye. It brought them prosperity and fertility. In fact, anything they wished for, they channeled through the khamsa.”
It is, indeed, a most evocative of symbols. The hand shape – the khamsa is modeled on the right hand, which traditionally symbolizes power – is deemed to have the ability to ward off evil influences, while also imbuing its wearer, or the household on whose wall it hangs, with good health and fortune in the various areas of his or her life. While some khamsot hang with the fingers pointing downward, to bring blessings down from above, some are lined up the other way.
Some amulets are fashioned in the traditional mold, while others follow a far freer, more contemporary, aesthetic line. The exhibition features an entire wall taken up with some fun-looking cartoonesque amulets, created by Zev Engelmayer, which he calls “Khamsa-Shoshke.” At the other extremity of the emotional scale, Buthina Abu Milhem’s “The Hands Are Floating” clay sculpture features a mélange of hands that might be offering each other support but, possibly, might be struggling desperately to make it to the top of the pile.
Providing counterweight to the fun stuff are some thought-provoking exhibits – some more than a little disturbing. One such is Yifat Naim’s “Shaming,” a stop-motion video clip in which we see a half-naked young woman, from the back, standing by the Dead Sea with her arms stretched out. As the video progresses, her back and the backs of her legs are covered by hand-shaped muddy imprints. Sexual abuse is implied, and the work implies that, while hands can be used to defend oneself from enemies, and can bring prosperity, they can be used with evil intent, too. Mistreatment of women is also inferred in Shihadi Samah’s drawing of a fabric-draped woman standing in front of a larger and, presumably, physically stronger male figure.
Shamir and Noy have certainly gone the whole aesthetic, cultural, religious, social, ethnic and stylistic hog. Among the 555 amulets on show – the identical triple-digit number references the expression “khamsa khamsa khamsa,” roughly the equivalent of “touch wood” – there is a plethora of khamsot culled from dimea-dozen stores and market stalls all over the country. There soberly-designed tefillat haderech khamsot, with a supplication for a safe arrival before setting out on a journey, bling-bling amulets, wooden items marketed to Christian pilgrims and khamsot whose designers were clearly looking to offer double insurance cover, which feature a chai, an eye or even a horseshoe shape. You can never be too careful.
Hi-tech has a place in the exhibition, too. Take, for example, Rory Hooper’s tongue-in-check printed circuit-board-styled khamsa, which comes complete with a camera and LED lights.
There is more humor on offer, in Gur Tal and Moria Lou’s comically inventive blowfish ready-made piece, which replicates the format of a plane passenger lifejacket.
Other exhibits of note include the delicately crafted brass and glass “Eye Trap,” which Galilee village-resident artist Rami Tareef based on the bird traps used in his neck of the woods, and Fatma Shanan’s Lament Ceremony video, which features a carpet with animated figures created by Ohad Givaty.
As befitting one of the museum’s core avenues of cultural and artistic thinking, the Museum of Islamic Art general director Nadim Sheiban notes the ethnic confluence theme of the show.
“The exhibition… seeks to present the khamsa’s expression in local contemporary art – both Jewish and Arabic,” he notes. “It enables a discourse between contemporary art and one of the most common motifs in Islamic countries throughout the generations, a motif characterized by a religious aspect but also by a visual and aesthetic aspect.”
“Khamsa Khamsa Khamsa” opens the visitor’s eyes to the design possibilities offered by the basic hand shape, the ways in which it can be utilized to convey all kinds of personal, political, religious and social messages, while leaving you thoroughly entertained in the process.
“Khamsa Khamsa Khamsa” closes on November 24.