Multiple walls, hundreds of stories

Infusing Mahaneh Yehuda with new life – one spray-paint portrait at a time.

Solomon Souza (right) and Berel Hahn, feeling at home in the shuk (photo credit: SARAH LEVI)
Solomon Souza (right) and Berel Hahn, feeling at home in the shuk
(photo credit: SARAH LEVI)
It’s an early Saturday evening; faint tunes pervade the shuk as a handful of people begin to stroll through its alleys and pathways.
Time that has seen numerous stores come and go since vendors first started hawking their goods in Mahaneh Yehuda in the late 1800s. Time that has observed countless shoppers pass through the open-air market’s crevices, which has witnessed wars, internal divisions and changing borders.
A young man unassumingly approaches an old shutter door, sealed tightly with rust-covered locks and plastered with faded paper ads. He begins the arduous task of scraping off the layers of old posters to reveal the naked state of the shutter: a mix of grays, whites, and blues of another era, shades darkened and dulled by the span of time.
The man, artist Solomon Souza, stares at the wall and cocks one hip to the side, pensive, deciding what to do next. He shakes a can and then begins to spray with deliberate movements of his right hand. His whole body engages in action, reaching up, down and side to side. His eyes refer back to his sketch as the unmistakable smell of aerosol begins to fill the space. He bends down, taking a moment to connect with the rich surface floor of the shuk.
Seemingly random line patterns quickly begin to take shape and transform into the subtle outlines of a face. Gentle spray blasts cast shadows to refine specific facial features, allowing the mural’s inner essence to emerge.
Spectators start to gather, their smiles growing larger as their gazes follow Souza’s purposeful movements. The artist takes several movements to stop, step backward and examine his work. Each pause for observation is followed by a stride forward and a brilliant addition to the image taking form on the shutter. It is as if he can see a hidden reality in the lines of color, the decrepit shutter and the people looking on in awe.
He sees a face, a story, a life.
He paints eyes that gaze back at their viewer, capturing the soul of the individual and drawing it deep in the “window of the wall.”
He paints a nose that breathes, inhaling the marketplace air redolent with aromas of foods, spices and people, exhaling a breath of its own from within. Lastly, he paints lips that speak stories through silence – that sing, sigh, cheer, scream and whisper about their unique journeys that brought them to be part of this incredible collection.
Each one of the portraits – engaging and alive, capturing likenesses as varied as that of Henrietta Szold, the Baba Sali and Jonathan Pollard – contributes to the revitalization and beautification of the marketplace.
Souza rolls his shoulders back a few times, tapping his foot to the beats emanating from a neighboring bar, and observes his work.
Store owners begin to set up the night space, shouting at each other in the process of arranging tables and chairs to greet the hordes of men and women materializing to fill the empty space.
The artist blends turquoise into purple with thick strokes of pink to transform his landscape. Black outlines reinforce the other colors and give depth to the rich, delicate, and intrinsic nature of the person. White shimmer is added as a final means of making the shutter glisten to show real moisture and bring true life force to a material surface.
The more-than-two-hour process is precisely detailed, filled with passion and dedication to a culture, cause, and a city. Souza’s devotion to art and his finesse with each spray of paint result in a gallery, nearly completed, constructed out of pure talent, vision and grace. He has the remarkable ability to see a reality hidden from the lay viewer; he can use layers of paint to get to the essence of how to present a story visually with the goal of experiencing it as multi-sensory in the future.
In partnership with Berel Hahn, his friend, motivator and manager, Souza uses his art to honor both famous and unfamiliar heroines and heroes. The pair are working to transform the shuk gallery into a nonprofit, helping to enliven the spirit of Jerusalem’s landscape and, eventually, bring its unparalleled and ebullient energy around the world. To that end, they are launching a Kickstarter campaign in April to finish their current project and raise seed funding for their NGO.
Crouching down at the end of his creative effort and with a swift motion, Souza signs and dates his work. Unstrapping his mask, he then wipes the sweat off his brow and, standing with his head tilted, marvels at the face staring back at him. He then disappears into the boisterous background of bars, live music and flocks of people.
As the artist moves away, Hahn enters the scene, sweeps away the remnants of what transpired during the past couple of hours before, and then he, too, leaves the storefront.
The shutter is left to take on the spirit that it had always possessed and that has finally now been liberated. The space instantaneously reincorporates itself into the marketplace: a table and chairs are set up and people gather for the night’s ongoing festivities.
The portrait stares out at Mahaneh Yehuda, welcomed by the drumming from an adjacent bar, and comfortably assumes its place – as if it had always been there.