Azerbaijan-born artist brings his cultural and ethnic backdrop to Tel Aviv

Meir’s artistic work is not only a labor of love and, naturally, immense talent.

 A POP-UP exhibition of Rami Meir’s works.  (photo credit: RAMI MEIR AND ATB)
A POP-UP exhibition of Rami Meir’s works.
(photo credit: RAMI MEIR AND ATB)

Rami Meir got into art by default. Then again, as many an Indian savant would no doubt point out, nothing happens by chance.

Meir was born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, in 1962. When he was 17, and it was time to consider his higher education options, he took on a slap in the face when he did not qualify for university. But, as it turned out, the latter’s loss was Meir’s gain, as will be evident to anyone who goes along to the Azerbaijan Tourist Board (ATB) premises, on Herbert Samuel Street in Tel Aviv, on July 13 (11:30 a.m.-6 p.m.). The pop-up exhibition of Meir’s works is being sponsored by Azerkhalcha OJSC, the biggest manufacturer of handmade carpets in Azerbaijan. For the ATB, the show serves as an opportunity to show Israelis a little of what Azerbaijan has to offer on the Jewish cultural front, and Meir is certainly up for that.

Follow your gut

Back to the artist’s higher educational hiccup, which paved the way to a creative and aesthetic daytime job: “I didn’t manage to be accepted for university so I went to an arts technion,” he explains. That was a bit of a shot in the dark for the youngster. “I hadn’t done anything in art before,” he says. “I just went for it.”

As hunches go, Meir got it spot on. Mind you, he did have something to go on. He says he was drawn to the college’s multidisciplinary approach. “There were all sorts of faculties there. They had a faculty for silverwork, copper, carpets and all sorts of things in art. I liked that.”

 A POP-UP exhibition of Rami Meir’s works.  (credit: RAMI MEIR AND ATB) A POP-UP exhibition of Rami Meir’s works. (credit: RAMI MEIR AND ATB)

As Meir’s oeuvre to date shows, he developed an interest in all of the aforementioned fields, plus a few more. In addition to the theoretical and creative aspects, he also got some valuable on-the-job training in various practical areas. “They put me in charge of organizing exhibitions by the members of the class. I became a sort of curator. And we studied many things there. Not every artist works in carpets,” he notes. “I got something from everything we studied. It has all come in useful in my work.”

“We are thrilled to host such an honorable artist in Israel.”

Jamila Talibzada, director of the ATB’s representative office in Israel. 

Meir also has something of a sociopolitical and historical slant to his output. “I make silver coins for Caucasus Jews,” he says, referencing Jews who originate from the eastern and northern Caucasus region, who are also known as the Mountain Jews. The community traces its roots back to Persia in the 5th century BCE. To this day, members of the Mountain Jews speak a language called Judeo-Tat, an ancient southwestern Iranian language that incorporates numerous elements of biblical Hebrew.

Mountain Jews survived their fair share of existential challenges over the centuries, primarily by settling in remote and mountainous areas. But they didn’t just keep away from their foes. They also learned a few tricks of the survival trade, and became known as accomplished warriors and for their equestrian skills.

Meir, who lived in Israel for eight years before relocating to Moscow, is keen to depict the backdrop of the community, in which he grew up, in his art.

“In my art I depict the [traditional] clothing of the Mountain Jews, [from] 150-200 years ago. There is a lot of that sort of thing in my art. I show the kinds of dresses Jewish brides used to wear, and the jewelry they put on. All those old things.”

Religion comes into the documentary mix too. 

“There is a synagogue in Dagestan [in the Northern Caucasian Federal District], from 2,000 years ago, I painted it,” Meir states. “There is not a lot of the building still standing, but you can tell it is a synagogue because there is a Star of David, and also inscriptions in Hebrew and Arabic.”

The ATB is more than happy to host the exhibition, and to make the most of the opportunity to enlighten the Israeli public about some of the wealth of Jewish history Azerbaijan has to offer. Emotive sounds from that part of the world have long been prominent on the local ethnic music scene, with the likes of venerated Dagestan-born composer, educator, instrumentalist and musicologist Piris Eliyahu, and his kamancheh-playing son Mark, gaining a faithful following here, and across the world, over the past couple of decades or so. But Meir’s multidisciplinary endeavor breaks new ground for Israelis.

“We are thrilled to host such an honorable artist in Israel,” says Jamila Talibzada, director of the ATB’s representative office in Israel. 

“Heritage, tradition and culture, as well as authentic arts, are some of the main factors attracting tourists, and Azerbaijan has all these in abundance. We are specifically aiming to draw attention to the Jewish heritage and its roots in Azerbaijan with Rami Meir’s impressive work.”

This week’s cozy pop-up display takes in an oil painting and three carpets. One of the latter goes the extra depiction yard and shows three women in traditional attire, with the two characters holding a carpet themselves.

Time, effort and talent

Meir’s artistic work is not only a labor of love and, naturally, immense talent. He also puts in the hours to make sure he has the documentary collateral for his visual offerings that convey a sense of life as it was, over the centuries, for Caucasus Jews. 

“They [Azerbaijan authorities] wanted me to show these things, of the Jews,” he notes. “They said they want to see them – not the Azerbaijani things, or the Chechen things. They wanted to see the artifacts of the Caucasus Jews.”

If one were looking to tag Meir’s daytime pursuits in neat pigeonhole-proportioned terms, gifted artist and devoted historian would probably do the trick. 

“Yes, you could call me a historian,” he concurs, “but I can tell you I am a simple person.” 

Then again, he has amassed some valuable documents over the years, which inform his artistic work as well as feeding off his passion for delving into the way his community evolved across time. 

“No one has all sorts of papers I have, such as a Jewish newspaper from 1786. I have a lot of things like that. I can say I have some really beautiful things in my collection.”

Meir says he is delighted to bring his relevant works to Israel. 

“I have had offers to have exhibitions in the United States and Dubai, and other places, but it is very important for me to show my work in Israel. I live in Moscow, but Israel is my home.”

The exhibition will be open to the public on July 13, from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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