Miriam Cabessa - One of Israel's most influential artists

Miriam Cabessa's art is a dialogue between people.

 MIRIAM CABESA’S ‘Vital Signs’ is on display at the Haifa Museum of Art (photo credit: Jennie Katzner)
MIRIAM CABESA’S ‘Vital Signs’ is on display at the Haifa Museum of Art
(photo credit: Jennie Katzner)

Upon stepping foot into Miriam Cabessa’s south Tel Aviv studio, one is immediately met with an unidentifiable, bewitching smell. But it’s not only the sense of smell that is pleasantly engaged within the four white walls of Cabessa’s workspace. In fact, the room feels curated to the highest comfort and aesthetic level possible. The couch is buttery leather, the light is soft and Cabessa’s paintings are thoughtfully arranged on the walls. 

Miriam Cabesa

This is one of Cabessa’s two studios; its sister space is in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Cabessa resided for many years. Since the 1990s, Cabessa has been hailed as one of the most important artists to emerge from Israel. Born in Morocco and raised on Kibbutz Sha’ar Hagolan, Cabessa has distinguished herself with both her aesthetic and her tools. She prefers an iron to a paintbrush and engages her body, be it in kisses or in broad movements to create her images. 

First of all, I am a woman,” she says. “My thought process is very female. When I started to present in the ’90s, there weren’t many female artists and certainly not Mizrahi women. I wasn’t cleaning, I was making a mess. I took domestic tools and used them to create the beyond.”

Cabessa recently returned to Tel Aviv, but not before purchasing an old church in upstate New York, which she has yet to decide what to do with. It was in Williamsburg that Cabessa began the exploration that has led to her work, which is currently on display as part of the Vital Signs exhibition at the Haifa Museum of Art, curated by Dr. Kobi Ben-Meir. 

“My studio was undergoing renovations, so I had to move temporarily to a different space,” Cabessa explains. As she speaks, a pot of green tea brews on a large wicker mat on the coffee table. Cabessa sits on a leather armchair next to her work and life partner, writer Noa Raveh. The two work and live together in what they describe as “a sense of plenty.”

 Yellow paint. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Yellow paint. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“The owner of the studio arranged for me to work in an apartment that was going to be destroyed. I was meant to be there for three weeks. When I got to the space, I started to renovate here and there, and I found some pictures of the woman who had lived there. She was then living in an assisted living facility. I started to paint as a gesture between myself and this woman, whom I didn’t know,” Cabessa explains.

She applied one stripe of paint to the wall, which unlocked weeks of meticulous painting and engulfed the entire living room of the apartment. “I was surprised to discover that the oil paints took nicely to the walls. I continued. At that time, I didn’t see it as art, rather as a dialogue between me and the woman. 

“It had a huge impact on me. I let this thing, whatever it was, envelope me like a dream. I would look out the window and everything looked painted. I can’t explain the intensity.”

The hours upon hours of work transformed the apartment to a floor-to-ceiling painting in blacks, grays and whites. The walls, floor, ceiling, carpet and furniture were covered. Even the paintings on the wall were painted. 

And although Cabessa did not intend to present the apartment to the public, visitors began to arrive, sitting inside the force field that had been created by her painting. 

WHAT WAS meant to be a three-week stay in the apartment turned into several months, prior to its destruction. Since then, Cabessa has overtaken several spaces with what she refers to as “slow-motion feminine-action painting.” One was the old dining hall on Kibbutz Be’eri. 

“Once I had finished, a lot of elderly kibbutz members came to see it. In that space, which looked almost burnt out, they could talk about their memories, good and bad, with confidence. They felt safe inside the space,” Cabessa says. 

In Haifa, Cabessa met new challenges. “First of all, I rounded out the corners of the room. I wanted the space to be more inclusive,” she says. 

During those first days, Raveh and one of her three children hung out in the gallery. “It felt like I was inside an organ, like it was Miriam’s lung,” Raveh says. “My son understood it right away. The space wasn’t inanimate anymore, it was alive.”

Cabessa adds that she completed this project faster than any of her previous works of a similar scale. “People ask me if I work hard and I tell them that I work a lot, but that it’s easy. I can make this physical effort with ease. In Haifa, I felt that I opened the space, like a bottle of wine, to let it breathe. Wine is also a living thing, right? 

“I think in the space, the viewers’ senses and abilities are sharpened. It’s a work that must be seen with the body.”

That said, Cabessa recognizes that the viewer experience is not one of pure pleasure. Specifically in Haifa, where Cabessa opted for red and gold hues in addition to black and gray, the effect can be overwhelming. 

“The viewer has to do some work. This isn’t chewed-up food,” she says. “It’s a delicacy and the body has to digest it.”

Vital Signs will be on display at the Haifa Museum of Art through June 25. For more information, visit www.hma.org.il.