Living in Jerusalem, one of the places I enjoy most is Mahane Yehuda market, a 25-minute walk from our home. On each visit I fall in love anew with its color and vibrancy. I have always loved markets for as a child I helped my Dad run his stall in Lancashire and have happy memories of time spent with him. But my lovely father could sometimes be irascible. On one occasion a woman, whilst rooting amongst the goods on display, upturned everything. He asked her politely what she was looking for.
“I’m looking for my sister,” she replied, to which Dad responded, “Well, you certainly won’t find her there!”
Mahane Yehuda is exactly what a market should be – fresh produce, spices, clothing, craftsmen – everything can be found – all against the background hustle, bustle and sounds of stallholders shouting their wares to passers by. For me their patter is an essential part of the ambience, so I was saddened, if amused, to read that some international markets – Istanbul and even some in the UK have banned this practice!
I wrote a short story about Mahaneh Yehuda in my book, Unexpected Israel, some years ago, but since then have observed gradual changes. In the early days the market closed around 5 p.m., remaining dark and shuttered. Today it has metamorphosed into the ‘in place’ where, on an evening, one can eat, drink, relax and listen to music.
Back in 2014, one particular feature I noticed were the number of large portraits popping up on the market stall shutters. They really enlivened the place. I photographed them but had no idea who painted them.
Serendipitously this was resolved, when in January 2021, I received an email from Keren Kohn-Souza, a talented artist and one of my readers. She enthused about my stories and at the same time invited me to share in her joy and pride regarding her son’s achievements for it was he, Solomon Souza, who painted those images, not only of local market characters but also of heroic individuals such as Golda Meir (Israel’s first woman prime minister) Steven Spielberg, Mahatma Gandhi – over 250 in all which, despite it being initially a clandestine activity, became legitimate gaining international renown for Solomon.
It was Keren’s mother Liselotte Kohn, who, fleeing Prague in 1939 after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, arrived in London to study acting at the Royal Academy where in 1955 she met and fell in love with Francis Newton Souza, an artist from Goa, India. They had three daughters, Keren being the eldest.
Keren gave birth to Solomon in 1993, and after that a daughter Miriam. They met their grandfather infrequently, but his presence was strongly felt in their household through the stories related by Keren. Solomon recalls how he would regularly enter his mother’s art studio, admiring her paints of every color, smelling the oil and linseed and marveling at the many stacked canvases. His mother nurtured and encouraged both Solomon and Miriam, by filling their lives with creativity. Miriam today is a fine film maker and Solomon maintains that without his mother’s influence he would certainly not be the person he is today.
His own artistic endeavors began somewhat inauspiciously – spray painting images onto public buildings in Hackney, London. He loved the excitement and challenge of this – having the freedom to create, influence and communicate his art directly to the public. But this approach did not go down well with the authorities, resulting in nights spent in police cells “with the burn of the handcuffs on my wrists and spending my time with kids who got into trouble smoking, stealing and fighting.”
Everything changed, however, when Keren began exploring her Jewish roots resulting in the decision to relocate to Jerusalem. On arrival Solomon, the confirmed vandal and offender, attended a program he describes as “a last chance place for boys who had been expelled from other programs.” Here he began to discover himself and by 2015 his life gradually changed as he started painting in Jerusalem. He says, “I found myself getting involved with the Holy City and its occupants – it took me out of the dark and thrust me into the all-seeing eye of the world.”
In 2019, his career took a giant leap thanks to Vivek Menezes, a writer/photographer who years earlier had met and befriended Solomon’s grandfather, Francis Newton Souza, and remained inspired and fascinated by him. Vivek heard about Solomon via the internet and, as co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival, invited him to Saligao, his grandfather’s ancestral village in India, to see for himself the scenes that had inspired him. He was also commissioned to create new artwork in the village.
F.N. Souza, the founder member of the Progressive Artists Group that shaped Indian modern art was known for his expressionistic paintings of people and landscapes, featuring colour and graphic traits seen in the work of Paul Klee and his contemporaries.
In his early 20’s F.N. Souza moved to London seeking international recognition. He was rated alongside Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Critic John Berger wrote “It is obvious that he is a superb designer and excellent draughtsman, straddling several traditions.” In 1958 he represented the UK at the Guggenheim NY together with John Bratby, Ben Nicholson, Ceri Richards and Terry Frost. He also received the Guggenheim International Award – the highest monetary prize at the time, but never received the public acclaim he sought during his lifetime. After he died in 2002 his work began to be appreciated, one canvas selling for $4 million in 2014. Today his paintings are seen in the Tate Modern, the V&A in London and several other major international art venues.
On arrival in Goa, Solomon told Vivek how something immediately awakened in him. Colors and shapes from his grandfather’s paintings that he knew since childhood suddenly made sense and he began to appreciate his ancestral roots. For 30 magical days he roamed Goa on a scooter laden with cans of spray paint, working daily except on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, creating murals of previously unsung Goan heroes that immediately resonated with the local population with whom he found an instant rapport. He completed 20 astounding murals, some painted many stories high whilst he dangled from the highest cranes, spray paint in his hand.
“It was a real homecoming” said Solomon. “From the moment I entered the village, I began to tingle and buzz. I cannot fully explain it. I wanted to wander down each alley and roam in every field. I felt like a piece of a puzzle, missing for so long, and here I was being slotted back into place. Within hours I garnered a host of aunties and uncles, accepting me as if I had always lived there.”
His next major achievement was a commission from Roman Abramovich, the Russian-Israeli owner of Chelsea Football Club, to create a 12x7m mural at Stamford Bridge as part of their “Say No To Antisemitism” campaign marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It featured three well known footballers – two perished, the third a British prisoner of war, survived. In January 2021, Solomon was again involved when Chelsea FC marked Holocaust Memorial Day with an exhibition highlighting the stories of 20 sports personalities, 17 Jewish, who were killed by the Nazis. It is truly moving to know that every year both players and fans will pay tribute to them, reminding us that one must never forget. As for Solomon, this was a way he could pay tribute to his mother’s family, most of whom who died in the Holocaust.
The last few years have been productive in other directions. In 2018 the Archaeological Heritage Site commissioned him to create an frieze of paintings in a 3,500 year old Jewish winery discovered in the foundations of a building in Hebron. In Los Angeles, he painted a mural in memory of a local leader, Arthur “Fishy” Kranzler and at Moriah College, Sydney, produced a 400ft mural depicting ‘Genesis.’ His video shows the students’ excitement watching him work, and demonstrates how much he inspires others with his prodigious talent.
Writing this has been a joy, learning about someone who never had formal training but has the undoubted ability and the will to paint as he does.
I also learned much about graffiti art. One thinks of it as a modern phenomenon, but writing on walls dates back to prehistoric times, the Lascaux caves in France (17,000 years) being one prime example. In modern times graffiti emerged in the 1960s US with hip hop music and street culture, made possible by the invention of the aerosol spray. The debate about whether it is art or vandalism continues. Some say if it is done with permission it is art, if not then it is a crime. I cannot enter into this discourse, suffice to say that there have been several successful artists who have emerged from this background such as Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat and others.
Solomon however, is different. His entire life has been infused with art stemming from his grandfather. He says “His paintings have had a huge effect on me. I was always enthralled by the brutality, rawness, strokes and textures. He showed me that a painting does not need to be pretty and conform, but can be a blunt expression of experience, opinion and observation. A lot of my work tells a tale. This passion has come directly from my grandfather, through my mother Keren.”
In Goa, Solomon realized that the paintings and life lessons of Francis Newton Souza had become ingrained in his own psyche. As he says, “I’m still discovering my personal identity. It’s something I am building, slowly and cautiously, as I make my way through life.”
This was reinforced in May 2020 when before leaving his mother’s home in Safed to relocate to a studio in Jerusalem, Keren handed him a large roll of dusty brownish canvas. It was the last canvas his grandfather had bought. Keren found it whilst cleaning out his apartment after he died in 2002.
But what to use it for? Solomon decided that his option must be to pay tribute to his grandpa, by adopting his brutal style, shocking colors and heavy hitting lines to make it appear as if the great FN Souza had himself painted the canvases. Were FN Souza here today, I am sure he would have been touched and proud of the legacy he bequeathed to his grandson.
Solomon, meanwhile, states that in life he simply seeks happiness, stability and a family. In February 2021, aged 27, he took a step in that direction when he married Ayelet. He is unquestionably on his way and I look forward eagerly to watching his progress, seeing him making his mark and ultimately realizing his dreams.