A glittering start

Cross-generational confluences abound in "Thread of Gold," Neta Elkayam’s joint exhibition with her father Michael.

Michael and Neta Elkayam, ‘Daughter,’ 2013 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Michael and Neta Elkayam, ‘Daughter,’ 2013 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Neta Elkayam is a chip off the old block. That genetic strand is front and center practically everywhere you look at the 30-year-old’s joint exhibition with her father, Michael, currently in progress at Beit Avi Chai as part of the first Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art, which runs until October 31.
There are plenty of cross-generational confluences in the “Thread of Gold” exhibition, while father and daughter also leave themselves, and each other, breathing space to do their own thing.
There is also another, highly audible strand to Elkayam’s approach to her art, both to her paintings and her video creations. Besides putting paint to canvas, and camera to eye, Elkayam is a singer, bringing her Moroccan heritage to the fore as she performs a wide range of Arabic material and conveys sentiments that sound and feel entirely authentic.
So, with this mix of creative domains, does Elkayam feel that, for example, her musical work spills over into the visual avenue of her work? “I don’t really know,” comes the honest answer. “I always try to find connections between music and my [other] artwork. I think that, maybe, in the new video clips I do I’ll introduce some jewelry I have prepared. This is jewelry made from 10-agorot coins.”
Money, or at least precious metals, is a central theme of the Beit Avi Chai show, as the exhibition title implies.
“There is something very powerful about the gold that is handed down from generation to generation, which is always present in North African culture,” suggest Elkayam. “There is always, say, the gold bracelet that the grandmother passes on to her daughter and she, in turn, passes it on to her own daughter. It is a womanly thing.”
And there is the father-and-daughter thing. Elkayam evidently feels confident enough in her own creative abilities and public standing to share a stage with her well-known father, who has gained a reputation for his Judaica-based output. Elkayam Jr. is clearly made of sterner stuff.
“I am aware of my privileges,” she declares. “Maybe the ‘son of/daughter of’ thing is more relevant to children of people with connections, like professors and people who belong to the elite.”
Elkayam prefers to address present-day demographics and the social mobility of her contemporaries, rather than consider whether she got any paternal assistance on her way to the first rung on her professional ladder. “The members of the younger generation found their feet, and fit into Israeli society much better than their parents. I’ve already had two solo exhibitions and I am only 30.”
She may be “only 30,” but Elkayam clearly knows where she is going with her art or, more accurately, knows how to go about putting ideas and feelings into visual and aural form. Many of those thoughts and sentiments are presented to the public through the prism of tradition and family history.
Elkayam is certainly not, as The Kinks’ ’60s hit had it, “a dedicated follower of fashion.” Her post-high school arts studies were undertaken at the Kaye Academic College of Education in Beersheba, far from the artistic hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
“Kaye does not have a high profile, but that doesn’t bother me,” states Elkayam. “I have never followed trends. That’s not my thing. I like places and things that are considered ‘unfashionable.’” Today, Elkayam lives in Katamon and is happy to be in Jerusalem.
“People were amazed when I moved to Jerusalem, instead of Tel Aviv. But there is a complexity and tension that you don’t find in any other city. That fuels imagination. I don’t want to live in some sterile vacuum that could be anywhere in the world. I live in the Middle East, and feed off the people and colors and cultures of this part of the world.”
Elkayam is more of a trendsetter, and she was a proactive student. “I kept on trying to set up exhibitions, and getting people to do things at the college,” she recalls. “Most of the others on the program were aiming to become arts teachers, which is the easiest thing to do and also a lot of fun. For some reason, I always knew I was going to be an artist.”
That was clear to her sculpture teacher Israel Rabinowitz, who offered his student a golden opportunity to strut her creative stuff on a major stage.
“The students’ final year exhibitions were always held at the college in Beersheba, but Israel told me I’d be putting on my exhibition at Artists’ House in Jerusalem. He was one of its founders and there is a project called Nidbach (Stratum), which offers young artists exhibition opportunities. It was wonderful, and surprising, to get the opportunity to show my work at such a place. I’d always wondered whether anyone would be interested in my work, and there I was at Artists’ House in Jerusalem.”
There is a pervading sense of intimacy throughout the “Thread of Gold” show, and a feeling that we are being invited into the Elkayam family home. We are privy to some of the major events in the family’s history, including the sad, premature deaths of Michael Elkayam’s brothers, and the subsequent death of his father. Neta’s beloved grandmother is also front and center in the show.
There is a clear umbilical cord that binds father and daughter together, both on an emotional and an artistic level.
A case in point is Michael’s 1985 work Nana, which depicts an elderly woman with a head scarf, with her hand over her right eye. On the same wall in the exhibition place there is Neta’s Self-Portrait as Baba Sali, from 2006, in which we see a headshot of the artist, complete with head scarf, with her right eye shielded by a hand. The younger Elkayam’s painting references the late spiritual leader of the Moroccan community in Israel, and a popular photograph of him with his right hand on his forehead. “I only discovered my father’s painting after I had done mine,” says Elkayam.
“We have this really strong bond between us.”
Jewish symbols abound in Michael’s work and some of these find their way into Neta’s creations, including in a definitively “alternative” form. There is, for example, an attractive Shabbat set – of a kiddush cup, candlesticks and embroidered halla cover.
The text on the latter is primed to raise the observer’s smile as, instead of the traditional wording of “In honor of Shabbat and Yom Tov,” Elkayam has embroidered, in gold thread, the words “You must not cry on Shabbat and Yom Tov.”
“I like that message,” says Elkayam with a smile.
More than anything, like any artist, Elkayam wants her work to resonate with others. “I put my paintings up on walls and they scream out to be noticed.
I don’t care if people don’t like my work, or even find it offensive or too political, but I want them to take note. And I have to provide them with something of value, something that says something, that they will make the effort to come and see.”
‘Thread of Gold’ closes on November 30. For more information: jerusalembiennale.org