Rust Period

Philippe Boulakia has used an unusual medium to depict his family’s move from the manicured streets of north Tel Aviv to the more casual Ajami.

Philippe Boulakia 521 (photo credit: Philippe Boulakia)
Philippe Boulakia 521
(photo credit: Philippe Boulakia)
In Next Stop, Greenwich Village, the semi-autobiographical 1976 film by Paul Mazursky, we meet Larry Lipinsky, a young aspiring actor who moves out of his parents’ apartment in Brooklyn to seek fame and fortune in New York’s Bohemian quarter.
As he leaves the familiar Jewish middle- class streets of 1953 Brooklyn for the beatnik cultural underground of the Village, a 45-minute subway ride takes him not just from one New York City neighborhood to another but from one cultural world to another as well.
Two years ago, artist and graphic designer Philippe Boulakia decided to make a similar kind of move. His current exhibition, called Latitude,” displays the artistic result of moving from the neat, well-ordered, tree-shaded streets of north Tel Aviv to the mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhood of Ajami in Jaffa. Trading the manicured front gardens and trimmed flowery hedges of the affluent north of the city for the clutter, noise and Mediterranean “earthiness” of the city’s south – replete with donkeys, goats, barking dogs and crowing roosters – Boulakia not only moved from one cultural world to another, but came home once again to the world of his childhood.
Born almost 60 years ago in Tunisia, Boulakia lived there with his family until the age of six. The family then moved to Paris.
“In Tunis we were very rich,” he recalls. “We were like the French bourgeoisie, with big houses and helpers at home. After the 1967 war, we lost everything – all the houses and the furniture and the carpets. When my father died, we moved to Paris, to a small apartment near the flea market. We were very poor in Paris. My mother had four children to raise. I had to take care of myself very early, selling postcards in the Paris flea market. In Tunis we spoke French and felt French; in France we felt like Tunisians.”
Boulakia immigrated to Israel in 1972 and, after serving in the army, headed more or less directly to the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. After briefly returning to Paris after graduation to help design the city’s Museum of Science and Technology, Boulakia came back to Israel and 30 years ago opened a design firm, now one of the largest of its kind in the country.
“It’s a graphic design company,” he says, “creating images and illusions for some of the biggest companies in Israel, from Bezeq to Pelephone. I am working with more than 20 designers. We are very much involved in the capitalist world, the consumerist world.”
At the same time, Boulakia taught design at Bezalel, married a woman from South Africa and proceeded to adopt two children – a girl, now 21, from Romania; and a boy, 19, from Russia. His career was successful, his work lucrative and his life comfortable.
And then, around 10 years ago, Boulakia began to paint.
“I started to try to remember why I wanted to study at Bezalel when I was young. Design had given me skills of strategy for management of a design company, and I started to lose contact with the paper and the crafts. My design company stopped giving me strong excitement. So I started to paint at night, and to relearn composition, color and line. Fifty years old, and I began to learn again. I needed to relearn everything.
I also needed to rediscover the internal icons that have been inside me from my childhood,” he explains.
As he began to paint, many of those “icons” demanded to be painted.
Boulakia’s parents, childhood friends, house helpers, and others from his earliest memories began to take shape on paper. Before long, the icons also began to remind him who he was and who he was not. Two years ago, he and his family moved to Ajami.
“I always felt like a stranger in north Tel Aviv, not a part of the Israeli bourgeoisie,” Boulakia says. “I always felt that I was not a part of the atmosphere there, the culture. I’m not part of the Ashkenazi culture. I felt that if we moved to Jaffa, we would be part of the Mediterranean world, my basic identity.
Moving to Jaffa was for me like closing a circle. The beach in Jaffa looks exactly like the beach I grew up at in Tunis. People sit outside in the evening, justlike they did in Tunis. For me, coming to Jaffa is like a boat returning to port, at rest.”
Does he harbor any resentment at having to leave Tunisia, and for losing his childhood “paradise” after the 1967 war? “No. My brother and sisters were older, grew up there, and have those feelings. I was the youngest, and we left when I was six. For me, Tunisia is images, icons – all of my friends being Arabs, riding bicycles with my Arab friends. That is the basic message of this exhibition, that I was born among Arabs and that I will certainly grow old and die among Arabs. It’s part of my life, my identity.”
Nor is he bothered much by the ongoing conflict closer to home, between Israelis and Palestinians. He says, “I believe that living together leads to miracles. All my friends are from the Left, very liberal and very caring about the Arab population.
But when they come to visit me in Jaffa, I see their anxiety. I feel their anxiety, from the questions they ask: ‘Do you feel safe here?’ ‘Don’t you have any problems with the neighbors?’ I believe in different kinds of people living together. And I feel good in Jaffa.”
Jaffa has certainly been a fertile source of inspiration for Boulakia, generating an immense body of work that began almost immediately after his arrival. He says, “I started being sociable, interacting with my neighbors, something I never did in the north. And I started caring and being curious about them. And then I started to paint them, enjoying the craziness of Russians and Arabs living together. That is the miracle of Jaffa.”
For Boulakia as an artist, however, a more important miracle was the unapologetic, take-us-as-we-are attitude of the neighborhood, with its happy noise, colorful clutter and – in his words – “people sitting in front of their houses, spending all day doing nothing.”
All of this is reflected in the works of this exhibition, as is the physical honesty of the people. We see little naked Arab boys playing on the beach, as well as the bodies of resignedly obese Russian women crammed into small string bikinis and the bellies of equally obese Russian men hanging low over their bathing suits.
“I like the obesity, the honesty. North Tel Aviv is full of people who work hard at looking good. In the south, everybody is fat and they don’t care,” he says, laughing.
The exhibition also demonstrates the degree to which Jaffa and Tunisia have merged in Boulakia’s mind, generating numerous works that draw on his earliest memories – Tunisian people, places and experiences – all implanted in his soul before he left the country at the age of six. He has never been back, he says.
“I’m not interested, really. I prefer to deal with Tunis as a lost paradise, without seeing what it is like today.”
Boulakia’s medium is as interesting as his content. He works mostly on paper, occasionally on wood, using not oil paints or watercolors, but rust. “I have been working with rust for the past two years,” he says. “I have been creating my own rust. I work first with metal paint. I create a kind of corrosion by using carbonate sulfate that creates real rust. I’m painting and drawing and cutting the paper to make the rust get inside the paper.”
The effect is unique and quite compelling.  Earlier works – oil paintings on paper, wood, cement and canvas – display both the artist’s competence and versatility.
“I change direction about every two years. After two years at one thing, I feel that I need to move forward.”
Asked if he is now in his “rust period,” he replies, “Yes, I am now more than two years into my rust period, and I’m still very excited about it.” He expects to continue working with rust, he says, for a few more months.
Asked what will come after rust, Boulakia simply laughs and says nothing.
“Latitude” is on until September 15 at the Jaffa Port, Warehouse 1, second floor.
Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday 1 to 4 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.