Worlds apart and together

Nessim Zalayet’s work is on show at the Paintings 2013 exhibition in the White City Abstract painting is the most universal and all-encompassing style there is Baghdad.

Baghdad-born Nessim Zalayet is exhibiting at Zaritsky Artists House in Tel Aviv.  (photo credit: ROEE SHPERNIK)
Baghdad-born Nessim Zalayet is exhibiting at Zaritsky Artists House in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: ROEE SHPERNIK)
Nessim Zalayet has been through some life-changing transitions during his more than nine decades on terra firma to date. Some of the fruits of his labors, and of those shifts in mindset, creative approach and culture, are on display at Zaritsky Artists House in Tel Aviv.
Zalayet’s Paintings 2013 exhibition, curated by Aryeh Berkowitz, will run until next Thursday.
Many of his abstract works embrace oxymoronic textual combinations which could be construed as a natural development of the painter’s lifetime of crisscrossing.
Zalayet first showed an interest in art as a sevenyear- old, in his native Baghdad. “The other kids used to play dominoes, and other games, and I wasn’t interested in that, so I spent my time drawing,” he recalls. “The principal of my school saw me drawing the whole time, and he told my father I would be a painter. He was right!” Zalayet’s father’s globe-trotting also helped broaden the youngster’s aesthetic horizons.
“My father would come to Palestine on business every few months, and one time he came back with a book for me, which had paintings by Reuven Rubin in it, in black and white,” continues the nonagenarian. “I was amazed by the reproductions in the book. I was transfixed by them, I can’t even explain why. I’d spend hours and hours looking at them. Those paintings really released something inside me. I couldn’t get them out of my head.”
There was more familial help for his artistic evolution a few years later.
“My cousin opened up a special bookstore on Al Rashid Street [one of the main thoroughfares] in the center of Baghdad,” says Zalayet. “I’d go there, take a book about art and take it home. When I’d finish with one I’d take it back to the store and take another out. I learned about art on my own, from those books. That really opened up my eyes, and mind. I was lucky to have that resource at hand” Gradually, Zalayet developed his own realistic style of painting although, sadly, almost all of the work he produced in Baghdad was left behind when he made aliya in 1951, at the age of 28. One of the very few paintings he did manage to bring with him to Israel was produced in double-quick time, betwixt efforts to facilitate the illegal aliya of other Iraqi Jews.
“I and a friend were in the Jewish underground in Baghdad, and I was responsible for getting Jews out of a synagogue and getting them to minibuses which took them to the border,” recalls Zalayet.
“One day we had a break of about 40 minutes and I painted my friend’s portrait. That is one of the two works I managed to bring with me when I made aliya myself.”
When he finally made it over here, Zalayet lived on Kibbutz Sdot Yam for a few months. Despite entreaties to stay, he moved to Tel Aviv to further his arts education. It was when he was at the Avni Institute that he discovered the wonders of the abstract style of painting.
“That was a fantastic thing for me. I realized, and believe to this day, that abstract painting is the most universal and all-encompassing style there is. You can divide it up into hundreds of other different styles. It offers you endless possibilities of style and composition. I like that.”
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