Lines, colors, mother

Working through deep emotions – via hats.

Art by Modi Elias (photo credit: STUDIO SHUKI KOOK)
Art by Modi Elias
(photo credit: STUDIO SHUKI KOOK)
Displaying extraordinary insight, Museum of Israeli Art director Meir Ahronson wrote, “There is nothing more alive than a dead father” in his introduction to Druse artist Asad Azi’s 2009 exhibition “My Father Is a Soldier.” The exhibition reflected Azi’s years of using art to come to terms with the major traumatic event of his life, the violent death of his soldier father when Asad was six years old.
Sayah Azi had proudly enlisted in the Border Police in 1956 and was killed while on active duty on May 30, 1961, shot by a Syrian sniper. Asad Azi’s exhibition was composed largely of paintings of his father in uniform, based on one old photograph, with captions like “My Father Is a Dead Soldier” and “Your Dream Killed My Happiness.”
For artist Modi Elias, however, it seems that nothing is more alive than a recently deceased mother, evident in his current exhibition, “Lines, Colors, Mother,” which consists of a “working through” of his thoughts and feelings through the hitherto untried medium of painted hats. Why hats? One needs to know a little about the artist and his life before the answer to that question becomes clear.
Mordechai “Modi” Elias was born in Mumbai, India, 69 years ago.
“I was born in Mumbai, but my family is from Bagdad. My being born in India was quite accidental,” Elias explains.
“My mother went there, she thought, to see an elephant. She was very young, around 16 years old. She didn’t know it was to meet my father and to marry him. She thought see was going to see an elephant, but it was an arranged marriage to a cousin. Her twin sister knew what the whole thing was about, but it didn’t occur to my mother. She went because she wanted to see an elephant. She was so naïve. She was like this her whole life.”
Elias did not spend very much time in India.
“My mother didn’t like my father, she didn’t like the family, and she couldn’t take it anymore. So she snatched me away, so to speak, and immigrated with me to Israel.” Elias was not yet two years old.
“My father came to try to convince her to come back. She refused, and my father went back to India and I didn’t see him again.”
After a couple of months in Holon, mother and son moved to Kibbutz Ginossar, then in its early days.
“I still remember the fence and the tower. Two brothers of my mother were there already. They made the kibbutz. They were the pioneers.”
Elias was raised in the kibbutz children’s house and, unlike many other Israelis who recall their children’s house upbringings in often very negative and critical terms, Elias has only fond memories of his experience.
“I know other people didn’t like it, but for me it was fantastic. It was really good; I have nothing bad to say about it. It was a Garden of Eden for me, a wonderful time,” he recalls.
It was his mother’s remarriage to a member of Kibbutz Shefayim, however, and their subsequent move there that began his lifelong immersion in art and his career as an artist.
“Many kibbutz members at Shefayim were artists. I was not exceptional. I was part of a special group of young boys and girls who liked to draw and paint. Already, I saw myself as an artist. I think the kibbutz made it possible for me to become an artist,” he says.
After the army, Elias headed for England, where other members of his far-flung Iraqi Jewish family lived. A brother of his father offered to pay for Elias to attend the City & Guilds of London Art School for five years. In the middle of his studies there, Elias heard that an artist he knew was making a film in the Netherlands, and he took a year off to be a part of the film crew. Although no further work in film was to follow, Elias met and married a Dutch woman in Amsterdam – “not Jewish,” Elias adds – with whom he had one son. Now 39 years old, Ishar Elias is an accomplished and highly acclaimed classical guitarist.
After a year in Amsterdam, Elias returned to London. It was then that his now intense identification with what he calls “Jewishness” was kindled, when his son, then five, would come home from kindergarten enthused about his school’s celebrations of Christian holidays and talking excitedly about Jesus.
“It was like a knife in my heart,” Elias recalls. “I was confused. I didn’t know how to react. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to put my problem on my son. As time went by, I decided that the best thing I could do was to speak with him in Hebrew, so he would know the sound and know who I am. So first, language, and second, I decided for myself to look to my own roots, to find out what it means to me to be Jewish. In the kibbutz I was raised with an education that was anti-tradition. It was kibbutz tradition. So what I wanted was to put a solid rock under my feet. Something I could stand on.”
After an amicable divorce from his wife in 1994, Elias returned to Israel and settled down in Netanya.
“My home is in Netanya,” he says. “I live there, I work there. Whatever I do, I do there.”
What he does, of course, is art.
“I am a painter. I do painting on objects, on things used originally for something else, like hats. If I see something beautiful, I cannot just leave it. Anything that catches my eye and has a hidden beauty that I can see, I think there must be something I can do with it. It is very intense, and I realize that anything I have done since I became a mature artist was that anything that absorbed me intensely I made a work of art out of it. Each took time, until I exploited all the possibilities of it, from inside to outside and from outside to inside.
His oeuvre of "painting on things used originally for something else" began with an old tallit.
“In Holland I had a tallit and tefillin that I took everywhere and put on every day. This was just me, by myself. After 25 years, the tallit began to fall apart, but I said to myself that I will not just put it in my cupboard. It’s full of my sweat, my prayers, and my time. It has a story in it of its own, so I will make a work of art out of it. It will become not just a tallit, but a tallit for posterity.”
After painting a scene from Genesis on his old tallit, Elias painted another tallit, and then another one, and then many more. “I just couldn’t stop,” he says. By 2014 Elias had enough painted prayer shawls to mount an exhibit at Kibbutz Shefayim’s art gallery, but the kibbutz did not want to display them – mostly, he says, for ideological reasons.
“They explained that it might offend people. So I didn’t give up. I decided to make a Plan B. So what could I do for Shefayim? The gallery at Shefayim is at the water tower near the dining room at the top of the hill, the highest place in the kibbutz. I thought, it’s a round building, the round container of water at the top of the tower is like a hat, and water is life.
“I passed by shops selling women’s hats – many colors, as big as 50 cm. in diameter. I bought one and worked on it. I didn’t like it. So I made another one, and then a third. I put them together and decided that this could work. So I filled up a wall in my house. First covering the hats with plaster to harden them, and then painting on them. I looked and decided that this was what I would do in the round gallery beneath the water tank. This space had been used as a library and then later became a gallery. I came with my plan and the curator said, ‘Wow, I want to exhibit this.’ I put a photocopy of my tallit work in the margin of a hat, in a way that it would not be recognized. I exhibited my hats at Shefayim in 2014. This was the birth of my hat period.”
If the exhibition two years ago was the birth of his hat period, his current exhibition, “Lines, Colors, Mother,” now ongoing at the Shuki Kook Gallery in Tel Aviv, is perhaps its denouement. Elias speaks with a growing intensity as he recalls how his mother came to see his first hat exhibition and died soon after, at the age of 91. Sitting for the customary seven days after her death, Elias gathered some of her drawings to show to visitors. One drawing in particular caught his eye and, perhaps, took over his soul. “I discovered that one of her drawings, on an A4 piece of paper, had a lot of detail. Very minute details, like an embroidery. If you look closely, if you zoom into it, it’s like a journey into space, or inside the Earth! My mother and I were very connected. I loved her. We could communicate without words. I felt her in an amazing way, and I started to play with the drawing’s possibilities. I went with it for a year. Then I decided I must do something or I could go on forever looking at it.”
What Elias eventually did was make an enlargement of the drawing and divide it into sections, with each section becoming a painting of its own.
“My mother was very weak when she drew this. It was during the last year of her life. She couldn’t draw very intense lines. So when we printed it, we printed the colors more intensely than they were, and when we put it on a hat, it was amazing! The hat was my dialogue with my mother.”
Asked how specifically this became a “dialogue,” Elias replies excitedly, “The three-dimensional form of the hat meant that the two-dimensional printed paper had to become three-dimensional. I had to force it to become three-dimensional. And the result became something amazing! It originated from the A4 paper drawing, but went further. So this was my dialogue with her. It’s like she’s still alive and still with me. It’s like she’s taking part in this journey.”
The lesson that Elias draws from this experience is that everyone has within him or her a hidden potentiality of which he or she may not even be aware – like his mother, who was not an artist but created a work of art.
“If you don’t put a light on it,” he insists, “then you don’t know it exists. This is why we call it potential. Now I put a light on this by this exhibition.”
Unlike Asad Azi, whose exhibition in honor of his dead father was an obvious expression of unending grief, Elias says, “I do not express pain. The exhibition is very cheerful, very positive, because that is what my mother was.”
His “hat period” has now gone on for two years. Will it go on for, say, another two years? “Not in this form,” he says.
“Because I know I’ll take it one step further.”
‘Lines, Colors, Mother’ is on until June 19 at the Shuki Kook Gallery, 11 Ruhama Street, Tel Aviv; Sunday-Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For further information: (03) 681-6181