Many Faces of Israel, the Exhibit
The highly styled work of Jahhael Massac, a native of St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands, is currently on display at The Gallery of the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building in Manhattan. Massac’s work combines photography with artistic overlay and interpretation, using images to “trace the global journey of the Yisraelite/Jewish community’s 10 Lost Tribes of Yisrael.” His work explores the life and legends of communities of Jews of color from locations as diverse as Ethiopia, India, China and the Bronx.
The exhibit, titled “The Many Faces of Israel” is vibrant and inventive, and includes enhanced photographic works and a “life mask” based tableau of Traveler through the use of a variety of artistic techniques. The work has been called “enlightening, emotional” – a “visual experience” providing insights into Hebrew communities “that have continued to maintain their belief and historical connection to their cultural past and forefathers from the ancient land of Yisrael.”
The artist, now a resident of East Orange New Jersey, produces works with a musical and visceral flare, says Massac, “I sometimes dance and sing when I create my art.” In the New York exhibit, his paintings, ceramics, sculptures, drawings and photographs are displayed along with the work of artists, Phillip DeLoatch and Mansa K. Mussa. The works are rich in symbolism and social content. Massac’s subjects provide rich portrayals of ritual and history, their attire and personas enter into the hidden worlds of the unique Jewish communities his work reveals. The juxtaposition portrayal of traditional Jewish observance by Jews who do not look like the average New Yorker’s image of a traditional Jew, awakens the viewer to the wide range of inheritance of the members of the Jewish community.
Massac began drawing at 6, and says his work had a “spiritual sense” even in childhood. “I came from a very spiritual family.” In the Virgin Islands he was in contact with Jews of many backgrounds – Ashkenazi, and Sephardic Jews as well as African-Jewish communities.” At 13 he took vows and became confirmed as a Nazarite Jew. “Nazarites” say the artist, “take vows to uphold the laws set out in Books 1-23 of the Torah,” Massac explains. He is often assumed to be a Rastafarian. (Nazarites, as do Rastafarians, keep their hair uncut.) “Our spiritual disciplines are very different from those of Rastafarians,” he says.
Images of Nazarenes figure strongly in his work. One, of a “Cohen” from St. Thomas, was Massac’s spiritual counselor. The works displayed in the show portray Jews engaged in Jewish worship – Jews with Indian, Black and Asian features. His own facial image is part of many of his pieces. In his life sculpture of the travelers, the man’s features were cast from the artist’s own face.
The June 16 reception for “The Many Faces of Yisrael” was hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council and BINA (Beta Israel of North America). Founded in 2003, BINA educates about and preserves traditional Ethiopian culture. It “envisions Ethiopian Jews as an integral component of the Jewish people, working to ensure that their voices will be included in the Jewish community.” BINA teaches about “Ethiopian Jewish culture and history, while “providing resources for Ethiopian Jewish immigrants to the U.S., and …serving as an advocate for Ethiopian Jews within the American Jewish community.