The White Paper is Black Within:
Meeting the Shadows with Ethiopian Artist Tigist Yoseph Ron
Robin B. Zeiger, Ph.D.
I find myself busy these days with what emerges from the shadows. Again, and again, I find myself shaking my head and saying, “We just don’t know.”
Our reality of a world turned upside down is filled with shadows and doubt. Sometimes, in the shadows we find what is more real than is discovered in the bright light of day. Sometimes we see more clearly in the shade. Here, I am grateful to a rare “meeting” with the heart and soul of an award-winning Ethiopian artist, Tigist Yoseph Ron. Her eyes and hands and insight touched me deep inside, in the place beyond words.
Recently, in-between two COVID-19 lockdowns in my country, I experienced a rare day out at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Like a child who returns to a candy store after a long absence, I was hungry for the lost and forgotten treasures of art.
I wandered into an exhibit of contrasts.
I was enamored by the possibilities in the shadows. The charcoal drawings of faces, people and most notably of women in movement bespoke of personal journey pregnant with meaning. Many of the faces were devoid of distinct features. Some were bathed in shadows. There was something mysterious and otherworldly in the shades of grey.
The blurring of the charcoal, and thus of the boundaries, hinted at two stories uttered with the same breath; the difficult and personal journey of the artist, as well as the collective story of our world. I was left with wonderment, curiosity and awe. Like the artist, I am Jewish. And I am an adult immigrant to the same country. Yet, here the obvious ends. I am white, not black. I am not an Ethiopian, like the men, women and children in the sketches.
Ron’s exhibit is a tribute to her life story, which has included immigration to a new country as a young child and refugee. Yoseph Ron was born in Gondar, Ethiopia in 1977 to a family of 12 siblings. Via Israel’s Operation Moses, she was brought to our country at the age of seven. She spent five years in an absorption center. At the age of 16, her mother died, which was a deeply sad and transformative event. Yoseph went on to study art. She also returned several times to visit Ethiopia as an adult.
The artist explains in the writings about her award-winning exhibit, “In our community [of origin], is it customary not to discuss issues out of consideration, so as not to bother others with our troubles. We went through uneasy times, and I feel these unspoken things expressed in the drawings, finding relief in them.”
Here is the possibility of relief and communication via the creative process. The family experienced traumatic times and troubling encounters with death (e.g., in the refugee camp in Sudan). The artist meets the strength of her family in the paintings. She also attempts to capture for posterity her history, culture, and memories.
Yoseph reflects upon, deals with and confronts issues of racism, motherhood, and femininity. She also reflects upon the pull of the dominant society to “whiten her” and to erase an important past. As an example, at the absorption center, names and dates of birth of immigrants were changed without permission. As a child, Yoseph admits her desire to to fit in and run away from her past. In contrast, her art is a means of recapturing her roots.
Good art often touches each of us, reaching for the personal piece inside. I was captured by the faces on the wall because they spoke to me about my own inner face. Yoseph’s reflections upon her mother and “embodiment” of her soul spoke to me. While she had attempted to forget and erase, the artist discovers to her surprise and joy the embodiment of mother inside. She explains she spent a great deal of energy in creating a representation of her mother, Nanye, so as not to forget. Yoseph searches for her mother and rediscovers her in the various portraits of family members. When Yoseph returned to Ethiopia to visit, she also discovered the power of unknown women to remind her of herself and her mother. Their simple movements in household tasks, sleeping, sitting, and other gestures were woven into Yoseph’s body.
It was this embodiment that made me stop, wonder and long. I thought of my love for my own late mother. Although, I never doubted her love or dedication, our relationship was complicated by my attempt to traverse a different path. I grew up in an in-between world in which women had begun to discover a wider world of feminism. She chose a simpler life that was titled “housewife,” a word that is often seen as no longer politically correct. I wonder if we have thrown the baby away with the bathwater and no longer value the self-sacrifice of this choice. Too often, as a child of the 60’s and 70’s, I rejected and downplayed this world. I reached for my definition of “loftier” and perhaps more patriarchal goals.
Yet, in my second half of life, I began to embrace the wonder and love of her simple actions. Suddenly, the simple and loving moments of daily life became more valuable. And in Yoseph’s artistic reflections, I wondered what gestures I have embodied. With reverie, I remember the oatmeal cookies my mother lovingly baked for myself and my father, and later for her grandchildren. Gazing into Yoseph’s artistic mirror, I began to reap he fruit of a new gift. I began to see beyond and inside of the faces to my own recollections. Perhaps my mother’s simple gestures and love also can be found in the gestures of my hands that bake and hold and play with my grandchildren.
Most of all, I think I am fascinated by the faces that reside in the shadows. Because the facial features are absent or blurred, it is so much easier to tell a world story. We must not erase the history and culture of another. We must attempt to see and meet the other face to face. At times, we are all faceless. At times, we do not see the other. Sometimes, we project our story onto the other. Yet, in our experiences of facelessness, we are afforded the opportunity to empathize with the other. We can use the art and the moments to reach deep inside and experience a world story.
In the words of the exhibition curator, Emanuel Calo, this contrast was if to say, “Look where I have arrived despite the black color, or maybe because of it. “
I want to close with a few lines from the poetry of Yoseph’s brother. He speaks about his grandmother’s craft in
“The Confessions of a Potter (Tatey)”
Out of the mud, she makes a pot.
Vitrified and contained,
From common things
And later he continues,
Like God, on the first day of genesis,
Harnessing the void in manageable lots,
Is her engagement’s essence;
Evidence be her worn fingers,
Only that much she can confess,
And truth be told, let her witness,
It is not “just a pot” that she makes.
More information on the exhibit can be viewed here.
This article is enhanced by The White Paper Within, by Tigish Yoseph Ron, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2020. www.tamuseum.org. The words in quotation and the quotes from the poem are contained within this book of the exhibition.
And if you liked this article, I invite you to red, Finding Our Voice & Breath: Dr. Fanny Brewster Speaks to Me on George Floyd’s Last Breath.
Robin B. Zeiger is a practicing Jungian psychoanalyst and a free-lance writer.
She is a member of the:
International Association of Analytical Psychology and the Israel Institute of Jungian Psychology. She can be reached at email@example.com.