Micaela Amato: Exile Traces

Micaela Amato: Exile Traces

On view March 6–May 22, 2011

Micaela Amato and Susan Chevlowe, Director, Derfner Judaica Museum
A Conversation

Susan Chevlowe: Sephardi Jews trace their roots to the Iberian Peninsula and have distinct customs, rituals and practices associated with the traditions of that locale and its diaspora communities. Your art engages your own Sephardi heritage through explorations of hybridity, contradiction and even hidden identities and through the mediums you have worked in: painting, ceramics, collage, digital prints and assemblages incorporating found objects. What are you trying to express and how do your materials help to convey your message?

Micaela Amato: My materials serve the immediate needs of each work’s vision/meaning and reflect my ancestral background. My family is a fusion of Spanish/Turkish/Italian/ French/Greek/Moroccan/Portuguese cultures, languages, customs, histories. My father and his nine siblings spoke seven languages, which culturally and linguistically offer multiple interpretations/comprehensions of reality. My materials, like glazed ceramic and cast glass, evoke ancient works of art from this Mediterranean region that merges east with west, north and south. Collage is a medium that combines overlapping time and space, and collides the past/present/future. Collage evokes a way of seeing the world from multiple perspectives as fluid and influx, and not as static or unchanging.

As a child I was obsessed with Egyptian Faiyum portraits on stone sarcophagi that I saw growing up in New York City at the Met – that looked to me exactly like members of my family. These ancient spirits of the dead, as well as fragments of Pompeiian wall paintings, patterned stone mosaics, and, in particular, ancient Persian tapestries, reminded me of ceramics and artifacts from Rhodes, of my grandparents’ rugs from Turkey, and of the intoxicating aesthetic of our homes. The aromas of our cuisine, the fado, flamenco, Turkish or ancient Ladino songs we listened to, permeated my sensibility. All these ancient art forms continue to influence my work today.

Our lives combined richly textured patterns of both artisan and artist, where many cultures converged in a fecundity of all the senses. Our garden overflowed with grapevines and varieties of mint, with lush gardenias and profusions of roses. Our home was exquisitely adorned with a 19th-century painting of the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Symbolist bronze figures from France, rich silk tapestries from China, Persian carpets, and brightly colored Majolica pottery from the Mediterranean Sea. Background to all this were the recordings of Puccini operas, Andalusian Flamenco, and Afro-Caribbean jazz. Such a contradictory paradise was perfect grounding for a very young painter growing up in the 1940s and 50s. These were my earliest experiences of a life crisscrossing boundaries.

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Papoo, Nana and Jack, 2003, transparent photo on wood with plate glass and silicone glass spheres, 14 x 14 in.

SC: What does it mean to you to work with photographs of your family? Photographs can make us smile or bring us to tears – they can be painful reminders of the irrevocable loss of the past or help us to share memories together in the present. How do you relate to the images from the past that appear in the Ancestral Traces series (e.g. Papoo, Nana and Jack) and how do you anticipate that viewers of your work relate to them?

MA: Viewers will not relate at all the way I do to these photos that were taken by my father during a period from the 1920s to the 1950s, but perhaps people of my age have similar memories of parents and grandparents or photos of those who immigrated to the United States. I use these photos to create a kind of sanctuary for myself, a safe ground, a kind of paradise. For the exile or the nomad, home becomes a paradise that comes alive in memory. And, of course, these photos of my father’s that I use in my work are vehicles for me to reconnect with his history. I am grounded in an acute awareness of the interconnected web of the ancient past with the present, rooted in the natural world, with family as a symbol of continuity and renewal.

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Seder, 2004, transparent photo on wood with ink text smeared on plate glass, 14 x 14 in.

SC: Tell me about the context in which some of these family photographs were taken. In two, family members are celebrating Sukkoth and a Passover seder. Where were these taken and when, who is in the photos?

MA: The photos offer me insights and entrée into who my family was/is. The family gathering at Sukkoth is in Rhodes at my grandparents’ home, with my father and his sisters, Reina and Esther, and brother, Jack. Other photos include family around the dinner table at seder or Sunday dinner. My mother sits with my Aunt Sue and Uncle Mario, my grandparents, with Uncle Jack. My parents and grandparents lived in the same home, so every Sunday we all had dinner together!

Esther, detail.jpg
Esther the Aljama from Rhodes (detail), 2001, gouache portrait on wood with skirt, 16 1/4 x 16 1/4 in.

SC: The assemblage, Esther the Aljama from Rhodes, is one of a group of works you did on biblical women – Rebecca and Rachel were the subjects of others. These women also bear a resemblance to you. How do you relate to them, and how do they fit into your series of works exploring issues of dualism, exile and hybridity?

MA: My grandmother’s name was Rachel Capeluto; her first-born was Rebecca and her youngest of nine is Esther. My paintings are simultaneously self-portraits, portraits of my sister, daughter, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and their biblical namesakes. These works are simultaneously painting/sculpture/collage. Identity is hybrid, layered, sometimes contradictory.

SC: You use text differently in the different series, sometimes it’s smeared, sometimes typed, sometimes hidden beneath painted imagery. What is the significance of your use of text and the way it is handled?

MA: Text is often handwritten, telling stories in the first person. The smearing violates the message and evokes a kind of violent, rapid movement and often an erasure of the voice. Different types of texts evoke the personal/intimate prayer, the sacred script, the parable or documentation of an event or memory. Different texts convey different voices.

Ants and Luminous Insects 1, 2004, gouache drawing on Japanese paper, 42 x 38 in.
SC: What is the subject of the series Ants and Luminous Insects? Their configurations seem to suggest molecular structures, especially DNA, but their rich colors, lyricism and sensuous surfaces intimate anything but the clinical or scientific. What stories have you hidden here?

MA: Spiraling imagery is immediately identifiable as strands of DNA, but beyond the miraculous notion of continuous cellular renewal, these gouache paintings have a sinister reference as well. Ants and Luminous Insects contain otherworldly patterns of parallel lines of my handwritten text that tell stories of victims of racism and genocide. Spiraling images suggest microscopic, luminous parasites: vermin that insidiously contaminate and extinguish the life breath and consume the material body of their hosts.

These works are also a metaphor for the environmentally diseased body and the chemical poisons that permeate and contaminate our dysfunctional globe. These phosphorescent, colorfully patterned images are as compellingly beautiful and seductive as they are lethal. They symbolize the double-face of ethnic cleansing, and the greed and indifference that tragically causes global imbalance that ravages/devours the earth and its precious inhabitants.

My paintings suggest both “contamination” and a life force (the human breath and soul). These brightly colored, parallel, patterned lines of text create what might be understood as waves, strings or particles that symbolize what quantum physicists call the “multi-verse” of parallel universes. The paintings’ “multi-verse” of spiraling, handwritten text conveys my fiction of a nomadic lap-swimmer, who traverses the globe by sea and ocean to witness public and private travails, and commit them to memory, and thus to history, so that these exiled and afflicted people are not forgotten. Stories emerge from ancestral memory, from ancient parables, and from documentation of actual events.

Solomon, detail
Solomon the Salonican with Wrapped Head, 2002, gouache portrait on wood, 16 1/4 x 16 1/4 in.

Micaela Amato was born in New York City and received her BFA from Boston University and an MFA from the University of Colorado. She has exhibited widely since the 1970s, including autobiographical mixed media works that draw on her Sephardi heritage and make connections to both historical figures and ordinary people. Amato has received numerous awards and grants, including from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the American-Sephardi Federation. Micaela Amato: Exile Traces includes selections from three series: “Ancestral Traces” (2002-2004), “Exiles and Nomads” (1997-2006) and “Ants and Luminous Insects” (2004). The works in these series include transparent photograph collages and gouache paintings on wood or plate-glass – some appended with paper flowers or tulle – and gouache drawings on Japanese paper featuring spiraling “dots,” or “celestial bodies.” The latter suggests biological cells that refer to a blood disorder from which the artist has suffered. Many of Amato’s works utilize handwritten text, montage, collage and multiple viewpoints to suggest the complexity of her background as a daughter of a Ladino-speaking New York émigré family, who originated in Spain and lived in Rhodes and Turkey.

Etruscan Man, 2006, digital photographic collage, 20 x 24 in.
Further Reading

Balka, Sigmund R. and Andrea Gyorody. Micaela Amato and Cara Judea Alhadeff: The Poetic Artistry of a Sephardic Mother and Daughter. New York: Krasdale Galleries, 2009.

Buckley, Annie. “Micaela Amateau Amato.” Art in America, December 1, 2010. [http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/reviews/micaela-amateau-amato]

Lippard, Lucy R. Micaela Amato: Tijuana Tavolettas. With a Preface by Ruth Knafo Setton. Easton, PA: Art Gallery, Morris R. Williams Center for the Arts, Lafayette College, 1998.

Mattison, Robert Saltonstall. “Micaela Amato: A Healing Garden.” Woman’s Art Journal (Spring/Summer 2001): 40-44.

Ollman, Leah. “Art Review: Micaela Amateau Amato, Joseph Kohnke and Jonathan Seliger at Angles.” Los Angeles Times, October 14, 2010. [http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2010/10/art-review-micaela-amateau-amato-joseph-kohnke-and-jonathan-seliger-at-angles.html]

Rich, Sarah K. Through the Looking Glass: Women and Self-Representation in Contemporary Art. University Park, PA: Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University, distributed by The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.

Yerman, Marcia G. The Feminist Figure. With a Foreword by Gloria Steinem. New York: Forum Gallery, The Feminist Art Project, 2007.

Header Image: Succoth, 2004, transparent photo on wood with ink text smeared on plate glass, 14 x 14 in.

About the Hebrew Home at Riverdale

As a member of the American Alliance of Museums, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale by RiverSpring Health is committed to publicly exhibiting its art collection throughout its 32-acre campus, including the Derfner Judaica Museum and a sculpture garden overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades. The Derfner Judaica Museum + The Art Collection provides educational and cultural programming for residents of the Hebrew Home, their families and the general public from throughout New York City, its surrounding suburbs and visitors from elsewhere.  RiverSpring Health is a nonprofit, non-sectarian geriatric organization serving more than 18,000 older adults in greater New York through its resources and community service programs. Museum hours: Sunday–Thursday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Art Collection and grounds open daily, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

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Hebrew Home at Riverdale
5901 Palisade Avenue
Riverdale, New York 10471
Tel. 718.581.1596

dclaLogo_color_2This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.