Paint it Black
As a teen, Lior was slapped in the face by a cop • Rachel knows that this struggle will be passed down from generation to generation • And Binyamin puts it in a nutshell: "The fact that we eat falafel and they have hamburgers doesn’t make any difference; we’re all flesh and blood who suffer from the same international problem – the white man’s hold over the public expanse and key positions of power." | by Ze’ela Kotler Hadari
I could write five pages about the struggles of the Ethiopian community, but one focused work of art has the ability to strike right at the hearts of the people. That’s the power of art. The creativity of young artists such as Benjamin Sma’in, Orit Tshuma's Spoken Word, or the music of hip־hop trio KGC is alive and kicking and powerful.
They say what we are unable to say, are ashamed to say, or don’t know if we should say – perhaps in fear of what others would say of us. The young Ethiopians creating art in Israel today are bursting with courage. They say what they have to say straight to your face, and talk about racism, exclusion, the erasure of culture, and degradation.
Culture is a function of strength. During the widespread and angry protests that erupted here in 2015, they were kind enough to air some of their music on Army Radio and invite them to appear on the commercial TV stations. It's a culture war. When marginalized groups push harder, through a variety of strategies, a dynamic is created, and they manage to penetrate, to make their way in. Mizrahi music artists also used to have their cassettes played almost solely at the Central Bus Station, but little by little, they edged their way into the limelight. I believe that we, too, can drive Ethiopian art and culture forward. With increasingly diverse and courageous creations, and thanks to social networks, which influence the media outlets, we can press ahead smartly and strategically.
I think that artists from the Ethiopian community can’t help but engage with these issues, which are part of the community's struggle. If you are an authentic artist and in touch with yourself, with your reality and soul, you have to do so, even if you have a less radical disposition. Even if you think you should be creating works of art that tie in with our narrative, our history and heritage, that’s fine if it’s a conscious decision. But if you’re in touch with reality, and wander around this expanse that’s called Israel, open to hearing the voices, it’s impossible not to include those voices in your art.
Over the years, for the most part, our protests haven’t included the element of art and culture. After all, we’ve been protesting ever since we got here, from day one, from the moment the first activists from Beta Israel arrived in Israel and faced persecution and calls for their expulsion. Their protests took on various forms, but there wasn’t this same element of art and culture that is part of the struggle today. I think it has served us well, as it’s a very important component. It refines the voice, the statement. It’s an alternative medium that supports the other means we use. Participating in protest vigils and demonstrations is all well and good, it’s important, but sometimes all it takes is one powerful image to get a kick to the stomach; sometimes it’s more effective than a thousand people demonstrating.
I welcome it, and it also makes me sad to see our children pouring their hearts and souls out in these works. It’s awful because the reality is such a harsh one. But it’s important and advances what we’re saying. We aren’t all blessed with the ability to express and pour out these feelings, and suddenly there’s someone who’s singing or drawing as if from my heart – and it’s truly comforting.
It’s also an excellent tool to reach the ears of the white public. Of those who hold the reins of power. Art and activism go hand in hand on the same path and struggle – a struggle that demands a place for us in our home. We want a place, and we demand that you stop killing us, our children and babies even before they are born – and I’m referring to issues such as forced contraception and police brutality.
On the anniversary of the killing of Salomon Teka [who was fatally shot by a police officer on June 30, 2019, in a Haifa suburb], we at "Mothers on Guard" thought about an image that would represent our protest. We had various options and eventually selected a piece by Eden Yilma, a young and very courageous artist. We chose her work as a symbol. She painted the piece in the wake of Teka’s death. It depicts his parents holding a portrait of their son, and hanging on the wall are portraits of other youths who never made it home. The piece represents our efforts and our struggle.
Mothers on Guard was founded in 2015 as a response to the way that Ethiopian youths were brutally exposed to police violence. It came into being at demonstration calling for legal action against the police officers whose were involved in the death of Yosef Salamsa, who was just 22.
The youths at demonstration were met by a massive police presence; they pushed back and lifted off their feet and thrown around. The first question my friends and I asked was: Where are their parents? Where are their mothers? We need to be there to protect them. A year ago, we started holding weekly vigils outside five police stations around the country. Since then, white mothers and fathers have also joined our struggle.
Sadly, things have only escalated and deteriorated over the past year since the widespread protests. I thought it might be a case of things getting worse before they get better – but no. the So, while it’s true that Ethiopians now win reality TV shows, but they are there to placate us, to assuage a guilty conscience, to spare us from having to deal with and combat the ills of racism, as if everything is under control. But no, we know that the law enforcement meted out to Blacks, Arabs and the ultra־Orthodox is very different to the experience of white people. The Ethiopian community may find solace in the fact that Tikva Gidon won Big Brother, but that doesn’t mean we can sleep easy, because the situation is getting worse.
We often accuse ourselves of misinterpreting things or suffering from an inferiority complex, and people often get mad at us when we expose the racist bias. And then the kids say to themselves: I won’t say anything next time; I’ll just ignore it. And the adults tell them to move on, not to dwell on it, not to lose sight of their path just because of some comments. At that’s exactly where the artists step in and force us to look and listen.
They say they aren’t willing to remain silent, and they don’t think that the right way to tackle things is by saying that everything will be okay. The right way, they say, is to shout about everything that’s wrong and maybe people will see, hear and understand exactly what the structure they’re propping up is doing to people with a heart and soul. It’s happening through powerful artwork, song, and other forms of creative dialogue. Maybe those who see it will understand how much it pains me, how much my daughter has suffered from discrimination; maybe they will be the ones who will want to make a change.
Whenever something big happens, that feeling inside of me is rekindled. I can’t quite name it. Maybe it’s anger. But I know how to express it visually. That’s how I created the piece with the gun, in the wake of the protests of the Black community in the United States. I took dreadlocks – which have come to symbolize the stereotype of the criminal and dangerous Black man – and wrapped them around a gun. It’s a work that deals with the issue of profiling. The fact that it takes a tragedy for people in power to wake up makes me mad.
There hasn’t been a change here in Israel yet; no police officer has been punished, not even the one who shot Solomon Teka [court proceedings against the officer involved, on charges of causing death by negligence, began in February this year], but things seem to be happening in the United States, and the police officer who did what he did to George Floyd has been charged with murder [Derek Chauvin has been charged with second־degree murder, third־degree murder and manslaughter, while the three other officers with him at the scene in Minneapolis on May 25 have been charged with aiding and abetting second־degree murder while committing a felony, as well as aiding and abetting second־degree manslaughter with culpable negligence. Click here to view the New York Times’ reconstruction of the incident].
I know that as a Black artist, every piece of art I create is a political statement, even if it isn’t explicitly designed to be one. As long as I remain in a place of inequality in the eyes of others, it’s a never־ending battle. I want to believe there’ll be a change, but I know it’s a fight that’s going to be passed down from generation to generation. My role as an artist is also to instill the belief that things will be okay, and that we can talk about it. We don’t have to be afraid to say what we want to say.
In another of my pieces, a collage, I present a Black hand emerging from the earth like a phoenix; it’s in the shape of a fist, but it’s holding flowers. It appears to be an image of power, but isn’t one at all; that hand doesn’t want to fight.
I may not have encountered police brutality, but I have brothers, and I’m particularly concerned about my little brother, who is 13. I have this constant fear that he could be the next in line. When he goes out, I don’t know what’s happening out there and what could happen; it freaks me out when he doesn’t answer his phone. I can’t take it for granted that he’s gone out freely and will be coming home safe and sound.
Rachel Anyo, Black Woman Fist Power, collage, 2018
There’s no such thing as Black music; it’s a term invented by white people. There’s hip־hop, dancehall, reggae and R&B. Here at Golda, we have three crazy party lines with this music, with our flagship line on Saturday afternoons. On weekends, before Corona, we’d get 800 people at the club from all over the country, from Arad to Migdal Ha’emek.
We play as much music as possible by artists from the community. There are some great musicians and we incorporate all of them. On Saturday afternoons, around 5 to 10 percent of the music we play is white Israeli music, some 10 to 35 percent is Black Israeli music, and the rest is dancehall from Jamaica, the United States and Britain.
The more powerful and popular this music has become, more lines have opened – clubs and parties aimed at young members of the community. Just like there are Black Jewish players today in the elite soccer league, too are there more and more Black artists in the music scene – and it adds to the popularity of the music big time because you hear the musicians from your own community. We may be just 1.5 percent of the population, but we reach six million views on YouTube.
During the first week of the large protests a year ago, we decided to close the club. We did so in order to identify with the struggle, to show solidarity, and to join hands with all the Black people living in the country or abroad. A solidarity thing. I remember there was a huge demonstration on Thursday, and we couldn’t imagine ourselves going to the club. We knew there’d be hardly any people there, and if there were some, they’d be broken because everything they went through that week was too much for anyone to handle. We chose to take a timeout, to figure out how to embark on a new path.
Of course, I participated in the demonstrations. The problems facing Black people are the same problems all over the world; and naturally, there’s going to be sympathy for the struggle in the United States too. I was also slapped in the face by a cop when I was 15, but it wasn’t a big issue in my life. I think that the racism you experience daily from the people around you is a lot worse.
My stage name is Shanty and I live in Rehovot. I started writing at a young age, and I began recording and performing when I was 18. There’s a scene of musicians and music producers from the Ethiopian community. In my song, "Coming from Below," which I recorded by with Tazra, we featured Helen Adenk.
In terms of its lyrics, the song isn’t a protest song, but the accompanying video clip sends a very powerful protest message. The clip shows police officers following a group of young Ethiopians in their neighborhood who are passing a bag from one to the other. The police officers film them and tail them until they eventually stop them and conduct a search. The cops suspect that the Ethiopians are dealing in something illicit, but at the end of the clip they discover that it’s nothing more than a bag containing an invitation to our show.
The song is a protest against prejudice, stigma and racism. The lyrics deal with wanting to move on in life and get past such experiences. The first line says: "I come from below; no one is going to stop me from rising up," because there are people who try to enfeeble you and generate oppression.
This song didn’t make it onto playlists on the radio but has more than half a million YouTube views. The music is shared via social media. Our audience is made up primarily of teenagers in the Ethiopian community. There are about 100,000 of them, and it’s enough for each of them to watch the clip once or twice. And others who are on YouTube are also exposed to it. There are also people who aren’t necessarily from the Ethiopian community who hear it and like it.
In the song, "Between the Buildings," there’s a line that repeats itself: "Even if I keep falling, the fire in me still burns," and one of the verses includes the lines: "It's hard to keep walking a straight line when the reality is warped because the environment makes you feel downtrodden. When the salesperson checks again to make sure nothing has been taken, and another cop casts blame and throws a life into the trash. A criminal record is dirtier than the walls in the kitchen. Forgive me, father, because I have sinned a lot. I must be a product of this fucked־up world. Growing up into a stigma, what did you think would happen? Put an angel in Hell and it, too, will slowly change."
I’m an art director, copywriter, and also an artist, who works under the name God’s Spitting. Why did I choose that name? As a Black man in a white sphere, I feel like spit, like some disgusting garbage. But I am still of God. Racism is the way things go, unfortunately. I used to be surprised when encountering racism, but not anymore. In the army, for example. Although I am a graduate of the pre־military academy for excellence and have good physical and mental attributes, I was tossed back and forth among various corps. I was finally assigned to the Logistics Corps and I was put on trial for refusing to be a driving. The commander of the camp asked why I refused to take a driving course. I replied that I wanted to be in the frontlines. He just laughed and told me I’d be driving truck for him. He added there were other Ethiopian drivers and that we’d be a good bunch together. That’s how he summed it up; as if that’s all we’re good for.
I don’t distinguish between the events in the United States and the things that are happening in Israel or anywhere else in the world. The way I see things, we all live in the same world. The fact that we eat falafel and they have hamburgers doesn’t make any difference; we’re all flesh and blood who suffer from the same international problem – the white man’s hold over the public expanse and key positions of power. The Blacks in the past used to be slaves, and there may still be people, even in 2020, who continue to view the Blacks as slaves. There are many ways to bend a person, and it appalls me.
I recently created the work "Black in a White Space," which depicts a black balloon trapped in the white space that surrounds it. The white expanse is made from bird־control spikes that look sharp and threatening, but when you move up closer to the piece, you can see that the spikes are made of plastic that is easily broken. Furthermore, the rectangle that surrounds the piece is made of wood that’s been whitewashed. At some point, the whitewash will peel away and the wood will disintegrate, and in the end, the balloon, too, will fly away, will be released. This balloon represents us, Black people, filled with pride like helium; and we have a lot of great values that I would be happy to try to impart to the rest of Israeli society if only I had the opportunity to do so.
A few years ago, a friend who’s studying photography took pictures of me in a studio. I liked this particular photograph, but I didn’t know what to do with it. After the death of Solomon Teka, I revisited the photograph and started playing around with it. I wanted to express some sort of protest, but I also wanted people to find it easy to identify with the image. That’s why the photograph is in black and white, and the writing is on a red background. It’s a reference to pop art or the world of commercial advertising.
The message is a very simple one: I want to live. Something that, horribly so, is no longer a trivial wish. These days, we simply want to live. I didn’t grow up on hatred. But everything that happens in the United States influences what happens here. You realize in the end that we’ll never be able to live in peace. There will always be something in the background that makes us stand up and protest – not only as an Ethiopian, but also as a citizen of this country, with everything that happens here. It’s become a daily statement.
Police brutality preoccupies artists today because it is impossible to escape it. Five years ago, I had the opportunity for the first time to photograph a demonstration staged by the Ethiopian community in Rabin Square. Aside from me, there were two or three other photographers present. Since then, it’s been an upward graph. Numerous photographers and artists focus on the protest movement and the state of our community. There are all sorts of new images of Solomon Teka or Yosef Salamsa, and the internet is awash with countless stories from our community about police brutality or racism. The artists simply adapt themselves to the situation.
You can't escape it; it’s there every time we open Facebook.
It was a Saturday and I was in the middle of a painting I had been commissioned to do. At some point, I opened Facebook and saw a video clip in which plain־clothed policemen, presumably detectives, were handcuffing an Ethiopian minor within the grounds of a school in Ramla. From what I understood, the kids were playing soccer, and a neighbor had complained. The detectives showed up, and the kids’ first instinct was to flee; and then the detectives caught two of the kids, handcuffed them, and took them to the police station without informing their parents. The video was circulated online and I read that their parents went to the police, accompanied by social activists and council members, and asked for their kids to be released so that they wouldn’t be charged with burglary.
I drew what I saw in the video and wrote what I felt in the accompanying post: "If you want to know how to destroy a child's innocence, how to scar a child, how to undermine a child’s sense of security, how to create new criminals, how to generate mistrust in the system, this is the exact way to go about it – by handcuffing a minor who just last year celebrated his bar mitzvah. Little kids need to be educated – not arrested!"
I didn’t expect the post to get so many shares. I subsequently removed it from Facebook at the request of the family, and I deleted the illustration too, but it had already been shared and just kept on rolling.
Collective Beta is a collective of artists from the Ethiopian community. Before the coronavirus pandemic, we’d meet every month, but that has stopped. We stage exhibitions in various places, and we’re about to open an exhibition at the Artists' House in Kfar Saba. One of the themes will be the neighborhood bench – the place where both good and bad things happen.
I recently saw a video clip of a police car in New York on fire, as well as pictures on social media depicting what is happening in the United States. There was something very powerful about the image of the burning police car, and not necessarily the act of torching a car or police vehicle, but the fire itself, the flames, which for me symbolized a last resort.
That same day, I was busy with a different painting, and when I was done, I was left with colors on the palette that matched the colors of the fire and the situation. So, I drew the image that I kept seeing – the police car on fire. It ties in, of course, with what is happening here in Israel, in the encounters between the police and the Ethiopian community.
In general, my art isn’t protest art; it’s all about emotions. I knew this painting would raise questions, but that’s what I came up with. I have experienced racism myself, but I have never been involved in violent incidents because I’m a calm person by nature; I’m chilled out. But I sense the racism all the time. I patiently produce my ID card when asked to do so, and I tell myself to hang in for as long as it takes. Clearly, I’m targeted by the police because of the way I look, but that’s their problem.
Among the artists in the contemporary Ethiopian art scene, there’s a preoccupation with racism and police brutality. You see it in the graffiti, in hip־hop music; we all feel and experience it. I think that the preoccupation with the image of the police or police officers in art is not necessarily an explicit preoccupation with the police, but a preoccupation rather with freedom. After all, art is also a pursuit of freedom. That’s how I see it.
I’m 38 years old, and this new generation of native Israelis, the young Ethiopians, is a generation that has fewer qualms than my generation. It’s a generation of young Israelis who were born here Israel and are demanding their place in society. This is the age of social media, and everyone has the ability to express themselves. So, we’re starting to see an ever־expanding Ethiopian music scene. But the mainstream doesn’t allow these critical musical voices to be heard. Who’s been allowed onto the playlist? Strong Black Coffee, a hip־hop duo that sings how everything’s going to work out fine. They don’t sing about the police. They sing about good vibes and empowerment, and that’s something Army Radio could swallow.
When you read studies about hip־hop in Israel, the narrative claims that Hadag Nahash and Shabak Samech were the ones to bring hip־hop to Israel. But that’s crazy. We, the Ethiopians, listened to that music all the time. In other words, Israeli hip־hop could only be accepted from Ashkenazi Jews, or the Black Hebrews from Dimona at best. The Ethiopians weren’t allowed into the scene. So, I feel that what’s been happening on the music scene in the Ethiopian community is the result of a lot of really hard work.
There are good and bad things about the thriving Ethiopian hip־hop scene. On the one hand, it facilitates a sense of identity for young people from our community, who feel through the music that they aren’t different, and they get their feelings confirmed by the audiences – and that offers a lot of strength. But there is also a negative element and the danger that young people from the community are getting to know the system through the lyrics, which deal with police brutality and racism, even before they encounter them and come to their own understandings. But I think, in the end, that it’s more important that it’s on the agenda.
We are also seeing a change in the plastic arts. In recent years, artworks by members of the community – people like Tigist Yosef־Ron, Nirit Takele and Michal Mamit Vorka – have started to go on show at museums. The blind spots have suddenly become less blind. This is allowing talented Ethiopian artists who hadn’t managed until now to make their way into these prestigious institutions to get a foot through the door, because these institutions can’t afford to ignore what’s happening in the country. And it’s connected to the large waves of protest.
Nevertheless, over the past few months have we’ve see how the agenda here in Israel sympathizes more with the struggle in the United States than with the protest of the Ethiopians; in the Israeli media, the only interesting angle was the traffic jams our protests causes, not the essence of the struggle itself. The events in America only confirm the things we’re saying here: The age of advocacy is over; we need to act so as to be included. When you’re focused all the time on advocacy, you come across as the one who is also responsible for the solution. But, no; the Ethiopian community isn’t responsible for the solution or the situation. The problem stems from the outside.
Ahead of the anniversary of the death of Solomon Teka, we wanted to take action by holding an artistic protest, to express solidarity and bring the issue of police brutality to the fore. The deeper we delved, the more we were exposed to crazy stories and a long list of people affected by police brutality simply because they were Black or Palestinians or Mizrahim; people who have lost their lives, people whose memory has been distorted and who’ve been branded as criminals. That’s insane. Solomon Teka has become a symbol of this discriminatory attitude towards the Ethiopian community. We wanted to stress that no one has forgotten him.
We decided to make stickers that mimic billboards, with the names of the victims, and a brief text explaining the circumstances in the most objective way possible. A graphic artist designed the stickers and we all contributed money for printing. We posted the stickers the night before the anniversary of Solomon Teka's death. Some of the stickers are still intact, while others were peeled off within two or three days. The local press carried stories about our actions, together with the fact that the local authorities filed a complaint with the police. And the online responses to the article were not pleasant reading.
But that’s not going to stop us. We are young people from all over this country. Some of us are artists, writers and content creators. We realized that this is what we have to give – artistic protest and creative forces. Protest art is the most personal way to appeal to people and audiences. We are a Jewish־Palestinian־gay־feminist movement that was founded because we’re all fed up with sectoral struggles. They don’t advance a thing. Our greatest strength is in unity. All oppression is intertwined.