A moveable feast

Artist Almo Ishta has integrated the connections between craft, art, tradition and combating ignorance into his studies in the master’s program in education at the Beit Berl Teachers Training College near Kfar Sava.

Since there is no museum of Ethiopian Jewry in Israel, he has built a portable museum in a trunk, continuing the trunk show tradition started by Marcel Duchamp.

One of the advantages of a trunk museum, besides the obvious benefits of portability, is the absence of economic and institutional dependency.

Netanya, Ashkelon, Rishon Letzion and Jaffa are just some of the places Ishta has taken his museum: A large wooden case containing traditional garments, musical instruments, weaving tools, a potter’s set and photographs from Ethiopia.

During an activity with adults or children, Ishta pulls the items out of the trunk, accompanying each with a story, a demonstration or an interactive activity.

Through this, Ishta is teaching the basic concepts of Ethiopian culture and dispelling prejudices and common misconceptions in Israel.

“People often think Ethiopia is a desert and this is really not true,” he says. “On the contrary: It is a green country and rich in nature, but poor. People think Ethiopian Jews immigrated here because of hunger and this too is incorrect. They immigrated because of yearnings for Israel and the journey they made to Israel via Sudan was made only because of Judaism.”

Some of the misconceptions have become so entrenched that even children of Ethiopian extraction who have grown up here have internalized them.

“In the history books written here, for example, the word for an Ethiopian house is tukul. That’s what is written but there is no such word,” says Ishta. “If you ask people from Ethiopia today what a tukul is, they will say an Ethiopian house and that’s how the mistake gets preserved.”

A crucial moment in his decision to create this activity and engage in it came when he visited a school in Kfar Sava for an evening on Ethiopian Jewry.

“Every child was supposed to bring something,” he says, “and one girl asked her mother to prepare an Ethiopian food. When the mother came to the school in traditional Ethiopian dress, the girl took the food from her and asked her to go home. She was ashamed of her mother.”

In the activities he introduces the children, whether they are of Ethiopian origin or not, to elements of the culture: from traditional garments to holidays like Sigd, crafts like pottery and weaving, musical instruments and songs and dances in Amharic. “What is special about this museum is that at a regular museum you aren’t allowed to touch and the desire to touch and feel is so stimulating to children. Here, I in fact give them this opportunity,” says Ishta. Ishta, 48, was born in the village of Ewa in Gondar and has been living in Israel for 28 years. He has lectured on Ethiopian Jewry at various cultural centers, he illustrated the stories on the memorial for Ethiopian Jewry in Jerusalem and he designed the Israel Government Coins and Medals Corporation medallion on the theme of Ethiopian Jewry.

When he came to Israel he wanted to become a painter.

Rejected from Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, he instead registered for archaeology and Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University, a choice that led him to work as an instructor at the adjacent Land of Israel Museum, where he has been working for 20 years now.

He chose art education for his master’s degree at Beit Berl because he believes art has a social responsibility and role.

“All my activity nowadays is based on tools I acquired at the college,” he says, mentioning that he does photography, sculpture, graphics and more. Dr. Chava Brownfield-Stein, a lecturer at the college who encouraged Ishta in the process of formulating the idea for the project, believes that the field has expanded beyond art education to a wider discourse of visual education toward visual culture. “Think about the assumptions driving visual culture, which has a dimension of urgency to break down what is taken for granted, the political urgency to reveal mechanisms and beyond that to propose continuing and constructive critical thought,” she says.

To this Ishta adds, “It’s amazing to discover anew each time what power art and experiential activity have.”
(Tags: Ethiopian Jews, History, Art, Israel)

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