text_yesterdaynow - barbara nahmad

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by Martina Corgnati

Barbara Nahmad has for long been basing her research on existing images reproduced and presented in series consistent and homogeneous for technique and size. In the vast universe of possible images, in that duplicate of the world that once was of Susan Sontag, Nahmad highly prefers the portraits, often captured from closed distance or, at most, at half-length. Her subjects are famous faces, the most known among stars, framed in an image that is itself among the most famous of the ones available for that character. Her images have been part of the history and are history both on their own and for the iconic power of the person they represent. With that in mind, Barbara Nahmad’s work lies comfortably in the epochal vein firstly brought to life by the Pop Art and Andy Warhol. The American artist was probably the first one to use systematically art as a meta-language; with the help of it he has often saved trash images, made to be consumed, from being destined to the “low” mass communication and has instead re-present them on a different level, more noble and out of time, if not eternal. Of course for the Pop Art procedure to succeed the image has to already exist and has to have already acquired its status and its popularity in the world. For definition this type of painting does not create its subject from scratch but it takes it from the circuits of the mass communication as it is, or better ready made. And so does Barbara Nahmad; nevertheless she differentiates herself from the radical anti-painting technique of Andy Warhol and instead, like Mario Schifano in the Sixties (in his drawings about Coca-Cola for example), re-discovers painting and its linguistic potential made of a particular taste for texture, colours, composition, brush strokes, shadows and contrast which is not improper to call “style”. It might be that this decision to refuse to abandon her subjectivity and the gesture of her hand on the canvas is typically Italian, as the comparison with Schifano could suggest; what is certain is that Nahmad does not leave behind her origins and her bonds with Milan where already at the end of the Eighties painting has been turned in a lighter subject through irony and the use of other medias, but has never been completely abandoned, not even from the more radical conceptual generation born with Corrado Levi at the beginning of the Nineties (Mario Airò, Marco Cingolani, Marco Mazzucconi, Alfredo Pirri, Massimo Kaufmann etc.). Barbara Nahamd culturally forms part of this context, the one of the ironic, never aggressive and sometime virtuoso manipulation of the image; nevertheless her work appears often different from the one of some of her colleague as Barbara never forgets the past and insists to analyse and reproduce the collective memory always in need to homage its saints, myths and heroes, never tired of this rituality. It is for that reason that in her work lies, sometimes hidden and imperceptible, an aura vaguely melancholic, a special attention for what is lost and survives only as an icon, in the simulacra. Her series Yesterday Now (2005) À rebours (2008), Canto General (2009), and All’ultimo respiro (2010) this last one representing only kisses capable of smashing the screens, at the cinema and on tv; are one the ideal continuation of the precedent, each formed of paintings created as pearls of a same necklace and inspired by iconic figures from the cinema, the political world, the intellectual sphere, singers and scientists for which we (and the artist) long for despite not knowing them directly. The “stars”, as Ugo Volli explained years ago, are always empty; they have surface but lack the body, they appear but lack substance. Nevertheless we feel the absence of the stars in a melancholic way, being it Marilyn, paradigm of the Pop beauty, or John Lennon and Yoko Ono naked in the famous bed-in protesting against the Vietnam War; being it Albert Einstein looking in the empty space with a detached but sweet and imperceptible smile or the Italian Avvocato Gianni Agnelli giving directions to the future of the economy and the auto sector with charisma but vaguely frowning. Faces and images that have a story and belong to the large family of the lost occasions and the died ideologies, the protests of the Sixties and Seventies, the cinema and television divas, the rock legend and the great kiss scenes like the one, of course, between Clark Gable and Vivien Leight in Gone with the wind, the one between Madonna and Britney Spears (in 2003 in front of the cameras) and the one between Leonid Breznev and Erich Honecker in the 1979 during the thirties anniversary of the DDR; or, again to be able to dream, the one between Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita. Kisses that we continue loving but that today, maybe, we are not able to give anymore and that we therefore nostalgically miss. It is because of this background that the latest works of Barbara Nahmad, emerged after years of preparation, appear particularly new and striking. Some of the main and fundamental characteristics of her earlier works have not been forgotten in this new production, such as her way to re-work on the basis of existing images and the decision to omit in her painting the more superfluous details in favour of the heart of the image itself. She has also not forgotten her technique to create an harmony of colours toned on the black, ocher and grey with very few concessions to the nice enamel background that characterised many of the earlier works. Nevertheless the main innovation in this new series is represented by the subject selected for her new tale: the children. Of course we are not talking about general kids, but mainly about children from the Fifties and Sixties born in Israel, the first real generation truly Israeli following the creation of the new state. To be completely true these kids are not alone: many of the images also represent their parents, exponents of the “Haadam Hahadash”, Hebrew for “the new man” and signifying the people re-born thanks to the sun and land of the Middle East, finally distant from the deprivations, the discriminations and brutalization that had characterised for centuries their life in the Diaspora. Israel, the hope, the new land finally born after such a long period of unbearable difficulties, greeted immediately after its creation, and in some cases even before, the refugees from Europe and the Mediterranean costs, despite having few resources to offer. The creation of the Jewish state had been fought with any means and was welcomed by a war initiated by the joint Arab forces which were convinced to be able to easily win against these desperate people lacking organisations and recently escaped from the Holocaust. But they were wrong. Against all odds the small political miracle made with determination, tenacity and capacity resisted and started calling his people to join a new life in the sacred land, the immortal land. Despite the enthusiasm, life in Middle East was very tough; far away from the cities and the habits of the European life, under an implacable sun, among desolate hills, bushes and a vast desert. Living that life requested a profound transformation, not less profound than the one Israel will have had to face during the following decades. So it is in this background that the “new man” was born, tanned and smiling, capable of overcoming a past full of oppression and tragedy, but also of great culture and worldliness, in order to work hard to turn himself in a farmer or a builder, like those ancestors that had built the neighbourhoods of Tel Aviv in the Bauhaus style. Of course it wasn’t only men: the new land was also, and in equal measure, a land of women, to which the future of the Jewish people was devolved upon and that were never second to their men in the organisation and the work in the kibbutz and in the cities. Determined and dogged, these women have managed to obtain, before many of their peers in other parts of the world, an important base of equality, through the work done in equal measure as their husbands and through facing the same hopes and difficulties. The women shared with their men the same challenges that were un-thinkable just a short time before, during their precedent life; challenges that included farming, studying at universities and soon sharing responsibilities in the military service. Barbara Nahmad recounts of all this with the help of old photographs conveniently “translated” into painting through a drastic elimination of superfluous details and a particular attention for the subject that emerges almost metaphysically from the empty space, lacking details and only slightly contextualised by some light lines. She shows mainly the children, in groups and bands, often without a name, born in the refugee camps or the kibbutz, generated by the poverty, the hope and the enthusiasm of their parents that despite everything rushed to a new land and showed themselves in these images that Barbara Nahmad transformed with an intense personal proximity in an accurate depiction of that particular society. A society filled with its desires, hopes, symbols and utopias; a society of which the first creation were specifically those children painted through an objective and penetrating eye, without any trace of sentimentalism. Mary Cassatt already explained in the past that this is the only possible way to paint the children, to avoid doing it in a sickening and buttery way. She said that it is important to portray them as they are, with their sweetness and clumsiness, with their stiffness, their astonishment and their entire interior psychological shades revealed by their movements much more than in the adults. From the original photographs Barbara Nahmad only selects the details she needs, limiting the outline to few lines depicting the landscape. The base of these works is coloured in ocher, almost imperceptible, but it is intensely pictorial, animated by shadows from which the texture of the canvas seem to be appearing. A clear decision to distance these works from photography. Painting indeed gives the opportunity of remove all that is in excess in order to leave the protagonists of the images like floating isolated in an empty space, contextualised only by few lines describing a particular situation without clearly reproducing it. This is visible for example in the painting with the tank, where a group of half-naked children are completely lost listening to the tales of an older woman, maybe the granny, maybe a teacher, while seating on the silhouette of the army tank. The kids wear simple white hats to protect themselves from the harshness of the heat and the Mediterranean sun, which creates strong glares and deep shadows. In another canvas the silhouettes are the ones of moving soldiers behind the scene of a hug between a father and his son wearing simple shorts covering the thin legs and sandals to protect the still delicate ankle. Of course it is not only the war the protagonist of these images, but it is mainly the everyday’s life of a country filled with young eyes looking at the future. Is it not the future that the young couple, painted lost in the immensity, facing an empty land, green hills or sand dunes, real or metaphoric space to leave, farm and build is looking at? The same faith is also noticeable on the smiley face, this time facing the viewer in a close-up, of the man on his thirties with the shirt’s sleeves rolled-up. A simple smile, even naive, looking far way in front of him; behind his back the almost invisible silhouette of a mule yoked to a wagon. It is through this faith that the renovation takes place, the renovation of the body and of the soul. Of course the faith is not all: the children that soon will become pioneers go to school, where many of the paintings depict them, seating at the school desks too high for them, serious and alert, listening to a difficult lesson wearing all the same clothes. These clothes are the same they wear also in the summer camps, real cities for kids that need to learn living among the principles of solidarity and real socialism like the one of the kibbutz, where all the resources are managed by the community, all have the same rights and the same duties, where the kids grow up all together in specifically selected houses and rooms all dedicated to them. An image of the series, for example, show the children very young, crawling on a blanket, naked or just slightly dressed in a simple and pour undershirt. Another one, instead, depicts a baby girl in the common bathroom, alone in front of an uncomfortable handbasin trying to wash diligently her face, with a rustic apron tight around her body which leave her legs and round bottom naked. Barbara Nahmad’s images are immensely silent, but they tell a lot nonetheless. They tell of a society where all, babies included, take full responsibility for themselves, where the physical wellbeing is highly important. They tell of a socialist society where loneliness seems to not exist, a Spartan society where there isn’t much but this few has to be shared among all. Through a very cautious selection of the images, the artist is capable of depicting a very accurate portrait of that adolescent world. The iconography and style of that world was not so different from the one that on the same period was establishing itself in other part of the world such as America; nevertheless some peculiar characteristics were differentiating the Israeli world to the American one, like for example the lack of individualism, the sobriety, the hopeful and un-stoppable ingenuity seen in the faces of the migrants lately arrived and still sitting on their trunk (in this highly different from the miserable and dispossessed migrants getting to the port of New York in 1910) and seen in the line of seven children posing, as it happened in Italy at the beginning of the ninetieth Century but not in Fifties. If one would want to point out the differences between these images and the ones from America and Europe these lasts would be probably the first to be noticed, together with some more Jewish typical aspects that the artist does not forget to depict: like the Yeshiva’ in which the young boys study, the dances among men and the klezmer music danced to the rhythm of clapping and inspired hands. All this is the eden, the mythical garden that gives the name to this new series (all in lower cases, as it should be for this secular paintings), the garden that the humanity lost at the beginning of its biblical path and that has inspired since then an unstoppable hope for recovery. Painting does not tell the history, and even less so the theology. Nevertheless painting can pick up the prominent qualities of an image and make it immortal; allowing it to settle until all the meaning and atmosphere becomes clear. This is how this eden is, this promised land for so long wanted and for so long and so brutally denied that breathes in the transparencies of these canvases. The paintings are made with images that, nonetheless, are completely objective, lightened by the respect and distance of the artist. That eden is certainly lost, but certainly the toy plane thrown by the optimistic young boy painted near the flag pole will aim at it. A toy plane painted colourless but ready to fly into the future, that future so near to the past and the eden, in front of the eyes of all the kids of the new land.



Amb. Avi Pazner

When my eyes wander through the beautiful works of Barbara Nahmad, I find myself suddenly transported in a time machine. I fly back to these years in the end of the 40's and the 50's when all dreams became possible and we were living in what seemed to us a wonderful experience in independence and nation building. I fly back to the time when I arrived to Israel with my family in July of 1953. We left Switzerland, a land of plenty to live in a country where there was almost nothing, a country mostly deserted, going through a period of tough austerity. Food was rationed, our family of 6 shared a small apartment of three rooms with another family, there was not much to eat, we had no refrigerator, no oven, not even a ventilator. We had a radio to which we listened all day. But we were happy to live among other Jews, to build a nation and to feel at home although we did not yet speak the language. These were the days of innocence, days of self-sacrifice, courage, abnegation of ourselves, mobilization for a great cause. We were living in historical days, the days when the people of Israel returned to their ancestral land after 2,000 years, and after the horrific tragedy of the Holocaust. Poorly armed, we won the war against the seven armies that invaded our country. True, we paid a terrible price, but here we were standing in our own country as a free people. It was also a time of modesty, of helping each other, of self-imposed discipline, of sharing the limited resources that we had. Plunged in an austerity program, hit by terrorist attacks, without infrastructure, without industry, sometimes without food, we still were happy.We had that inner happiness that is immaterial, that is spiritual, and that comes from the realization that against all odds, we made it. It is this spirit that Barbara has managed to capture in basing her art on photographic portraits of this era of hope and simplicity. For a split-second, one could think that he is looking at a photography exhibition. But immediately comes the realization that what we see is much more powerful than a photo, because in these paintings the artist invested her inner feelings and her total identification with the subject and the period. Barbara is too young to have known this period personally, but she feels very deeply what it means and through her paintings she manages to communicate these feelings and to touch us. Photos are great, they are important historical testimony, but the painting of Barbara Nahmad bring this era back to life, with a touch of nostalgia, and may I add for myself, a touch of melancholy. When we observe her work, we feel a longing for these times when life seemed simpler than in our contemporary world. Barbara does not only have a deep knowledge of this period and what it represents but she feels it in herself very strongly and through her art she shares this feeling with those who have known this period. Even more important, she guides those who did not know what life looked like in Israel 60 years ago, into an historical trip from which we come out richer. There is no doubt that through her work Barbara all at once opens new horizons to a generation thirsty of knowledge and brings to older generations the comfort of knowing that there are still artists able to revive in an admirable way a world which was dear to us and towards which we still long. Amb. Avi Pazner

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