The Tel Aviv-based painter Nirit Takele, already a celebrated artist at 33 years old, is evoking the spirit of both her Ethiopian-Israeli heritage in her bold work

By Rachel Ringler (Tablet Magazine) |

Artist Kehinde Wiley, the official portraitist of President Obama, is known for his grand-scale paintings of people of color. Wiley has described how empowering it was when, as a boy, he saw the occasional paintings of black people among the many white subjects that filled the galleries of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “There was something absolutely heroic and fascinating about being able to feel a certain relationship to the institution and the fact that these people happen to look like me at some level,” Wiley has said. Artist Nirit Takele hopes that her work, peopled by members of her Ethiopian-Israeli community, will have a similar impact.

This month, Tel Aviv’s Hezi Cohen Gallery is holding Takele’s first one-woman show. Within less than a week, all but one of her paintings had sold. Nirit Takele, a master of color, fills her paintings with blues, greens, browns, and reds that are simultaneously comforting, bold and demanding.  But once those colors have captured your attention, look again. She has a lot to say about what it is to be an Ethiopian-Israeli.

Her larger canvases could cover an entire wall of a room, and she fills them with people who appear to be strong, almost god-like in their invincibility. “Ethiopians,” she says, “are delicately built.  But I paint them as powerful to show their inner strength. They come from a culture of kings and noble rulers. I want my paintings to remind the viewer of their grandeur.”

In “Our Donation Blood,” Takele references a painful episode in the life of the Ethiopian Jews soon after arriving in Israel. Three figures sit on a green expanse, collecting blood falling from a red-soaked sky.  In the 1980s, the Ethiopian community learned that the blood they had donated to Magen David Adom, the Israeli Red Cross, was thrown away for fear that it was tainted. In acrylic paint on a canvas that measures nearly 7 feet, the artist depicts members of her community collecting that spilled blood, to drink it and thereby restore their strength.

“I thought my home was in a desert,” said Nirit Takele. “When I arrived, I found a place filled with color–red, green, yellow, the colors of the Ethiopian flag!  And while I can’t say it felt like home, I felt like a fish IN water. The look of the people I saw was familiar. I was not a dark face among white ones.”

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