Sacred Mothers - Hava Pinchas-Cohen
In a series of works focusing on Ethiopian women, a family, consisting of a mother and her two daughters (the father is absent both from the family and the painting), Hava Raucher again observes and deals with the figure of the “foreign woman,” the proselyte, who lives on the margins of Israeli society. I use the word ‘‘again’ due to her series Calendar Girls and a series devoted to new immigrant women, and a separate work entitled Hodayah and her Eleven Children which deals with the figure of women in the ultra-Orthodox or religious communities, in which a woman’s destiny is to bear children.
The central work in the triptych –Haya and her Daughters - depicts the figure of an Ethiopian mother-woman, which is analogous, from the viewpoint of her traditional place in the triptych, to the Sacred Mother. The mother-woman is situated against the background of an empty space on which text is written in Amharic letters, which is, in fact, the woman’s biography. The woman seems Ethiopian and is represented, from a cultural point of view, by her Amharic handwriting which tells the story of her marriage to an old man, her escape from home while pregnant, raising her daughter alone, immigrating to Israel, a second marriage which is also coerced, and her choice of hard work and raising her daughters alone. This is an unusual choice in the context of her culture, a choice of a proud life devoid of oppression.
Her hands lie upon and encompass her belly. Her skin is dark, her hair is tied back modestly, and her head moves meekly. This figure and all the others in the exhibition are planted on an empty, yellow and soft, cut-off place. In the central painting, in which the mother’s figure is situated in the center, the text constitutes the background, but also expresses the “voice” of a mute black woman in a white environment. The daughters appear in the paintings to the right and left of the central panel. Separation between the figure and the background is complete. The figures are painted in a figurative and extremely realistic way as a torso which lies as an object or image on a smooth surface, which reflects and constitutes an aesthetic and conceptual contrast to the character of the realistic painting. Tiny figures are situated at their feet on the surface, taken from the pictures of Gustave Doré.1
In Raucher’s paintings, the French painter, Doré, expresses the “other” European cultural pole filtered through eyes saturated in Western culture, which is a mix of Christianity and Judaism. Doré’s figures appear in the painting as a quotation from another, mythical and Biblical world, which has a Jewish common denominator with the artist and her figures, but is also separate and foreign. They float at the feet of the torso of the Ethiopian women, present but not belonging. Deborah, Hagar, Rebecca and Delilah - these are the women which the Bible accorded a “story” and a “voice,” and mythical presence vs. the so feminine Ethiopian family that has neither “voice” nor identity, lacking a father figure or a man in the story.
Two paintings surround the mother, one of which shows her daughters facing one another, while the other shows the mother facing her daughter. The context in which the works are presented in the triptych creates a narrative framework, but contradicts the essence of the triptych as a concept in Western culture related to Christian mythology. The conceptual and cultural contradiction rejuvenates the observer’s realms of thinking and knowledge.
The works create a semblance of cleanness and visual aesthetics which is seemingly distant from any mythological, political or cultural context. However, through the figures in the vacuum, the eyes of the observer are granted a broad interpretive space and the ability to see him/herself in relation to the figures, in other words, do I really know the foreign and belonging Ethiopian-Israeli woman? Is her biography part of my collective biography?
Hodayah and her eleven children
In this work, Raucher looks at a different kind of women. The main question is what is their choice and where is their freedom to decide on their own lives and bodies. In Hodayah and her eleven children, the figure of a young woman, who looks like a religious or ultra-Orthodox woman, is situated at the center of the painting. Her head is covered and a long dress covers her body, revealing the contours of a young body; her older double is shown at an angle, a woman wearing the same dress and the same head covering but with a feeble and aging body. The picture of the woman and her double appear against an empty space, devoid of content, and eleven week-old infants float above, doubles of the same infant. The infants seem human and angelic, two are floating in the space surrounding Hodaya, and are reminiscent of the figures of Renaissance angels-infants. They are carried by a hand that is not connected to a body, a hand that delivers them like a gift, or supports them by their bellies. Each baby has a number and the number relates to a name, so that under the picture there is a list of the identical infants’ names. All the names include the name of God, and are known in Israeli society as names common in national-religious society, such as Matanya, Bat El, Moriyah, Yeshuah, etc.
Similar to the large gallery of Raucher’s women’s figures, this figure is also characterized by its relationship to a model. Unlike her previous paintings of new immigrant woman or the Ethiopian family, Raucher’s observation is not documentary, the model is not a religious or ultra-Orthodox woman-mother, but a staged young girl who represents the phenomenon. A phenomenon in which young women marry at an extremely young age and give birth to numerous children as part of a social norm or the social pressure exerted upon them, to have more and more children to the point that it threatens their pre-maternal identity and accelerates the aging of their bodies. A society which conveys a message in which a woman’s self-actualization is carried out through her children and she is nothing more than a background for them.
Raucher concentrates on and places the woman in the center a moment before she loses her beauty and identity. Through Hodayah, the beautiful girl who looks at a point in space - a look which is both naïve and clear - a young woman who expresses the potential and possibilities of life, Raucher expresses the loss of possibilities and choice of young women in a religious or ultra-Orthodox society, and motherhood as an option for the anonymity of the soul.
In this series of paintings, Raucher paints women’s figures in a full, rich, and realistic style against a background devoid of context (except for the background with the Amharic text) which deals with the female Ethiopian family, and next to it, Hodayah, the blued-eyed white girl and the eleven infants hovering above. She deepens the observation of and insight into the world of women, sheds light on and elicits the boundary between women’s ability to choose in a society which prevents this or limits their ability of expression and their potential biography; the boundaries between self-actualization and missing out.
Raucher is a woman who brings her capabilities to fruition, who observes and identifies with the world of woman living on the margins of society, heightens awareness to their presence and brings them to the forefront, and evokes a discourse through impressive art.
1 Gustave Doré, a French painter, born in 1832 in Strasbourg, died in 1883. He illustrated books by Rabelais, Dante, Balzac, and Lord Byron’s works. In 1865 he published the Doré Bible, with illustrations and etchings of Biblical figures and events, in an extremely dramatic and romantic style.