Reimagining Heroes Past and Present
Micaela Amateau Amato
My family speaks seven languages because we have lived in communities that are enlivened by many ethnicities and races simultaneously, in places such as Smyrna, Salonika, Rhodes, Fez, New York, Puerto Rico. On the islands of Rhodes and New York we have conversed through a mixture of Spanish, Turkish, Greek, Italian, French, Hebrew, and Arabic. We are Sephardim and Mizrahim (Iberian Arab Jews.)
This sensibility emerges in my studio as a composite of sculpture, painting, photography—a confluence instinctively mirroring my hybrid ancestral history. We “welcome the stranger.”
Over the decades I have made life size cast glass, ceramic, or painted portraits and figures with hybrid racial and ethnic physiognomies, often combining self-portraiture and family archival photographs with historical figures. By celebrating cross-cultural voices and by protesting a singular perspective—a ‘tyranny of purity’ that erases (makes invisible) difference—these ethnic overlays are intended to offer the potency/vitality of multiple identities.
My visual and written work has attempted to bridge the traumatic divides between demonized immigrants and ‘people of color’ and ‘white people’—the ‘us vs. them’ tribal mentality that too often ends in psychic and physical violence.
By focusing on a search for common ground through mutual respect and empathy within a seemingly intractable field of ethnocentrism, my goal is to offer a more nuanced understanding of the richness of difference where we can potentially see ourselves in others—where we can take responsibility to “repair what has been broken,” and to work as citizen activists in our communities for “liberty and justice for all.”
In 2015 I began illustrating a book written by my collaborator and daughter Cara Judea Alhadeff, Zazu Dreams Between the Scarab and the Dung Beetle, A Cautionary Fable for the Anthropocene Era.
Rooted in environmental science and cross-cultural storytelling, this is a tale of climate justice and social permaculture. Big Pharma, Big Oil, and Agribusiness giants stalk planet Earth while a Sephardic Arab-Jewish boy confronts environmental racism as he learns from symbiotic relationships among humans and within the natural world. Zazu learns that racial, gender, economic equality, and environmental accountability are all intimately interconnected, just as all forms of oppression and all forms of emancipation are equally interconnected.
Lucy Lippard wrote the catalogue essay for my exhibition Welcome the Stranger at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, which runs through June 9, 2019. The work celebrates heroes like Dona Gracia Nasi (who helped Jews escape 16th century Inquisitional Spain—much like Harriet Tubman with the Underground Railroad;) and the Sephardic poet Emma Lazarus, the author of the quintessentially American Lady Liberty poem, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” Who knew the author was a woman and a Portuguese Jew?
This is a serendipitous moment for an exhibition called Welcome the Stranger. As we watch the decidedly unwelcoming abuses of power on our side of the U.S. /Mexico border and hear about the plight of refugees world wide, we are in a sense already armed with information and empathy when we join Micaela Amateau Amato’s cast glass and ceramic sculptures. These simultaneously strong and fragile materials offer metaphors for the heroes depicted. The glass portraits glow from within, like the missions that sustain such extraordinary individuals.
Amateau Amato’s sensuous use of color, sometimes subdued, sometimes brutal, sometimes celebratory, augments the initial impression of strength and purpose. While many of the heroes depicted here are African American, the replacement of skin color with pure color endows them with a broader ancestry, readable, Leah Ollman has said, as “our collective ancestors.” Sometimes the faces are multiple, overlapping, embodying the artist’s personal and political engagement with diasporic history, visualizing a tangled ancestry and the abstract notion of hybridity. Some of the drawn and painted portraits first appeared in Zazu Dreams: Between the Scarab and the Dung Beetle, a Cautionary Fable for the Anthropocene Era, a book starring her mixed-race grandson by her daughter and frequent collaborator, scholar Cara Judea Alhadeff.
Amateau Amato’s fascination with portraiture as a way of revealing and veiling ancestry comes from centuries of culture and border crossings by her own Mediterranean family, which is Hispano, Sephardic Jewish, and Arabic, from Iberia, Morocco, Turkey, and Rhodes. For a long time, the dominant theme of her art has been the complex identities of exiles, nomads, and refugees, using “mixed media” as a parallel for mestizaje (mixing). The long-gone peaceful past Jews shared with Arabs in the Middle East, before waves of colonialism drew new borders over millennia of tradition, and Amateau’s sympathy with the persecuted Palestinians, Rohingya, and Yemeni inform the passions that lie beneath this work. Yet difference is not her subject: “Jews in Burma/Myanmar look like other Burmese people,” she points out. “Jews and Muslims in India or Iran look like other Indians or Persians; Jews or Muslims in Cuba look like other Cubans – because they have been, for centuries.”
The “Welcome the Stranger” exhibit showed at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia through June 9th, 2019.
Micaela Amateau Amato is an artist who has been widely exhibited. Her mixed media works incorporate painting, photography, sculpture (neon, cast glass, ceramic), and text. Often engaging forms of self-portraiture and nomadic identities in a dialogue with her Mediterranean ancestry from Iberia, Morocco, Turkey, and Rhodes, Amateau Amato’s work embodies a multiple self that is mediated by her personal and political engagement with diasporic history. Micaela Amateau Amato is a Professor Emerita of Art and Women’s Studies at Penn State University.