Welcome Stranger

14 March, 2019

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.”

Amateau Amato has contextualized her sculpted figures by installing them with painted and drawn portraits of their counterparts, but a deeper, mythical background is added to one wall by Tree of Life Entanglement, a large, vibrant wood painting divided in two, providing a gate between the halves, an opening, a possibility, a hopeful statement of devotion to a threatened natural world. The colorful loops evoke water, wind, branches, roots.—Lucy Lippard

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,

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?

Lip­pard writes:

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.”

Finally, there is the provocative neon text:

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.


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