"Till thy people pass over, O Lord, till the people pass over, which thou hast purchased." Exodus 15:16 More Exodus 15:16
"After the Tribes", the Beverly Barkat solo exhibition at the Boncompagni Ludovisi Museum of Rome, is structured as a complex installation tailored to the space it occupies. The artist drew her inspiration for the work from the architecture of the museum, a twentieth-century urban villa, replicating in part the primary geometrical forms decorating the façade and the interiors and initiating a dialectic between the historical and the contemporary.
Four meters high, the site-specific installation tells a story, one dating back to the book of Genesis in the Old Testament. It tells the story of the twelve tribes of the Jewish nation, the twelve branches of the Israelites according to Biblical tradition, all related by blood. Each of the tribes descended from, and bore the name of, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, who would later be called Israel after battling with the angel.
The installation is composed of a metal structure forming twelve squares. A circular painting on translucent PVC, one meter in diameter, appears to float in each square. The twelve paintings are animated by a specific color pattern dictated by the ancient texts, which state that each tribe commanded its own area and was represented by a silk flag or banner bearing its symbol. The standards were of the same color as the gemstone on the "choshen", the breastplate worn by the kohanim (priests). The gemstones were arranged in four rows and the name of the corresponding son of Jacob was engraved into each of them. When the light struck the semi-precious stones, they shone with the names of Israel in relief. According to cabalistic tradition, the bright colors and the gemstones studding the "choshen" were able to activate the spiritual dimension imprisoned within matter. In this sense, the names of the tribes, the colors, and the gems composing the "choshen" provide a channel through which the material and spiritual dimensions may communicate. The Kohen Gadol (High Priest) thus wore the twelve tribes over his heart to connect them to the cosmic energy.
Although the Hebrew Bible provides a detailed description of the structure of the "choshen", there are many other ancient texts that describe it differently. The first to provide a detailed description was Josephus. Belonging to the priestly class, he may be considered a reliable source, even though there are discrepancies between his account and that in the Holy Scriptures. For example, in addition to leaving no doubt that the names engraved on the "choshen" were those of the twelve sons and not those of the twelve tribes, and that the gems were arranged according to their birth order, the arrangement Josephus provides for the gems differs from that described in the Torah. Historical sources have presented a fair amount of such incongruencies over the centuries, in part reflecting the lively character of the Jewish culture, with its rich weave of interpretations. Beverly Barkat, who created an installation resembling a huge priestly breastplate, also takes liberties regarding the original description.
Barkat’s complex work began with the study of the wealth of cartographic materials in the archives of the National Library of Israel. The artist draws on the two principal cartographic traditions used in representing the fascinating story of the twelve tribes: a religious tradition, based mainly on the Torah, and a classical tradition, which laid the foundation for modern map making. The artist offers us the history of the Jewish people and their identity as a nation in this impressive work. She seems to suggest that each tribe is independent, each with its own domain, but at the same time cannot exist without the others. Each area is, in reality, an open space connected to and interrelating with other spaces, creating a single space, a heterotopia. In this sense, Barkat’s work is not so much what is seen, but rather what is communicated via a sort of abstract, three-dimensional "trompe-l’œil" that transcends the figurative image and seems to enter into dialogue with the tree-lined lanes and park of Villa Ludovisia painted on the walls of the Salone delle Vedute, where the installation is located. For example, the artist completely abandons the figurative symbolism in the Pentateuchal narration of Jacob’s blessings of each of his children, where they are likened to animals or plants. Thus, Judah does not appear as a lion in her works, nor does Issachar as an ass, Naphtali as a deer, Benjamin as a wolf, and so on. In this sense, Barkat’s art is aniconic, abstract, and conceptual, in keeping with the Hebraic artistic tradition based on a Biblical precept which forbids the reproduction of images. Nevertheless, she succeeds in evoking a profound meaning.
Her work also differs from well-known examples in the history of art. Think of Marc Chagall’s windows in the synagogue of the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, of the metaphor no longer illustrated with words but with images, or of the portraits of the seventeenth-century Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán, whose iconography derives from the Book of Genesis, just to provide a few examples. In her conceptual process, Barkat inflects the symbol as material, the image transforms into color, and the support becomes three-dimensional, suggesting cosmic mutability. The twelve paintings share features with the planets inhabiting the heavenly space. Indeed, the signs of the Zodiac are often identified with the twelve sons of Jacob. Once again it is Josephus who points out the correspondence between the gemstone on the choshen and the constellations of the Zodiac and the months of the year.
Barkat’s work concentrates on color and material to produce a complex universe of symbols and citations, which she accesses via her unmistakable painterly gesture, drawing inspiration as much from classical tradition as from modern art movements such as abstract expressionism. The colors she uses in the individual paintings derive from soil collected from the lands where each of the twelve tribes dwelt, and from the color scheme associated with the tribes’ profession. Individual natural elements such as shells, rocks, and soil are ground up and then mixed with acrylic medium and pastel pigments to create a specific color palette formed of various hues for each tribe. She thus evokes the stories of the twelve children of Israel without resorting to figurative images.
For the painting representing the tribe of Reuben, Barkat included the tribe’s symbolic gemstone, the ruby. Simeon, who was not given land in punishment for having killed the men of Shechem as a vendetta for the rape of his sister Dinah, lived in the land of Judah; Barkat symbolizes him using topaz. Levi was also landless, and his tribe was to officiate at the tabernacle of the congregation; his gemstone is the emerald, which Barkat mixes with the colors of the other tribes, forming a sort of matrix. For Judah, the colors of the desert are mixed with garnet, and with citrine for Dan. The ochers, sandy hues, and reds of the soils are mixed with fragments of amethyst for Gad and with agate for Naphtali, inverting the combinations specified in the Holy Scriptures. Asher has the intense blue-green color of aquamarine, Issachar that of lapis lazuli; Zebulun corresponds to the diamond, and Joseph to onyx. The latter was the only one to divide his land among his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, and so Barkat represents him with a combination of two colors—one was made using onyx and the other came from all the tribes’ palettes—in obliquely hatched strokes. Lastly, Benjamin’s gemstone is the jasper, which the Torah states was a direct gift from G-d and the first stone of Jerusalem.
Each of Barkat’s works is unique and unrepeatable. It is the sum of the elements that distinguish the character and forge the temperament of each tribe. We may thus define her work as being alchemical, in that she transmutes substances, going beyond the physical to imbue them with mystical and spiritual qualities. The elements used by the artist become indivisible once mixed, and so it is with the twelve tribes. Barkat seems to be saying that they cannot be separated, their fusion is fundamental for the existence of the Jewish nation.
The visitor beholding the work plays an important role. The installation takes on a different appearance depending on the position of the observer, becoming architecture, a shifting, moving place, similar to matter itself in Jewish thought. The twelve paintings on PVC are visible to the observer from both sides. One side—where the artist applied her materials—is thickly impastoed and textured, the other, seen through the semitransparent PVC, reveals the layers of color, the painterly marks, and their real consistency under a smooth, glossy film.
All figuration stripped away, color and material compose a narrative of this ancient story. Barkat’s painterly gestures evoke a physical, concrete state that transforms into imagination and spirituality. Time and space thus play a fundamental role: they seem to freeze, giving rise to a place rich in symbolic and historical references.
We may interpret Barkat’s installation as a journey, a pathway that leads to a dialogue between man and Place, which appears to be the essence of her work. Whether it is interpreted in concrete terms as a material territory, or idealized as an immaterial, mystical space, the Place is the representation of a cultural heritage, it is the equilibrium between the person and the dwelling place, it is a metaphysical space that can be transplanted anywhere one goes. In this sense, Beverly Barkat’s work is a journey both outward and inward. Makom is a Hebrew word meaning “The Place” and it is also one of the names of G-d.
For the first cabalists and for Aristotle, “place” and “space” were identical. As we read in the rabbinical literature: “He is the place of the world, but the world is not His place.” In both the Tehillim (Book of Psalms) and the Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers), there are repeated references to the land and the house as a place of belonging, whence one sets forth both physically and spiritually.
To better understand this journey, we must go further back, to Abraham, the first man in history to become a Jew when G-d summoned him to go forth from his home with the command Lech-Lecha, which literally means “go to you”. Abraham will later respond “hineini” (here I am) when G-d calls on him to sacrifice his son Isaac. Once again, we find an explicit geolocation in the Torah, but the place is nothing more than the self or a migrating self, a place of identity as well as a territorial and physical place, which shifts the accent from “here” to “where.”
Another word in Hebrew that indicates the name of G-d is El, which is also the preposition “to,” suggesting continuing formation and evolution with respect to the fixity of the point of departure. In this perpetual journey, the festivals and holidays punctuating the Hebrew calendar are the contemplative stages of the infinite facets of human existence, delineating the continual journeying of the soul. Bruno Zevi writes: “The temporal conception has always prevailed, in that Judaism in no way can be reduced to a spatial conception. This is denied, at the root, by the very Judaic idea of G-d.”
The covenant to make Israel the people of the Lord and lead them to the Promised Land was sealed with the building of the Mishkan (tabernacle). The Tabernacle traveled with the people on their exodus and it was thus necessary to establish the order in which the tribes were arranged around it, following a strict symmetry and an architectural concept of society. The Mishkan is thus where time meets space, and the tribes are distributed around it, three at each of the four cardinal points: Dan, Asher, and Naphtali to the north; Zebulun, Judah, and Issachar to the east; Gad, Reuben, and Simeon to the south; and Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh to the west. The arrangement of the gems emblemizing the tribes is related to the positions of the tribes both while camped and while journeying. The Tabernacle thus becomes a microcosm of the entire cosmos, an earthly image of all of creation and the mobile nature of G-d. It is mankind’s awareness of our place in the universe and of the union of heaven and earth, where the four elements of the Kingdom coexist.
Beverly Barkat’s work presents itself in all its physicality, partially via the use of solid materials such as metal, while at the same time seeming to dematerialize before our eyes, to change into something else, passing from the consistency of iron to the transparency of PVC, all according to a strict order. The colors, along with the gemstones on the breastplates of the kohanim providing the inspiration for the structure of the installation, project us into another dimension, in which space is annulled and the place becomes imaginary, evoking—we might say—a story reaching back across the millennia.Less