Three From Jerusalem

 Written by Anne Mullin Burnham* 

Ya Allah -watercolor and gold foil by Vladimir Tamari 25 May 1982

Excerpted from the article originally published  in Aramco World July-August 1990. The complete text can be perused on the Aramco World website.

Art comes from the roots. Every artist begins, as poet Philip Booth tells us, when he or she "climbs up Eden's hill in his own back yard." Yet exile from that back yard, from its rich inspiration, can be valuable as well as painful: Exile can help an artist to see more clearly in memory what was too close for clarity in actual experience. Exile, and the lens of new surroundings, allows for the re-interpretation of the images of childhood and homeland. And exile can make new departures possible.

In exile in Paris, Marc Chagall recreated the rich tapestry of his Russian childhood in the expressive colors of the fauves. Picasso, years away from his Spanish birthplace, returned again and again to the theme of the bullfight and made the bull one of the most powerful images in 20th-century art. James Joyce had to leave the stultifying atmosphere of turn-of-the-century Dublin before he could immortalize it in Ulysses and begin a new literary era. Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, in the acquired language of their exile, each wrote new pages in the story of English literature.

Even more than the rest of us, it seems, exile profoundly affects artists. How differently and how distinctly they can respond to its challenges is demonstrated by three painters, all of whom were born in Jerusalem, each of whom has resettled in a very different part of the world.

Vladimir Tamari in Tokyo. 1990. Photograph by Kazuo Murata

It is a long way, geographically and psychologically, from Vladimir Tamari's birthplace to his current home, from growing up in the hills of Ramallah to living amid the crowds of Tokyo, where he has been since 1970.

As an Arab and an artist, as well as inventor and scientist, Tamari makes his life, as he says, "on the edges of Japanese society, dreaming of Jerusalem while living in Tokyo." The separation from his homeland is compounded by living in an industrialized, Westernized city within an ancient Eastern culture, a dichotomy which makes him feel like "an exile within exile."


Al-Quds- Jerusalem seen from the far East. Vladimir Tamari, watercolor on paper with gol. February 1983.

Japanese culture, however, is an ongoing lesson for Tamari in reconciling these opposites, in learning how to bring into harmony his inner life and the outside world - and how to express that fusion in his art. The serene gardens of Kyoto, for instance, are at once material and abstract and are, as he says, "at the borderline between art and reality."

Inventor, optical physicist and artist, Tamari straddles that border himself. Since childhood, he has used watercolors to capture the images of his homei-land, imbued with the emotional richness of his life there. At the same time he has continuously experimented with the technical problems of representing the three dimensions of reality on the two-dimensional surface of paper.

His studies in physics at the American University in Beirut and at art school in London combined in attempts to invent a drawing instrument that would allow him to "draw in space."

Although his initial prototype was destroyed in the war in 1967, he began the project anew after he had settled in Japan. Eventually he perfected the 3DD ("three-dimensional drawing instrument"), which, with inexpensive and simple technology, produces the same kind of three-dimensional drawings that expensive computer-aided design programs do. With the 3DD, Tamari did many drawings of Japan and of Palestine, recreating, in effect, the spaces of his memories and his surroundings, bringing both into a new kind of reality.

Another of Tamari's inventions, the Perspector, makes accurate perspective drawings easy, without computers and without paper-size limitations. His optical investigations, including the problem of cancellation of diffraction in light waves, are in the tradition of Ibn al-Haytham, the medieval Arab scientist whose treatise Optics laid the groundwork for advances in the field made by Renaissance scientists in Europe.

Living suspended between two cultures, away from the artistic and academic mainstreams, allows Tamari an uncontaminated originality of thought and expression that he might not have had in the thick of a particular art movement or scientific group.

"In Japan I am living in isolation in an over-organized, almost aseptic, society, but somehow this works for me as an artist," he says. Although he worries that his remembered images of Jerusalem and Ramallah will fade with time and distance, time and distance have a salutary effect on them also. "In a way, I experience them anew," he continues. "They become cleansed, crystallized and idealized, and lose anything extraneous."

"Hidden Treasure" shows how Tamari in his paintings unconsciously transmutes images of Jerusalem. The soft, muted colors of the abstract forms are bordered by passages of white and centered by a patch of gold. The effect is reminiscent, he says, "of what one feels to see the glorious Dome of the Rock after walking in the shaded small streets of the Old City." Perhaps unconsciously too, the very composition of the painting suggests a map of the old city and its various quarters, all enclosed by the wall.

Jerusalem, however, is often an overt subject too. "Jerusalem Seen From the Far East" is based on a clear memory of the lights of the city, seen one evening on his way back from Jericho. "Here, the very distant twinkling city is perched on top of the brooding and voluptuous hills of the desert between Jerusalem and the river," he explains. "The hills and the sky are visible, and the miniature city is centered in the golden circle of the letter Q of al-Quds, which means 'The Holy One and is the Arabic name for Jerusalem." And of course, Tamari points out, the "Far East" of the title can be interpreted not only as Jericho, but also as Japan. The luminous, symphonic color scheme of paintings like this is, Tamari asserts, quite unconscious. Color is something he has never studied; for him it is primitive and instinctive and, he feels, must come from his childhood, from the bright colors and clear light of Palestine.

"Ya Allah," while divided into grids and circles and geometric forms, has through its color harmonies and infusion of light an overall unity with a patina-like atmosphere that Tamari feels is characteristic of the old city of Jerusalem. These abstracted and sublimated images, their forms defined by light and their airy sense of space, represent Tamari's love for a city that for him, growing up, encapsulated "a model of the world in all its humanity, sanity, beauty and suffering and joy.... I am," he says, "a living time capsule of Palestine."

This sense of containing memory may be why Tamari chooses to work in watercolor, a medium that leaves its imprint on the paper and can't be painted over as oils or acrylics can.

And while Tamari has found ways to wash papers to remove the outward signs of earlier work, watercolors, he says, like the human mind, "keep the memory of what you first put on - and whatever that is, you work with it."


*Dublin-born Anne Mullin Burnham is special projects director of the International Poetry Forum and a free-lance writer specializing in the arts, travel and food.