When Hirut Yosef was five years old, she left a mountain village of black Jews in Ethiopia and walked almost 485 miles to Sudan with her parents and 8 of her 12 siblings to escape famine during the Ethiopian Civil War.
“It took three weeks to walk the distance. We hid in the daytime and walked at night,” Yosef says. “I remember it from my angle at the time. Everything was tall and big and endless.”
“I remember we were sleeping in this abandoned house one night, and it was raining hard outside and there was a fly in the room. Everyone else was sleeping and I was lying awake.”
That journey would not be the last for the artist and fashion designer. Yosef’s family was one of the first to be relocated to Israel through Operation Moses — a covert mission conducted by the Israeli military and the CIA to evacuate Ethiopian Jews out of Sudan during the famine. Her three older brothers had gone ahead in 1983, and the rest of the family made the journey in 1984.
Her father and six siblings remain in Israel. (Her mother passed away when Yosef was 14 years old.) One sibling lives in Canada and three in Ethiopia. Yosef moved to Istanbul in 2005, where she designed shirts for Mavi, and left in 2013 to join her oldest sister in Atlanta.
It’s no wonder that Chalom Yashan — A Journey Back Home, her art exhibition at the Marcus Jewish Community Center through March 31, takes its title from the Hebrew word for “ancient dream.” The term reflects her own dream to find her home, roots and identity.
Home is a motif throughout most of Yosef’s work. There are drawings of houses incorporated into the embroidery-inspired geometric patterns in the paintings throughout the exhibit.
“It’s not only the physical home,” she explains. “Home is also in my search for an identity, because moving to Israel as a black girl was very traumatic.”
“I understood that I was different, because of the way that people treated me, but I didn’t understand why. Like many black girls, I dreamed of one day having blue eyes and blonde hair, because that is what was all around me.
“I didn’t take friends home when I was in school because I didn’t want them to hear music in Amharic [a Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia] or see that my mother was cooking different food.”
Her self-portrait, 1984, was inspired by her first day of kindergarten in Israel. She knew no Hebrew then, and she considers it one of the most difficult days of her childhood.
In 2002 before starting school at Israel’s Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, Yosef spent nearly two months with an older brother and sister in Ethiopia, rediscovering the place that had once been her home.
Her brother took her back to the house where they once lived. It was still standing and the cornfield was still in the backyard. Her former neighbors, whom she did not remember, were even there to greet her and expressed how much they missed her and her family.
The trip would help the artist connect the dots between her vague childhood memories. “My memories of my childhood in Ethiopia are of colors,” she says. “I remember the flowers in our backyard being bright pink and purple. The cornfield was a vibrant yellow. They are also the colors my mother used to weave baskets.”
Her mother and grandmother used neon threads of yellow, pink, purple, green, orange and blue to embroider patterns on fabric and bright colors in the baskets they wove.
In Chalom Yashan she paints the patterns of her mother’s baskets onto the canvases, and adds to them sketches of houses and the Star of David and photographs she has taken on nine annual trips to Ethiopia.
During that first visit, the siblings took a road trip, which, along with Nina Simone’s song “Four Women,” inspired her painting 4 women. As they were driving down a secluded road, Yosef saw a group of women dressed in colorful garments. They stopped and asked the women where they were going. The women said they were on their way to a wedding.
The contrast of the bright colors with the darkness of the secluded road made Yosef want to create a painting that shows “the connection of women supporting each other.” The pieces, all painted in 2014, are inspired by four influential women in Yosef’s life: her Nanye (mother), her Tatey (grandmother) and sisters Miruti and Mimi.
Yosef did not know what lay ahead when she decided to give up her design career in Istanbul and try her hand as an artist in Atlanta, but the women in her life and the women she observed on her trips to Ethiopia taught her to be “Eshet Chayil” — which is Hebrew for “a woman of valor,” and is based on the teachings in Proverbs 31:10–31.
“I give women a lot of power in my work,” Yosef said. “They are the queens of my life. My mother, grandmother and sisters deserve this.”