April 20 (Bloomberg) — Six years ago, a divorced and discontented Atalia Katz quit her job as a real-estate executive in Israel and traveled through Thailand, Vietnam, Morocco and Ethiopia, carrying her Canon and Leica cameras.
“I was looking for myself,” said the 58-year-old blond, green-eyed Israeli, in an interview in New York.
The search resulted in “Voice of Ethiopia,” an exhibition of 30 color photographs and a video at Zone: Contemporary Art gallery on Manhattan’s West 57th Street.
Many of the 12,000 photos Katz took during a two-week visit in January focus on 8,000 Ethiopian Jews of the Beta Israel community who are waiting in the city of Gondar for entry visas to Israel.
“All of them have first-degree relatives in Israel,” Katz said. “They are recognized as Jews but the paperwork takes time. Sometimes it takes years. In the meantime, they are separated from their brothers and sisters.”
“There is a long interview process to prove that they are in fact related to the community in Israel,” said Orlee Guptman, director of operations of the North American Conference of Ethiopian Jewry in New York, which contributes funds to the Beta Israel community. “The Israeli government has brought in about 1,000 people from the community since December 2009.”
Katz’s work doesn’t focus on the effects of red tape and the hardships of daily life. Instead she shows a crowded makeshift synagogue and portraits of the praying people. Men wear tallit shawls and yarmulkes. Women are cloaked in white from head to toe. The faces look focused and stern. The scene is familiar yet foreign, removed from the modern world.
Film footage of the services, screened in a backroom, fills the gallery with gentle chanting of a famous Hebrew song, “Am Yisrael Chai!” (“The People of Israel Live!”).
“They don’t have anything, no transportation, only their feet and what they can carry,” said Katz, speaking of her Jewish and non-Jewish subjects. “It’s like I went to the Bible days.”
The photographs capture that biblical quality. Men in white cloaks and turbans stand on a misty bridge in the mountains. Two dung collectors carry their trove atop their heads. A white goat leaps away as if to escape imminent sacrifice.
Portraits show people praying, children, old women with lined faces. A little girl wears a big grin as she jumps a ratty-looking rope. One striking image features a scarlet curtain billowing in the entrance of a blue-walled structure with a red sign above the door, “Bar Frike.”
‘Heart Was Pounding’
When Katz returned from the trip, a friend introduced her to Zone’s director Jennifer Bahng.
“She started showing me these photographs and my heart was pounding,” Bahng said in an interview at the gallery. “They were perfect in terms of formal elements: composition, color, shadows. And I had in a mind a project about Africa since 2005.” Katz studied photography at the Camera Obscura School of Art in Tel Aviv and the International Center of Photography in New York.
“The smiles are what got me,” said Bahng. “They have hardly any water, but they are smiling.”
Prices of the photographs range from $1,500 to $20,000, depending on size and edition, and 10 percent from the sales will be donated to the Beta Israel community, Katz said.
The show runs through April 30 at 41 W. 57th St. Information: +1-212-255-2177; http://www.zonecontemporary.com