Myriam Nafte has her feet in two worlds: she’s a visual artist, as well as an adjunct professor in anthropology at McMaster University.
Her current show, Archive, reflects both her visual arts skills, as well as her science background. The two disciplines are integrated in this retrospective of her Judaic work, which is now showing at the Sheldon Rose Gallery in Toronto.
Nafte says the works celebrate the Jewish contribution to the arts and sciences, which will also be the topic of a talk she will be giving at the gallery on Nov. 17 at 2 p.m.
Through archival research, Nafte discovered that the Jews from 11th century onward contributed a significant amount of research in such fields as anatomy, botany, math, medicine and astronomy.
“The exhibition is about reclaiming the Jewish presence in the medieval arts and sciences, (as) so much has been eradicated by history,” she says.
Nafte integrates her knowledge of human anatomy, science and Hebrew into her visual art, within layers of paint that add texture and luminosity to her work.
The gallery’s owner, Sheldon Rose, says he’s been interested in mounting an exhibition of Nafte’s work since he first encountered it back in 2007. “To see scholarly interests integrated into artwork of such a high calibre is truly rare,” notes Rose.
Nafte’s technique is quite unusual, as she paints with natural pigments that she mixes herself. “I love using natural organic elements. There’s something alive and dynamic about using them,” she says.
“It looks better. I can also control the range of colours and textures a lot more, and I can layer the colours more effectively.”
The focal point of her piece, Fire, is an armillary sphere, a Jewish invention that calculates the movement of celestial bodies.
Element 109 pays homage to Lise Meitner, an Jewish-Austrian physicist, as well as Italian chemist and author Primo Levi. Nafte utilizes the Renaissance motif of concentric circles, while integrating a quote from Levi that’s written in Hebrew.
In Faith or Truth, the dominant colour orange is accented by a deep burnt orange, a shade achieved through a cochineal dye.
In the centre of the canvas, four deep-blue, diamond-shaped forms are each framed in finely lettered Hebrew text, while a larger circle of Hebrew surrounds them.
The text contains quotes from Primo Levi, Levi ben Gershon, a 14th century mathematician and astronomer, and Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher, physician and astronomer.
“These men represent 800 years of Jewish research and thought between them,” says Nafte.
She learned to do the precise Hebrew lettering from her late father, Max Benshabat, an Orthodox sofer (scribe). “I apprenticed with him for two years to learn how to do halakhically correct Hebrew text. He was very supportive of me as an artist,” she says.
Nafte also studied anatomy, so that she could integrate anatomically correct human forms into her art.
For her master’s degree, she researched the demographics of Jewish community life in North Africa. Through her archival research, Nafte discovered Hebrew manuscripts, old documents and letters that turned out to be treatises on math and medicine. “I was intrigued by them,” she says.
She points out that for 900 years, Hebrew was considered to be a language of science, noting that, “Many scientific treatises were translated from Hebrew into Greek and Latin.”
Nafte’s show runs until the end of November. On Nov. 24, from 2-4 p.m., a violinist and harpsichordist will play Baroque and Renaissance music inspired by Nafte’s art exhibition at the gallery.
For more information, call 416-707-0584, or visit Myriamnafte.com.