When Druze photographer Amira Zayan was young, her parents intended that she should marry one of the men in her village, but she refused and chose to remain single.
“Later there was another attempt and I made that fail, too, in order to give myself over to the independence that art allows,” Zayan recalls. “Meanwhile, they persuaded me to study something ‘respectable’ and in fact I became a lab technician specializing in industrial chemistry, but my heart was pulling me toward art and photography.”
Zayan, 38, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees (with honors) in art and art education from the University of Haifa, and received a prize in 2009 from Israel's Shpilman Institute for Photography. But even today, she says, when the subject of her work comes up, her family and friends ask, “What do you get out of it?”
In her photography, Zayan, who lives in the Western Galilee village of Yarka, often references the status of a veiled woman subjected to traditional male dictates.
Her own life, as a young girl and a grown woman, interfaces with her staged photos, which feature disembodied women’s clothing juxtaposed against a backdrop of exposed concrete – a white kerchief floating like some sort of spirit between heaven and hearth; a faceless bride in the shadows, with an irate man in the background; red lips or shoes incorporated into the grayness of (ostensibly masculine) concrete or the whiteness of (feminine) cloth.
She is still single by choice but observes clear, traditional limitations in her life so as not to anger her mother, who is religious.
Zayan: “It doesn’t matter what happens or where – as an unmarried woman I will not spend the night outside my home in Yarka and I will always come back to the village. Nudity as an art form is also out of bounds for me. I will always make sure to photograph women fully dressed to some extent or other because I respect tradition and my family’s sensitivities.”
The photographer's seven brothers and three sisters praise and support her and her art today, she says. Her father, who owned a concrete factory, died five months ago, and her show “On Exposed Concrete” (curator Avshalom Levi), which closed about a week ago at the Kibbutz Kabri art gallery, was devoted to his memory.
“We had many disagreements," she admits. "He didn’t like my path as an artist, and actually I ‘talk' to him now after his death so that he’ll accept me as I am. My parents accepted much more after I became an art teacher. They only talked about that and not about the photography.”
As a child and a teenager, were you exposed to art in general and to photography in particular?
“In Yarka there was no exposure at all to art. There is no place where a painting or a sculpture is on display, and when I was a child girls were not allowed to study such things. My brother had a photography lab: He would develop and print photos for many Jews from the area who would come to him, and that started to spark my imagination. Back in those days I dreamed of being a lawyer or a psychologist, but in the end I went to study what my parents wanted and not what I wanted – industrial chemistry.
"Only after I took an art course at Western Galilee College did I become crazy about the subject and then went on to do my B.A. in French and in art. I had a vision: to bring art to my community, to the village. It’s starting to trickle down now.”
Even when you first started out did you treat the subject of the status of Druze women?
“Yes, because I myself experienced many difficult things. At first it was just about myself, through my self-portraits, but later I told myself that it’s not only my story but the story of all my women friends. Anyone who goes beyond the framework and the dictates of the community comes into conflict with family and friends. My status as an unmarried woman in a patriarchal-familial society is not simple, but my independence is more important to me than a husband who would not let me do art.”
In your last show, alongside veiled women the image of your father appears along with your own image, lying on his bed.
“My father died suddenly, after he got an infection following a simple operation on his gall bladder, and this show in fact continued the charged dialogue between us. After all, I always wanted to do things that satisfied him, I prayed he would believe in me after I made a lot of trouble for him. I still wanted to tell him that I want to be independent, free – but not because I want to do something bad to him. It was hard for him to accept me, although I was very close to him.”
Zayan insists on remaining in Yarka and pursuing her art there. She is proud to teach young people art and her livelihood from teaching allows her to continue doing her photography and producing work for shows.
What are you working on these days?
“Once again I am focusing on the women in our society. I still haven’t had enough of the subject.”