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Interview with Yarlle Ben-Zeev: Israeli-Yemenite Female Artist in America

By: Gad Nahshon

September 8, 1993. She will never forget this day. "Ms. Yaelle Ben-Zeev was commissioned to draw some art pieces for our 7th floor meeting room. The results of this work were excellent..." Yaelle Ben- Zeev, a new Israeli female artist fights in America to get recognition of her unique artistic talents. She already exhibited in many prestigious places. She was recognized by the City of New York as a "New York artist and was invited to join the famous National Art Club of New York City. Its president O. Aldon James, Jr., praised her. "Ms. Ben-Zeev is an international artist of great talent and commitment and thus symbolizes those who have enriched our city for decades."

Ben-Zeev, a beautiful, warm and gracious person was born in Israel, in Tel Aviv. Her parents were third-generation Yemenites. "The truth is that they did not encourage me to become an artist. As good Jewish parents they believed that this is a bad and unrewarded profession. So I had to educate myself to be a professional artist. And I was, also, a model, a business women and flight attendant. I have a lot of life experience to enrich my creativity, as well," Ben-Zeev told me at Jerusalem- Broadway (corner of 38th Street, Manhattan), a landmark for many Jews and Israelis as well. "I really started my career as a successful artist who sells his work as well when I lived in San Diego. And I learned over there a lot of professional exclusive secrets (oil). My first exhibition was in San Diego Art Institute in 1990. And the second one was in 1991 in New York City at the National Academy of Art and Design" Ben-Zeev told me.

Recently Ben-Zeev decided to open a new horizon in her artistic life: going back to her Yemenite roots and in America. "The trigger for my going back to my unique Israeli ethnic world was the fact that my brother married a Yemenite girl. Since that event, I study the specific role and status of the Yemenite females in our modern history of four generations: life tradition, heritage, socio-economic role, folklore, jewelry, costumes, and Yemenite arts, as well. I want to study to expose these topics. I want to show those changes in the life and status of the Yemenite women inside the modern society. And I have expressed the changes in my art works and I will do it in the future," said Been-Zeev.

In May, 1997 at Langston Hughes Community Cultural Center, Corona, she surprised many by her unique-pioneer exhibition entitled "The Evolution of Yemenite Jewish Women." Her paintings have vividly documented the changes in status, outlook, and opportunity of the Yemenite women. Ben-Zeev also believes that she presents issues of ethnicity and acculturation in the American melting pot. So that other ethnic groups can draw their own conclusions. Truly the issues of Yemenites in America is an underdeveloped academic area. But Ben-Zeev concludes that the new Yemenite woman is a liberated one. Ben-Zeev explains to me, "In Yemen the woman was submissive. Well she was very important as the bastion of the family. She was the center of the family. Today, thanks to education, the woman is equal to the Yemenite man." Indeed Ben-Zeev herself is a well- educated, free and creative Yemenite woman and the sky is the limit, but she knows that life is not easy and that she must work hard in order to express herself in art and in the competitive Big Apple. And inside the Marriott Hotels, New York City, there is a permanent proof of her talents and potential as an artist. But today she wants to integrate herself to her asset, the Yemenite heritage.

Yaelle has successfully developed her artistic talent first in Israel, then in California, and now in New York. Through this series she wants to share her insights with others who are trying to adapt to new ways of life in the United States. I would like to inspire them to find meaning in their own experiences of acculturation," she says. "It is also important that they reflect one - and understand - the changes that are happening in their own culture."

Since arriving from San Diego to New York in 1990 to study at the National Academy of Art and Design, Yaelle has accomplished much in a variety of media. Her paintings have been placed in exhibitions in the Designer and Decorator's (D&D) Building showroom and in a number of private collections. Earlier this year Yaelle was awarded a grant from Queens Council on the Arts. Recognition of the talent of this emerging artist has come quickly. Schuyler G. Chapin, New York City's Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, has conferred on her the coveted status of "New York Artist". She was invited to join the venerable National Arts Club on Gramercy Park South in Manhattan, where she has participated in exhibitions.

For the past four years, Yaelle's paintings have been part of the permanent collection in the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square, New York City. The Hotel commissioned her for several paintings to be displayed in the convention rooms, the lobby of the Ball room floor, the Engineering offices, and recently, on the breathtaking 48th floor of the exclusive lounge in the "view Restaurant and Bar". This famous restaurant and bar became home to Yaelle's Three-dimensional 30-foot by 7-foot tapestry which she selected to create out of her mural painting design. "The low ceiling simulating the night sky, with fiber-optic changing lights to emphasize a receding skyline into the stars: just as it looks to the guests from the 48th floor view which unfolds in the multi-faceted, vibrant beauty of New York City's Landmarks.

In 1993, one of her paintings were mysteriously stolen from the Empire Convention Room of the Marriott Marquis Hotel. Being a sensitive artist, Yaelle took the loss to heart. Yaelle believes the piece which was stolen should have remained in its rightful place at the Hotel for all time. The Marriott Marquis showed continuing interest in more of Yaelle's paintings for future acquisitions. But Ben- Zeev, who specialized in oil print techniques on canvas and paper, as well as airbrushing and silkscreens, will go on, first of all with her ethnic message, the Yemenite women and in New York the hub for the art world.

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