For over a century now, the labyrinthine lanes of the famous Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem have been resounding with the call of vendors during the day and thumping music after dark when the market turns into a rather unconventional nightspot. Berel Hahn was walking its narrow alleys on a quiet Sabbath night early last year when he imagined dousing its streets with many hues. He envisioned the shuk (market) as a street-art gallery with all its shutters painted. Over the last year, he has put his plan into action with artist Solomon Souza.
As night dawns upon the city, the duo head for the market. Armed with a face mask to protect against the fumes of spray paint and a cellphone that Souza uses for references, the duo paint graffiti-style murals, mostly of inspiring prominent personalities.
While Souza, 23, is the artist behind the images, Hahn, 26, does the background work. He negotiates with store owners to allow for their shutters to be painted to researching on inspiring people connected with the history of Israel and peace movements across the world. Over 150 shutters have been painted during the last 17 months. Si Ali Sakkat, former mayor of Tunis who helped save Jews during the Holocaust, occupies one shutter; another has Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal correspondent executed in Pakistan by the Al-Qaeda in 2002. When the jailed Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard was released after 30 years in a US prison in November 2015, Souza painted a portrait of him that went viral within hours. “We work on donations and charge no fees. While several of the personalities painted are well-recognised, an effort is also made to search for the unsung heroes and give them the recognition they deserve,” says Hahn.
The Londoner Souza and Brooklyn-bred Hahn first met at a yeshiva in Nachlaot. “Being a Jew, I often felt like an outsider in London. I wanted to know how it was to live in Jerusalem. Here, I feel at home,” says Souza, who has been in Israel since 2010. Oblivious to his distinguished art lineage, the city has embraced his art, and the grandson of FN Souza prefers that it remains that way. The self-taught artist grew up listening to “inspiring” stories about his grandfather from his artist mother, Karen Souza Kohn, but his recollections of him are vague. “He died before I even turned 10, but I remember going with him to a French restaurant and struggling to eat snail, and he laughing at me,” recalls Souza.
His style too is different from the Progressive Indian master known for his thick impasto and seductive nudes. The only similarity, perhaps, are the solid black lines on some of his studio work. “I would be looking at exhibiting in art galleries, but right now, what is in the marketplace is one big solo,” says Souza. The shuk is his one big canvas waiting for completion. The only evidence of his Indian ancestry is a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi — a bespectacled wrinkled face under the sign “Strictly Kosher”.