Currently on display at New York’s Aquavella Galleries are some recent works by Jacob El Hanani, who has been dubbed “the grandfather of micro-drawing.” This painstaking artform involves the creation of images through thousands of tiny pen-strokes. Sometimes El Hanani uses a form of this technique he borrowed from traditional Jewish religious art, where pictures are constructed from tiny Hebrew letters, which often spell out a biblical text. Yael Friedman, having interviewed El Hanani about his life and work, writes:
El Hanani was born into a booming postwar Casablanca, to a middle-class family. . . . His father was an accountant who “dressed to kill,” they spoke French at home, and he was surrounded by the gifts and trappings of a comfortable and urbane world. Like most Moroccan Jews, his family left in the early 1950s, arriving by ship in Haifa Bay in 1953.
The El Hanani family moved to a moshav (a type of cooperative agricultural community first founded in Israel in the early 20th century) and eventually to Petaḥ Tikvah. At an ulpan, [an intensive Hebrew course for immigrants], his father, conspicuously elegant and refined for that setting, made an impression on a fellow student, a woman who was the president of a women’s Mizraḥi organization. She asked him whether he’d like to come work for their school in Ra’anana. It was a religious school for World War II orphans—his father would have to wear a kippah and say the prayers. When he’d come home, he would remove it.
Slowly, he grew to appreciate and enjoy the traditions and began absorbing them. As El Hanani describes it, it was a process of “na’aseh v’nishma” [literally, “We shall do and we shall hear,” from Exodus 24:7]—first do it and understand later. Friday nights transformed into special and solemn occasions in their household and they became more observant than their extended family.
El Hanani’s work, the current exhibition included, remains infused with Jewish themes, with pieces titled Ivrit (the Hebrew word for Hebrew), Dot-Nekuda (from the Hebrew word meaning either “dot” or the diacritics used to represent vowel sounds), and Without Form and Void, a reference to the second verse of Genesis.