Defining Moments

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The unwavering support of a father

By Ilan Preskovsky

It’s not just any artist who can boast to having their work featured in the illustrious Guggenheim Museum in New York City, displayed in dozens of exhibitions throughout the world, and sought after by major art collectors, but it’s even rarer still when that artist is the daughter of a highly respected, very much Orthodox rabbi. With all this in mind, you would be correct in assuming that Naama Nothmann has had more than her share of defining moments.

Narrowing it down, though, while talking to Naama she always returned to two specific moments in her life that shaped everything that would come after.

The more recent of the two happened when, as a new immigrant to South Africa, Naama decided to try and have her work exhibited at the Guggenheim. Considering her young age, lack of professional exposure in the art world, and far-away location, she is quick to call such a move “chutzpadik”, but it clearly says a lot about her considerable talent that, despite everything working against her, one of the greatest art museums in the world bought no less than three of her pieces.

With so staggering an achievement under her belt, Naama’s career as an artist kicked into high gear. Known most especially for her unique collage technique – a technique that she discovered entirely by accident, after one of her children spilled coffee on one of her paintings – she works in numerous mediums, both in fine and commercial art, and is inspired by both her own Jewish tradition and the general world around her. She has done collage portraits of a number of very famous people, contributed to the type-face of the well-known Talman edition of the Talmud Bavli, and had one of her paintings, “Studio with a View to the Sea”, chosen in an arts competition at no less than the Royal Academy of Art.

Before all of this though, as a young girl with real artistic talent living in a fairly rigidly charedi community in Israel, Naama was blessed to have the unwavering support of her father, Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, a Polish immigrant who would go onto become a much beloved rabbi, writing a number of highly acclaimed and well known Torah works, among them Sefer HaToda’ah (known in English as The Book of Our Heritage) and Ish U’Veito (The Jew and His Home). Contrary to the main narrative of Chaim Potock’s classic My Name is Asher Lev where art and religion stand in stark contrast, her talents were nurtured from an early age by her father. The fact that she was the only girl at her Bais Ya’akov school remotely interested in art was never allowed to stand in the way of her destiny.

Rabbi Kitov was an eternal source of inspiration and support for young Naama, going so far as to set aside a space for her in his office to use as a studio, where she worked side-by-side with him throughout her teenage years. The close proximity to her father not only gave her all the moral and spiritual support she could ask for, but also gave her plenty of opportunity to learn from the great man, even as he himself asked her for her advice on numbers of occasions.

The real turning point for her though, was when her father worked it out for her to go study fine and commercial art, first in Israel and then in New York at the School of Visual Arts and the Delehanty Institute of Architecture. Her father even came to visit her during her time at these schools. No doubt a strange sight of conservative black and white in a sea of colourful, liberal Bohemia that was only exacerbated by Rabbi Kitov’s inability to speak English, his visits only further cemented in Naama her father’s unwavering support and belief in her and her G-d-given gifts. Indeed, he made it clear to her time-and-time-again that her artistic abilities were nothing less than a gift from G-d and that squandering them would be, dare we say, sacrilegious.

Such is the power of parental support – her father was her biggest cheerleader, but it must be mentioned that her mother was supportive of her choices too – that though her incredible achievements are undoubtedly her own, the sense of self-worth and quite religious duty to do justice to her own gifts undoubtedly helped her along her long, amazing journey.

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