Tigist Yoseph Ron was seven and her younger sister, Hirut Yoseph, only five when they made the treacherous journey from their birthplace of Gondar, Ethiopia, to the border with Sudan. It was 1984, and Israel was preparing to evacuate thousands of Jews from war-torn Ethiopia in Operation Moses.
“We hid during the day and walked at night so we wouldn’t be seen,” recalled Tigist. “I remember moments of intense feeling, like extreme hunger.” At one point she became trapped underneath a boulder. “I didn’t cry because the elders told us not to make a sound or else we would be discovered,” she said. “I just kept quiet until they moved that rock from my leg. It was so swollen that I couldn’t walk on it, so they let me ride on a horse with Hirut.”
The younger Hirut remembers her father disappearing for a period of time. “As a little girl, I didn’t understand what was happening,” she said. “I was terrified I would never see him again. For years afterward I had nightmares about it.” (Her father returned within about an hour after negotiating with bandits who preyed upon Jewish migrants, she said.)
Along the way the family slept in a deserted house. “The ceiling was broken and I could see a little bit of the moon and the stars,” Hirut said.
The Yoseph family—including all 12 siblings—finally made it to Israel via Paris and spent time at the Atlit absorption center. “You’re in a state of shock all the time,” Hirut said about that period of her childhood. “I went to daycare and there was this pretty blonde teacher. I was mesmerized.”
Both Tigist and Hirut would gravitate to the arts, channeling their trauma and creativity into drawings, paintings, photography, fashion design, and other media. Artistic ability runs in the family. Their grandmother made pottery, and their mother, Yealemwork, embroidered traditional Ethiopian dresses and weaved colorful baskets. They have other siblings who also make Ethiopian crafts.
Tigist, now 43, studied visual communications at the renowned Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. She won a prize for figurative art from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art last year and is currently exhibiting 37 of her charcoal drawings there through April. The exhibition includes several portraits of Ethiopian-Israelis who have been killed or abused by police, including Yosef Salamsa and Yehuda Biadga, as well as Avera Mengistu, who has been held in captivity by Hamas since 2014.
“I did big portraits of them looking straight at you and called them by the names of their mothers,” she said. “Everyone should feel their pain. It’s a problem that we should all be concerned about.” In addition to her fine art, Tigist also designs and illustrates textbooks and children’s books.
The next generation of Ethiopian-Israeli artists gives her hope. “They are young and bold,” she said. “What’s amazing about them is they are not waiting for someone to set up exhibitions for them. They just do it by themselves.”
As for Hirut, 41, she studied fashion design and worked for clothing companies in Turkey and Israel. She has exhibited her own paintings around New York City and teaches at Harlem Hebrew Language Academy. “We do Israeli culture classes where we focus on artists from Israel, and then we do art inspired by their art,” Hirut explained. “One of the artists they chose is me. The kids think I’m very famous.”
In her work, which she often signs as her superhero alter-ego “Mulu,” Hirut strives to honor Ethiopia and empower women. “Ethiopia is always in my heart,” she said, adding that she also draws inspiration from West African cultures and the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.