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Miami revs up for Art Basel: Zachary Balber's Tamim electrifies audiences
Self-portrait, the artist Zachary Balber. Zack (Ginger), archival pigment print on Hahnemuhle paper. Photo by World Red Eye / Misha Mehrel.

MIAMI, FLA.- The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU presents the electrifying new exhibition Zachary Balber: Tamim (on view now through March, headlines Miami Art Week). This is the first time these photographs have been exhibited in full color, some are new and have never been shown.

Zachary Balber is a rising star in Miami’s art scene who is fast gaining national acclaim. These portraits cut through uncharted terrain.

Some of these monumental portraits were printed as large as possible, to show the subjects at two or three times their human scale. Since many of these men have serious tattoos, this creates the effect of transforming a portrait into a landscape experience for the viewer ‒ the markings across their flesh forge an explicit landscape.

For this show, he uses portrait photography to uncover the camouflaged identity of some of Judaism’s most unconventional Jews. Balber describes the men in this series as his very own “lost tribe of outsider Jewish men.”

Despite their rough "Rambo-Jew" exteriors (as Balber calls them), through their gaze into his camera lens they reveal a surprising boyish innocence. The viewer cannot escape the humanity in these images.

“I want to emphasize the tenderness of their gaze by enlarging the subjects beyond the size of traditional portraiture,” says Balber.

"These photos are like my smoke-signals to the rest of my Jews out there who have also felt like outsiders ‒ where are you?" says Balber.

“I hope others who also feel estranged from their culture come to see this series, including other Jews who haven’t been inside a Temple in a long time because they feel like they don’t belong. My hope is that they feel more comfortable coming to an art exhibition, at this historic, beautiful Synagogue that means so much to the community and is now a gathering place for art."

In Balber's photographs, the men reveal themselves. They expose their problems, heritage, insecurities, fears and humanity. “These guys can, and they DO, belong,” says Balber. "No one seems to be talking about these types of outsiders in this way.”

The photographer is Jewish himself and connected strongly with the men he photographed. Through this series, he re-connected with his own heritage.

What followed was a mutual odyssey of reconnecting to their culture, for both the subjects and the photographer. Many of the subjects felt like outsiders, sharing common life challenges such as incarceration, addiction, recovery and rehab. Like Balber, they also felt estranged from their culture and their families.

In these photographs they each stand proud for the camera and unashamed to be themselves - the meaning of Tamim. The series includes a portrait of the artist Typoe.

As a child, his father took him to Israel and they visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. This is where Balber was impacted by the power of photography. There, he witnessed how photographers captured these stark, horrific realities and this life-changing moment inspired Balber to become a photographer.

He connected with the men he photographed, and this helped him rediscover his own heritage, in new ways that were different from his childhood exposure to organized religion. Through the course of his own similar life challenges, Balber met and helped these men, who also took him under their wing, as they worked together on bettering their lives.

Tamim roughly translates from Hebrew as “perfect." Balber asked each of the men to wear his kippah (the head covering that Balber was Bar Mitzvahed in), however they saw fit as they sat for their portraits. "Our museum wanted to explore the subject of tattoos, because many of our younger audiences were sharing their stories about how they were deliberating whether or not they should ink or not ink," said the museum's Executive Director, Susan Gladstone. "We wanted to identify a young, Florida Jewish artist who has a strong following among young art lovers, so that we could explore this subject through his art. We found Zachary Balber, his work is already in the permanent collections of prominent institutions and major collectors, and his series Tamim featured many young Jews with tattoos."

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December 3, 2019

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