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The Man Who Turned His Home Into a ‘Mosaic Palace’

Yossi LugasiThis from AtlasObscura:

Yossi Lugasi was tired during the final months of his life. He had a hard time getting out of bed, moving or eating. His wife, Yaffa, begged him to finish the portrait of Donald Trump he started working on when he was still feeling better. Lugasi would get up, drag himself to his work table, glue some orange, pink and yellow mosaic pieces to a net, and go back to bed.

Lugasi passed away a year ago. The small mosaic portrait of Trump hangs in a discreet corner of the living room in his apartment, in the Israeli port city of Jaffa. It is hidden among hundreds of such portraits, mostly of Zionist leaders, Jewish historical figures, and Israeli pop culture icons. The portraits cover the walls, doors, door frames and floors of the humble housing project apartment. They spill out onto the roof: artists and actors, prime ministers, presidents and philosophers, Holocaust martyrs, war heroes, members of failed American peace conferences, and the spy Eli Cohen, portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen in the Netflix series The Spy. The portraits hang on walls on the roof, overlooking the Jaffa projects, blending into a landscape of solar water heaters and clothes lines. Over four decades, Lugasi—who left school during the 5th grade, was barely literate and never studied art formally—created no less than 1,090 mosaics.

Lugasi was born in Morocco in 1949, to a family of eight siblings. In 1954, during the great immigration of Jews from Islamic countries to Israel, his family arrived at a tent camp for recent immigrants in the Beit She’an Valley. His mother Aliyah worked as a seamstress, and his father Eliyahu painted houses. Lugasi’s workroom features a murky oil painting of a hill covered with tents. At the front of the painting a woman sits on a pile of suitcases, watching children playing in the mud.

When he turned 13, as a bar mitzvah present, he went to visit his friends from the absorption camp back in the 1950s. The friends had moved to the poor ‘“development town” of Beit She’an. The camp was razed, and beneath it were found the remains of the grand Roman and Byzantine city Scythopolis and its many mosaics. As an adult, when he couldn’t find a place to store drawings that were vulnerable to the rain and sun, Lugasi chose as his medium the eternal mosaic, which, like in Scythopolis, never peels or fades.

Today, impossible meetings occur on Lugasi’s roof, under the strong Jaffa sun: Ben Gurion is watching Clinton and Elvis is staring at Itzhak Rabin. One could expect Lugasi to reject those people, the representatives of an establishment that marginalized him. Avi says his father did the exact opposite: He built a shrine to them, and so reclaimed power. “His creation,” Avi says, “complements his life story.”

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