Discover more from Jewcy Magazine
Nicole Zisman and her Tramadol Baby
Through her work, this Venezuelan Jewish artist is exploring identity, digital assimilation, and Jewishness
From being featured in London Fashion Week posters holding a chanukiyah and showcasing a t-shirt with Hebrew text to exploring mental health through Jewish a lens in her 2022 exhibition בטחון — Tranquila, Mami, Nicole Zisman’s work puts her Judaism and latinidad at the forefront.
Zisman’s center is fashion, but she spills over into other mediums such as sculpture, film, and print, all of which are often tied together in her pieces by saturated colors, clinical lights, and patterns that resemble glitching screens. At first glance, Zisman’s pieces feel very current and and evoke a sense of urgency, effectively reflecting the emotional intensity with which they highlight and ask questions about the weight of her identities in rapidly changing and increasingly online non-Jewish surroundings.
“I’m going to try to avoid Spanglish,” Zisman assures me laughingly at the beginning of our Zoom call, acknowledging the tension between both of our bilingual natures, and my need to get a clear transcription from our recording. (We fail almost immediately.) Her American accent is layered with signature Venezuelan breathiness, subtle hints of British ts, and is topped off with a slight Miami flair.
If Zisman’s unique speech patterns are indication of anything, it’s her multicultural background, which she attributes to her Jewishness. “I find it really annoying when people think that my Latino heritage is cool, but my Jewish heritage is not cool,” she tells me straightforwardly, “I’m Latina because I am a Jew.” Like Zisman’s family, many Jews arrived in Latin America as refugees fleeing persecution, either from Europe or the Middle East and North Africa. “The Latino Jewish story is so important. Not just because Latino Jews are diverse in the way of Ashkenazi and Sephardic, but also because we play such an important role in defining what Jewishness is in the same way that every other Jewish community does. Yet we're not really known about.”
Zisman was born in California to Venezuelan Jewish immigrants, and would visit her relatives in Caracas every year until she was twelve, when it became unsafe to do so. “I felt different to other Jews in California when I was growing up. Even though my family is Ashkenazi, I didn't really grow up eating much Ashkenazi food. I grew up eating arepas and cachapas and hallacas,” she remembers. “That was probably compounded with the fact that my family was Orthodox rather than rather than Reform and Conservative, which is what predominates in Southern California’s Jewish communities.”
It was when her family moved to Miami in her teens that Zisman felt her identity was truly in flux. “It was so normal there,” she tells me. “Miami is a real melting pot, where there really aren't boundaries between people. When I’m there, I don’t feel separate.”
Zisman is now based in London. She has been living in the UK since starting university at Central Saint Martins, where she studied fashion and art. There, she has found being a Jew more jarring than in the United States. Nonetheless, this contrast has proven to be a compelling backdrop for Zisman in one of the most important subjects of exploration in her work: assimilation.
“I'm really interested in the visuality of assimilation and what it looks like. And I'm also really interested in this idea that what you see doesn't necessarily equal what you know,” the artist tells me. “In theory, every person can choose to what extent they assimilate into into a certain culture. That being said, though, I think that the choice to not define ourselves at all, means that other people, often malicious people will come in and do it for us. So in that, in that kind of sense. I don't think assimilation necessarily works.”
The role the internet and technology have begun to play in this repeated process in Jewish history is something Zisman takes a particular interest in, dubbing the phenomenon ‘digital assimilation.’ “We have our real identities, and now, we also have our online identities. I think that, for the most part, they are separate. Online assimilation can look disguising yourself or minimizing yourself by, for example, advocating for everybody else but yourself. Or even by just hiding your identity online, in the way that you would IRL.”
Zisman explores this topic through a now-defunct Instagram account in which she created a digital persona to contrast the way she actually dresses and behaves as a Jew. From the content she posted on the account, which she named ‘Tramadol Baby’, the artist collages images and used them to create prints that she then translated into garments, sculpture or print.
Nicole’s art is her way of contributing to Jewish culture and the fight against antisemitism. “People are rightfully afraid, and that often includes me. But I don't want to be an activist or a journalist,” she says. “I'm a sensitive person, and it would really take a toll on me. Rather than writing think pieces, I explore things artistically hoping that through my work, I can contribute a positive depiction of Judaism and who Jews are.”
Zisman’s body of work – which she describes as an “exploration and devout celebration of Venezuelan Jewish identity in the diaspora” – is now complied in an artist book, which she recently released in a limited batch of 15 copies. You can view more of Nicole Zisman’s work on Instagram or her website at nicolezisman.com.