27 September 2023

‘Walls and Trumpets’:
a triumph in blue on
a grey, dreary office
block in Southwark

‘Walls and Trumpets’ by Ofra Zimbalista on the walls of Maya House in Southwrk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Over the years, I have become very familiar with Borough High Street in Southwark, through my visits to Southwark Cathedral close to London Bridge and USPG offices at the other end of Borough High Street on Trinity Street.

Between the two there are so many place of interest: the literary connections with Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens; the many reminders of John Harvard, who gives his name to Harvard University; Saint George the Martyr, the church of Little Dorrit; the old coaching inn courtyard of the George; and the array of enticing and appetising food stalls in Borough Market.

Walking along Borough High Street, I might never have noticed Maya House on the west side of the street, but for the Costa coffee shop. It is a dreary, drab-looking, almost soulless 1970s office block at Nos 134-138.

However, as I said earlier this week, I benefit from walking around London instead of taking the tube, with my head up and my eyes open. And Maya House has an impressive art installation of three blue figures that make the building worth looking at.

‘Walls and Trumpets’ is an art installation on the walls of Maya House created in 2007-2008 by the late Israeli artist Ofra Zimbalista (1939-2014).

Ofra Zimbalista was one of the most important female artists in Israel, where she was born, lived and worked. She studied lithography, etching and screen-print at the Kalisher Art Academy, in Tel Aviv. She exhibited throughout Europe and Israel, and her works are displayed in public spaces around the world. Her human-sized figures casted from aluminium and bronze were often engaged in acrobatic activities.

A common feature of her public artworks was to show her groups of people in transitional situations: hanging and climbing as though trying to find their place.

Blue figures are a recurring motif in Zimbalista’s work. The figures are created by moulding real people in fibreglass, coloured with a deep blue pigment she imported specially from Morocco where it is used in house paint. This Yves Klein-like deep blue is one of Ofra Zimbalista’s signature motifs.

Maya House on the west side of Borough High Street in Southwark (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Her installation at Maya House, ‘Walls and Trumpets’, consists of three life casts. They were cast from real people who adopted their poses and then held them while they were covered in alginate and plaster. She created her initial moulds from these, and then shaped the final figures in blue fibreglass.

These three figures, each a vivid shade of brilliant blue, appear to be clinging to and climbing the wall of Maya House; they might be window cleaners, they might even be absailing. Looking more closely, you see two climbing figures, one holding a trumpet, the other holding a bugle, and a third seated figure who seems to be marching triumphantly atop the others, playing a drum – perhaps celebrating the fact that he has reached the top place he was trying to get to.

These three figures, with their vivid shade of blue and their musical instruments, add a splash of colour and joy to the drab façade of Maya House and they brightened up my rainy autumn day.

The best-known Biblical encounter between ‘Walls and Trumpets’ is, of course, at the Siege of Jericho, when the priests marched around the city walls for seven days, blowing their trumpets until the walls came tumbling down (see Joshua 6: 1-20). Being so close to Southwark Cathedral, it might not be too difficult to find priests seven days of the week. But, did the artist wish to see the drab and dreary walls of Maya House come tumbling down as these three blue figures blew their trumpets?

The three figures in vivid blue appear to be clinging to and climbing the wall of Maya House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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