Julia Gat’s decade-long project invites us to reimagine what we define as learning

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The 25-year-old photographer and her four siblings were homeschooled, guided by their desires and passions rather than a prescribed curriculum

‘Khamsa’ refers to a palm-shaped amulet popular throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Translating to ‘five’ in Arabic, it depicts an open right palm. When repeated three times, it acts as a protective incantation from the evil eye. For 25-year-old artist Julia Gat, ‘Khamsa’ represents the idyllic environment in which she and her four younger siblings were raised. Having moved to the south of France from Israel in 2007, the five siblings were home-schooled, and grew up speaking Hebrew, English and French. Their parents followed an alternative educational philosophy called ‘Unschooling’, an approach led by each child’s needs and desires. 

Khamsa Khamsa Khamsa is Gat’s decade-long autobiographical project. Beginning when she was 15 years old, it documents her family, but also their “intimate bubble” of friends and neighbours who also pursued an alternative route to education. For the first seven years of their lives, the children were encouraged to play – to immerse themselves in activities and socialising. “We grew up in a bubble,” she says. “A self-created world, playing games and inventing characters.” From the age of 14, they were encouraged to pursue a certain path. Her two youngest siblings are still figuring out their passions; her second eldest Nina is pursuing a career as a jazz pianist; and for Gat, it was photography. 

© Julia Gat.
© Julia Gat.

“Without school to distract us, everything fell into place,” says Gat. “There was definitely a sensation of freedom, that you were able to build your own curriculum, and actually choose what you want to do with your time… With this comes a great deal of responsibility.” Rather than following a prescribed route, “you really decide,” she continues, “you realise to what extent your life is in your own hands”.

Born in 1997 in Israel, and now based between Marseille and Rotterdam, Gat’s work has received recognition from numerous international awards, and has been exhibited in Europe and the US. She is currently exhibiting Khamsa Khamsa Khamsa as part of the official programme of Les Rencontres d’Arles, but also as a solo show at Galerie Huit Arles. Last week, she launched her debut photo book with French publisher Actes Sude, to coincide with the opening of the festival. 

© Julia Gat.
© Julia Gat.

“Homeschooling is not a system. You let the plant grow, and you see what it becomes”

© Julia Gat.

As time goes on, Gat is “more and more grateful” for the childhood her parents chose for her. In engaging with her work, Gat hopes viewers will recognise that there are alternative routes to traditional educational structures, which don’t always serve every individual. “It’s like asking an elephant, a fish and a monkey to climb a tree. They don’t all have the same skills,” she says. “[Homeschooling] is not a system. You let the plant grow, and you see what it becomes.” 

Documenting moments of joy, intimacy, and play, Khamsa Khamsa Khamsa is an invitation to reimagine what we define as learning. But it is also an autobiography, an intimate document of Gat’s unique childhood, as well as her development as a photographer. In the words of her mother: “Your archive keeps that world we lived in as a real place, which otherwise could be easily mistaken for a dream.”

Julia Gat is exhibiting at Galerie Huit Arles and Les Rencontres D’Arles until 25 September 2022.