Alexander Gamelin is a Russian artist who immigrated to Israel 18 years ago, and was lucky enough to find work in his field. He was able to open his own small gallery in Jaffa, where he gave artist friends the opportunity to exhibit their work.
Recently he came up with another idea designed to showcase Russian immigrants' art, and at the same time pay a tribute to the city of Tel Aviv in its centenary year.
"Good Morning Tel Aviv" is an Arts Festival spread over several Jaffa galleries, in which immigrant Russian artists display their work. Many of the paintings and sculptures have a direct reference to the city of Tel Aviv, its openness and its color.
Instead of painting inside a studio, the artists were asked to go outside and take their inspiration from the open air, using the strong bright daylight that characterizes the bustling Mediterranean city.
"Most of our artists are more familiar with Jaffa and Jerusalem," says Gamelin, "so getting them to paint Tel Aviv was a real departure for them."
Although most of the artists are not nostalgic for the Soviet Union they left behind, they all agree that being an artist in Russia had its advantages. For one thing studios were given free to artists.
As Jews they might have suffered discrimination in getting into some of the prestigious art schools, but once qualified they were free to create their own art.
"Coming to Israel meant having to start all over again," one artist told me.
Many become art teachers or work in graphics, but there just aren't enough art schools in Israel to accommodate all the immigrant artists; besides, as one artist put it, not everyone is cut out to be a teacher.
When the great Russian aliya of the '90s took place, the thousands of musicians and actors were quickly absorbed with the creation of numerous new orchestras and musical groupings of one sort or another, as well as with the creation of the Gesher Theater, which was built as much for the actors as to satisfy the cultural needs of the Russian immigrants.
Artists, on the other hand, were (and still are) very much on their own. Only the Ministry of Absorption acts on behalf of this gifted group, with an office specifically devoted to the needs of artists. One of their representatives was present at the opening of the festival which took place in the Horace Richter Gallery, and later the Lighthouse Gallery on Christmas Eve.
THE NARROW cobbled steps of Jaffa's old city resonated with the sound of the many Russians milling around, enjoying a glass of red wine, nibbling on pretzels and peanuts, and inspecting the art of their former compatriots, as the festival got off to a lively start. There were a great many pony-tailed and earring-wearing arty types among the men, and a lot more smoking than is usual today in social gatherings.
There was music, classical and jazz, a documentary film on artist Edouard Levin, who has been in Israel since the seventies, some speeches and presentations and - possibly the highlight of the evening - a display of body art by one of the artists represented, Slava Ivanyushenko which was a live walking tribute to Tel Aviv. Three models appeared, their bodies painted in powder blue and holding white vertical grids meant, one supposes, to represent the high buildings of the city.
"I am involved with body art," says the artist, "because it's a mixture of drawing and the human body - a mixture of beauty and plasticity."
Many of the artists expressed the opinion that art in Israel is not appreciated to the same extent it is in Russia.
"But we have to do it, it's in our soul," one artist said.
Elena Reznikov from Jerusalem, one of the artists whose work is displayed in the gallery, came from Tashkent 16 years ago. There she worked in a college, lecturing on art as well as painting, but here, with the language problem, she has not been able to teach. She also feels that in Russia the people are more attuned to art and interested in it than they are in Israel.
"They understand it with their heads," she says," but here it's more felt with the heart."
For all that she says she paints with brighter colors since moving to Israel, and her imagination is more open.
"I was sadder there," she says.
Today she makes a living illustrating books and working in advertising.
Kineret Avivi, the curator of the exhibition, chose the works represented from the artists whom Gamelin selected, and tried to convey the theme of Tel Aviv in some of her choices, but more often than not saw the whole exhibition as a group expression of new and not-so-new Russian immigrants, and how they view their adopted country. For her trained eye, the work is clearly rooted in the influences and techniques of the country they left behind.
"You can feel in the atmosphere of the works a strong influence of where they came from, of the regime, of the lack of freedom. It's not Eretz Israeli art," she says. "While their technique is super-professional, an artist is inevitably influenced by his surroundings, the climate - both literal and artistic - in which he was raised. The technique has something of another place about it."
The organizers hope that the festival will become an annual event, and from Avivi's perspective, the integration of young Israeli painters will be an additional bonus.
"We will make it a themed show and mix Israeli and immigrant artists to get a more balanced effect," Avivi says. "Israeli artists born here produce a different art - lighter, younger, more colorful. For the Russians, it's difficult for them to separate from their past."
"Good Morning Tel-Aviv" will continue in the Horace Richter and Light House galleries until January 14.
"We invite members of the public to visit us and enjoy the experience," says the curator.