In February 2009, the mayor of a small southern California town was reminded that in the United States, there is a lot more to watermelons than just fruit. Dean Grose, mayor of Los Alamitos, a town of 12,000 people in Orange County, decided to forward a "humorous" email to what he called a "small group of friends." The email consisted of a picture of the lawn of the White House - now occupied by a black president - planted with watermelons, with the caption, "No Easter egg hunt this year."
Among the "friends" who received this email was a local black businesswoman who, shocked and enraged by the racist overtones of the email, promptly contacted the local media. As calls mounted for his resignation or dismissal, Mayor Grose apologized, claiming he was unaware of the stereotype of black people's inordinate fondness for watermelons - unaware of decades of Jim Crow art, music, theater, posters, postcards, product logos, penny banks and toys depicting bright-eyed, red-lipped Blacks eating watermelon. A few days later, Grose resigned.
Interestingly enough, there is a lot more to watermelons than just fruit here in Israel as well. During the very decades in which African-Americans were beginning to angrily reject the traditional stereotypes in which watermelons played so vivid a part, pioneering Jewish artists in pre-state Israel, almost all from Eastern Europe, were actively adopting and embracing the watermelon as a symbol of their new home in the Middle East. Painting everything from watermelon vendors in an urban shouk to watermelon harvests on a kibbutz, these artists saw the watermelon as almost an icon of belonging, of sinking roots and growing in the "old new land."
"Watermelons," a current art exhibition at Tel Aviv's Rubin Museum, explores the ways in which several generations of Israeli artists have seen the watermelon as both a cultural symbol and de facto national emblem, from the 1920s to the present.
As curator Shira Naftali informs us in her printed introduction to the exhibition, "The works included in this exhibition do not echo the watermelon-related associations that inhabit Israel's collective unconscious, and which have to do with vacations, icicles, swimming pools and other summer pleasures. Rather, these watermelons are charged with sexuality, unbridled urges and violence (almost as dangerous as the explosive-filled watermelons that were set down in public places during the 1970s and 1980s)."
"Instead of alluding to some fantasy about a 'Mediterranean lifestyle,' they refer to a concrete Middle Eastern reality, and may be identified with its local inhabitants - Arabs, Yemenite Jews and other Middle Eastern Jews," the introduction continues. "The watermelon contains a certain duality concerning sexuality. Its rounded, uterine form endows it with feminine qualities, and its plethora of seeds may be associated with a giant ovary. Yet the process of choosing, carrying and cutting the watermelon is a quintessential man's job. The knife and the watermelon thus produce a charged erotic encounter."
"This was originally supposed to be a kind of lighthearted, summertime exhibition," chief curator Carmela Rubin explains. "But as we started to get into it, we began to realize that the subject had deeper meanings and more serious implications. We saw the color of the watermelon fruit as the same as the color of human blood. We saw the act of cutting
watermelons similar to thrusting a knife into human flesh. We became aware of political implications when we saw that the colors of the whole melon are like those of the Palestinian flag. The subject became deeper until instead of it being a lighthearted and 'summery' show, it became a more reflective exhibition for winter."
THE COLLECTION covers a lengthy span of time, from 1920s paintings by Reuven Rubin to a variety of works, including photographs, videos and 3-dimensional art works by contemporary artists.
"As a museum situated in the home of one of the pioneers of Israeli art, we always try in our exhibitions to connect the early periods of Israeli art with contemporary art, with what is happening today," Rubin says. "We feel that in art there is always continuity. We like to juxtapose the ideas of the early pioneers who came here from Europe and wanted instantly to become part of the landscape, with the work of people who were born here much later, and compare."
"Our exhibitions usually try to give a wider perspective of Israeli art across the generations," she adds. "Rubin's own perspective on Israeli art is distinctly that of an insider: She is the daughter-in-law of Reuven Rubin."
"Any subject that is interesting and significant is legitimate," she insists. "The watermelon is kind of a pretext or vehicle for us to examine how we look at ourselves. It's a small subject, but as we look at it over time we see that it has wider implications."
"The older works, from Reuven and his generation, show a period in which artists came from all over Eastern Europe with a common Zionist ideology and a desire to become instantly local, instantly rooted," Rubin says. "After the Arab riots in the 1930s there was a change of heart. Many artists went to Paris to reconnect with the larger world of art. Today, we cannot talk about 'Israeli art' as something homogeneous."
The contemporary works in the exhibit, she says, reflect this diversity of styles and opinions.
The older works are striking in their colorful, folkloristic portrayals of local life. Rubin's 1923 triptych, "First Fruits," is a celebration of early unabashed Zionism -portraying muscular, suntanned "new Jews" working in an agricultural Eden, while his "Arab Barber at Jaffa Gate" (1924) presents a whimsical depiction of a man feeding a watermelon slice to his donkey while he is sitting in a barber's chair, being shaved. These naïve themes of traditional Middle Eastern life are also vividly represented in Nahum Gutman's "Resting at Noon" (1927) and "Watermelon Vendor" (1965), and in Yohanan Simon's "Kibbutz Scene" (1950s).
Variations on this theme become evident and quite amusing as we move forward in time. Alex Levac's "Dimona" (2009) portrays two young, evidently Black Hebrew women seated at a table, eating huge wedges of watermelon, with a large poster of a lion behind them and a pair of sunglasses folded on the table in front of them. In Elie Shamir's "Fertilizing Watermelons; Ali Ka'abiyye and Workers" (2002), the workers - characteristically covered in long pants, long-sleeved shirts, hats and scarves - are Thai.
Photographs assume an increasingly larger presence as we move to the later decades of the exhibition. Two that stand out are an untitled 2003 picture by Ohad Matalon of three middle-aged, working class guys eating watermelon on a hot summer night, clad only in shorts and sandals; and Razi's "Aida Nudel" (1997), which shows the former Soviet dissident alone in the center of a room, sitting on…yes, a watermelon.
While the paintings and photographs of the exhibition run from pre-state times to new works by contemporary artists, one work is in fact made "new" almost every day by an artist who comes in to the exhibition to 'freshen' her creation and keep it flowing properly. The piece - a sort of living image - is called "Tear Fountain," and the artist is Sigalit Landau, 40, an already internationally known figure and one of the stars of the exhibition.
Landau comes to the Rubin Museum each day to maintain her work, which consists of tear-like saltwater dripping slowly down to two lower levels from a top level consisting of watermelon, "mummified" watermelon flesh that looks disturbingly human, and salt.
"You're looking at watermelons that are covered with salt," Landau explains while working on the piece. "Watermelon has a large component of water, just like our bodies, something like 90 percent. So what goes on is that when salt touches the cells of the fruit, each cell says, 'I'm not concentrated enough. I'll take out my liquid and be more concentrated, and be more like my surroundings.' This is a basic feature-what organisms do to be similar to their surroundings."
"After a while," she continues, "the fruit starts looking like flesh to a degree that no one believes that it's not meat. And when the saltwater hits the copper plate below, there's a kind of surprise. We get a kind of turquoise color that reminds us of the Dead Sea."
The Dead Sea looms large in Landau's art, and is a driving motif in three other works included in this exhibition, two loop videos and one bronze statue.
In the first video, entitled simply "DeadSee," a 250-meter cord penetrates and connects 500 watermelons, forming a six meter spiral raft floating on the Dead Sea. Landau, nude, is embedded within the spiral. As an unseen hand pulls the cord, the spiral turns and gradually unravels. Landau is reaching out against the unraveling direction of the turning raft toward a small area in the spiral where the fruit is, as she describes it, "wounded, red and exposed, like myself to the sting of the salt." The spiral gradually recedes to a thin green line, until it disappears and Landau drifts away. This extraordinary film was shot in August 2004, Landau says, from atop a "very, very tall crane."
The second video, "Standing on a Watermelon in the Dead Sea" (2004), portrays Landau, again nude, attempting to maintain her balance while standing on the fruit. Her head and hands are above water; the film is shot from below her. As the video rolls, replete with bubbling sounds, Landau alternatively looks like herself treading water, herself being crucified, a primitive effigy figure, and a bird attempting to fly.
The bronze sculpture, called "Stranded on a Watermelon in the Dead Sea" (2009), is a recent restatement of the video, which yet somehow manages to evoke very different reactions.
The "Watermelons" exhibition will continue at the Rubin Museum until February 17. Through what initially seems like an absurd fixation on watermelons, each of the 29 participating artists, living and dead, presents an intriguingly unique perception of what it means to be alive, human, and Israeli.Rubin Museum, 14 Bialik Street, Tel Aviv. Tel. (03) 525-5961.