How not to be an 'Israeli' artist

For an exhibition at the Tmuna gallery in Tel Aviv, up-and-coming contemporary artists attempt to defy the boundaries of nationality.

boaz arad art 88 298 (photo credit: Boaz Arad)
boaz arad art 88 298
(photo credit: Boaz Arad)
Many believe that the job of an artist is to create art which can transcend time and culture and speak to a universal audience. But this is an especially difficult objective when the artist comes from a country or culture, like ours, in which nationality or ethnicity is inextricably linked to their world view. It was with this difficulty in mind that curator Maayan Amir conceived the idea of a special exhibition featuring 50 of Israel's most prominent and up and coming contemporary artists. Amir challenged these creative minds to look through their portfolios and find a single piece which best avoids the label "Israeli." The resulting show, which is on display at Tel Aviv's Tmuna gallery, is entitled "This is not Israeli Art." When in Israel, either as a sabra (native born Israeli) or an oleh (immigrant), escaping the influence of the country in order to create something completely pure and transcendental is not easy. "Israeliness" is so deeply ingrained in every aspect of life, that for many artists, finding a piece of art that cannot be construed as "Israeli" is extremely daunting. While a few pieces on display in this exhibition have succeeded in being interesting though not necessarily "Israeli," other artists seemed to either miss the point or try so hard to not be labeled as Israeli that their work fell into new genres all together. "Tom and Tom," Uri Gershoni's 2006 photograph of two naked homosexual men laying in bed together, cannot possibly be construed as Israeli, especially as the men are very clearly not Jewish. However the blatant nudity and sexuality immediately conjures "Homosexual Art," which is in itself another boundary, another label. Alona Harpaz on the other hand accomplishes the goal with her painting called "Tree." Through her use of color, shading, and her own unique perspective, Harpaz creates a tree in an acrylic rainbow of colors that is almost reminiscent of Dali, but is wonderful in its own right. But a piece of art does not have to be devoid of culture to avoid a label. "A Future without an Evening," a Chagall-esque oil on canvas piece by Yair Gerboz, has a definitively "Jewish" theme as it portrays Hasidic men in various shades of gray standing in front of what appears to be an old, eastern-European village. The hats and curls of the men are obvious, but the piece cannot be labeled as Israeli or even Jewish because the skill of the artist ensures that a visitor to the gallery sees the skill of the artist and not his nationality. Many of the pieces, although they are interesting or funny or touching, were also totally unsuccessful in abandoning labels. Pippi Longstocking is a children's book and movie heroine and can easily be seen as a symbolic bridge overriding labels. However, Rona Yafman, the artist, completely politicized the character when she photographed a model dressed as the character trying, unsuccessfully, to take down the security fence at Abu Dis. The photo is insightful and funny, and it evokes some kind of nostalgia to see one's childhood hero come to life, but ultimately it was very much "Israeli" due to Yafman's setting and objective. Maybe she thought her choice of subject or location made her art "Palestinian" or "Dovish", but as long as the security fence remains a part of Israeli discourse or world discourse about Israel, her submission has missed the point. PERHAPS RECOGNIZING one's own Israeliness is as difficult as someone hearing their own accent. Almost any New Yorker will tell you that they have "rubba tyas" and not "rubber tires," and most sabras cannot say the words "beach" or "sheet" without provoking a few giggles from their native English- speaking friends. It is this complete submersion that makes this exhibition so difficult to pull off...and so interesting. Two artists seemed to understand their task entirely. Shelly Federman's and Oreet Ashery's photographs captured themes that defied cultural labels and really met Maayan Amir's objective. Federman's photograph, called "Like in America," features synchronized swimmers standing casually at the side of a pool. Apart from the olive toned tans of some of the girls, the piece could remind the viewer of anyone in the world. The piece transcends time as it reminds you of old sepia prints found in your grandmother's attic, and at the same time portrays beautiful young girls on a bright day, full of sunshine. The contrast is skillfully and beautifully done. "Made in India" is perhaps the most perceptive submission in the show. Oreet Ashery took the photograph during her travels in India. Granted, this is a very typically Israeli beginning, but her idea is universal. According to the artist, suits in India can be made very cheaply, very quickly, and with any material the customer likes. Ashery found a very traditional sari material and asked a tailor to create a jacket with an Adidas symbol on one breast. She then asked a Chinese man to pose for the photo while wearing the jacket. Her use of two major commercially rising countries like China and India, combined with the traditionalism of the sari and the image of the Adidas brand name, takes her art to an interesting political and socio-economic stage. It is in no way open to labeling or boundaries. Regardless of any missteps some of the artists may have taken, most of the pieces are well worth a trip to the gallery. Some will challenge your tastes, one or two may challenge your stomach, but each is worth seeing. Whether they will make the jump to "Big World" standards, as Amir hopes, has yet to be seen.