From the Soviet Union with love

Through “Pravda,” Zoya Cherkassky is certainly adding her unique voice and perspective.

Zoya Cherkassky (photo credit: THE ROSENFELD GALLERY)
Zoya Cherkassky
Zoya Cherkassky paints between two worlds: the former USSR, where she lived until the age of 14, and Israel.
Born in Kiev, Cherkassky began studying art at a very young age.
“There are many artists in my family in previous generations, and my father is an architect,” she shares. “When I showed interest in drawing, they knew what to do with it.”
Cherkassky began art school when she was four, and then, at 10, started at a more serious, academic art school. Her family moved to Israel in 1991. The Soviet Union collapsed one month after they arrived.
“It was very unsettling,” she explains. “Nobody knew what was going to happen. My family thought the Jews would be blamed for it. Also, there was the Chernobyl disaster, which was scary for my family. The nuclear plant was far away, but it still affected Kiev. For my mother, that was her main reason for moving.”
She continued studying art in Israel, attending Hamidrasha School of Art in Kfar Saba. When she finished, she was chosen by the Rosenfeld Gallery in Tel Aviv for an exhibition. It was a moment that launched her career as a painter, although her first solo show was actually before enrolling in Hamidrasha, in an alternative space that also functioned as a secondhand clothing store.
Now, at 41 years old, that first show feels like a lifetime ago.
“My creative process has gone through changes over the years,” Cherkassky says. “Now I’m painting a lot from observation. I take my ideas from life. I was always very socially oriented; I’m attracted to people and their lives. I’ll walk down the street and see people interacting, and have a click in my mind that this could be a painting. There was a certain way we used to study in school, which was very classic: you get an idea, then you start collecting materials, find a location that can serve you, and invite people to model for you. But now I’m creating all the time, even when I sleep, sometimes. I dream about something, wake up, and see that it’s an idea that I can paint.”
One of the many chapters in her artistic story was her move to Berlin, where she lived for five years before returning to Israel in 2011. Her time in Berlin gave her perspective on living and creating in Israel. In Israel, the art scene is much more intimate, whereas in Berlin, according to Cherkassky, you may not see the same artist twice, because everyone is always coming and going.
“I lived there for five years, and in that time, I never developed a real understanding of what the art scene is there, because it’s changing all the time,” she recalls. "In Israel, it’s like I’ve grown up with these artists. Most went to the same school as I did. Some were my teachers, some were students together with me. We’re like family, with all the complications of that.”
When Cherkassky returned from Berlin, she decided that she wanted to create something personal, related to Israel. She began working on an aliya project with other painters from the former Soviet Union who now live in Israel. Over the past seven years, they have established a place in the Israeli art scene under the name The New Barbizon group.
SIMULTANEOUSLY, CHERKASSKY began to work on a series of paintings that would eventually become “Pravda,” her current exhibition at the Israel Museum. It is the first solo exhibition that addresses the mass emigration from the Soviet Union to Israel in the 1990s. All of the drawings and paintings in the exhibition deal with the immigrants’ experiences of integration, or lack thereof, into Israeli society.
The show’s title, “Pravda,” means truth, and was the name of the Communist Party newspaper published in the Soviet Union. As one would expect, the newspaper portrayed an idealized version of reality, far from the truth. Cherkassky’s artwork seems to be on a mission to expose quite the opposite – the truth of these immigrant experiences in all their nuanced complexity and the raw clashes of culture that have ensued.
“Before “Pravda,” my art was mostly about art; it was institutional criticism,” she states. “When I came back, I knew that I wanted to do something about life and the things that I know the best. I started thinking about what it is that I know the best, and it’s the Russian community in Israel. Nobody was really focusing on this. The story of this aliya was not told yet through painting.
“I wanted to build the whole project on stereotypes from both sides. There are stereotypes that Israelis have about Russians, and also stereotypes that Russians have about Israelis. These have never been told in this way. It’s insider information. I feel equally Israeli and Soviet, so I thought that I really could tell this story.”
Cherkassky describes a perceivable progression in her work that is displayed in “Pravda,” from the earlier paintings, which are intentionally grotesque and cartoonlike, to ones that are increasingly complicated and sophisticated. Throughout the seven years in which she worked on the paintings that comprise “Pravda,” she developed as an artist and grew up as a woman.
“In the earlier paintings, there is a punch line,” she adds. “The later paintings work more with emotions than telling jokes. But it’s still before and after: Soviet and Israeli, working in two worlds.”
“Pravda” includes 25 oil paintings in total, as well as 80 drawings and sketches on paper. Cherkassky always sketches first, with the final work done in oil. She prefers oil due to its flexibility; it takes a long time to dry, and is thus more malleable.
The exhibition’s paintings reflect an observer with a tongue-in-cheek view. The painting The Chemical Warfare, for example, depicts a family playing cards in a bomb shelter with gas masks on.
CHERKASSKY’S FAMILY actually lived this scene, after making aliya. It was just before the Gulf War, and they were all given gas masks. The family had only recently arrived in Israel and had no other form of entertainment while sitting in a bomb shelter. They would play cards to entertain themselves. After the war, Cherkassky shares that they could not stand to look at playing cards.
“I think the ones who experienced the war felt that they belonged more in Israel,” she says. “When there is war in Israel, it’s not taken too hard. But for my family, the last war they had experienced was World War II, so they thought everybody was going to die. ‘Pravda’ represents a part of society here in Israel. I hope that people who don’t come from the Soviet Union will be able to understand these experiences better and what it was like, through my paintings. Also, I’m very happy when olim recognize themselves in the paintings.”
The artist has a way of infusing her paintings with a tension that sits just below the surface, while at face value, there is the kind of humor that can only come from cultural differences. In another painting, titled Rabbis Deliquium, a newly converted couple (even the baby wears a kippa) stand off to the side of their kitchen, while a rabbi looks aghast at a pig’s head in the refrigerator. It is this mix of humor and tension that makes Cherkassky’s work so impactful. But not all those of Soviet descent are pleased with her work. Some from the older generation were very insulted by her portrayal of Russian immigrants and the crass manner in which they are at times depicted. Those of Mizrahi origins also found themselves insulted by a painting where Cherkassky depicts an “ars,” to use the Hebrew slang term for a low-class young person.
Despite this or maybe because of it, one gets the sense, after spending any amount of time with her paintings, that Cherkassky is well aware of the potential for controversy and that it only serves to make her message more potent.
“This is something that happened 25 years ago, so now is the time to open the trauma,” she explains. “Now we have perspective on what happened. I think this is the reason for the exhibition happening now. When you are inside of it, you don’t know what to think about it. Every trauma in society needs time before it’s spoken about. You can’t talk about it immediately. I think usually it takes about 20 years. All the movies about the Lebanon war were made 20 years after it happened. The best movies about World War II were made in the 1960s.”
Through “Pravda,” Cherkassky is certainly adding her unique voice and perspective, while sparking a conversation about the mass aliya from the Soviet Union. The question persists: Are the immigrants better off now than they were?
“Pravda” will be on display at the Israel Museum until October 31. For more information: