Fishing for art

The Cartoon Museum displays the work of Dudi Shamai.

Artwork by Dudi Shamai (photo credit: DUDI SHAMAI)
Artwork by Dudi Shamai
(photo credit: DUDI SHAMAI)
Dudi Shamai has been producing all kinds of humorous, alluring, thoughtprovoking or just plain old provocative caricatures and illustrations for more than a quarter of a century. The Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon is currently running a retrospective, curated by Eran Litvin, of his mammoth oeuvre, which goes by the title “Like a Fish in the Water – About Fish, People and Everything in between in Dudi Shamai’s Work.”
Shamai has, basically, been there and done that. Still relatively tender of age, the 49-year-old has accumulated an impressive body of work, taking in largely political caricatures produced, over close to two decades, for Maariv, illustrations for children’s books, and all manner of other fun visuals for various magazines and newspapers.
“I did a lot of front page work and very realistic images of faces,” he recalls. “I did politicians, mostly. I enjoyed that. I did people like Saddam Hussein and Gorbachev with that red mark on his head, and I always tried to achieve a realistic look in my work.”
He also found local politicians a joy to lampoon, such as Arik Sharon.
“Sharon was fat. You could draw two lines, and you had him down pat. That was great,” he says.
In fact, Shamai has been putting out his visual interpretation of the world around him for more than 40 years.
“I was in kindergarten – I was about four or five, I’ll never forget it,” he says. “The kids were all drawing stuff, and the teacher told me that I’d be doing something different, and she gave me a larger sheet of paper, with all sorts of crayons and other colors. I made two pictures – one of three big colorful clowns.”
The teacher responded enthusiastically, and Shamai’s career die was already cast.
“I realized I was different from other people, that I had something special,” he notes. “That really saved me. I wasn’t a good student, but what interested me was that I got a good grade in art. That’s all that really interested me.”
Mind you, it caused some friction at home.
“My dad had a successful candy store, and he said – for my own good, of course – that after I finished the army, I’d go into the business,” he recounts.
As the only male offspring of three children, Shamai was expected to take over the mantle of provider. But the youngster wasn’t ready to give up on his dream without a fight, or at least give it his best shot.
“My father agreed that after the army I could try to make a go of my art for two years,” he continues.
It was something of a doubleedged sword which, ultimately, urged Shamai on to success.
“On the one hand, I knew I had something to fall back on if I didn’t succeed with my art. But the fear that I could end up in the candy store, that gave me the push to make sure I made it with my art,” he laughs. “I knew I had two years to show my father I could live off my art,” he says.
In any event, he managed that with ease.
“I was something of a star,” he says. “While I was still a student at the Vital School for Illustration, I took part in exhibitions alongside my teachers.”
Mind you, he did have a Plan B.
“After the army I went to study graphics, but I didn’t like working on a computer. I still don’t. I do all my work by hand, to this day. I think I am the only illustrator in Israel who works freehand, without a computer.
And my esthetic orientation is more in the direction of painting,” he explains.
Shamai says his “technophobia” has worked in his favor.
“When everyone started working on computers, when the Apple Mac came into vogue, I was worried that I’d be left behind. But in the end, I find that people look for manually made work. Artists even try to produce work on the computer that looks like it was made by hand,” he notes.
His caricatures and illustrations, indeed, convey a freshness and directness that immediately catch your eye, tug at your heartstrings and tickle your funny bone. Shamai says he enjoys all his work, but it was when he happened upon a fish epiphany that something shifted inside.
“Around five years ago, I started doing fish,” he declares. “It was the first time I felt that I’d created something from my guts rather than for a commissioned project.”
He found the marine creatures to be very user-friendly.
“The fish I drew had a lot to say about social, political and financial matters, but they do so with a wink.
I use different techniques to convey my message in a clear and emotive way. You always start out with a blank piece of paper, and you discover a world of wonder,” he says.
Dudi Shamai’s exhibition is on display at the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon. For more information: