The late US Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is staring straight ahead, her gaze narrow and concentrated behind her oversized black sunglasses. Her mouth is twisted into the familiar half-grin that fails to bare her teeth. A closer look reveals that this is not the iconic advocate one recalls from countless famous photo-ops of her raising her fist and speaking succinctly over the podium. The signature white lace collar dangling from the jurist’s neck has been replaced with a studded version. The lawyer’s ears are decorated with flashy, cheap-looking golden hoops, and the lapel of her off-white fur coat sports a decidedly contemporary pin with the modern slogan reading: “Fight like a girl.”
This dressed-down portrait of the esteemed fighter for human rights, silver streak shining in her blackened, slicked-back coiffure included, is not a fantastic online meme gone a step too far. It is rather the latest in a series of so-called “hipstorized” illustrations of female movers and shakers created by Israeli artist Amit Shimoni in honor of Women’s History Month.
The notorious RBG is flanked by a widely-smiling Hillary Clinton, who dons a shiny choker chain and whose bob is laced with blue highlights; a tattoo-covered Oprah Winfrey, whose impressive if imaginary ink snakes up her arms and shoulders; and a radiant Jane Goodall, a chimpanzee peeping behind her back and a snug sweater decorated with pastel-hued banana prints clinging to her upper body. And in case fans of the latter were wondering, a quality art print of the primatologist-turned-suave cool girl is available for purchase and worldwide shipping on Shimoni’s website.
International readers might be slightly baffled by the variety of renowned female figures adorned by contemporary and fashionable attributes on display in Shimoni’s portfolio. But for those of us who have lived in Israel for the past six years, these images are just the latest in a broad scope of digital portraits crafted by Shimoni that seem to pop up everywhere. On coasters, posters and in boutique stores, the reproductions of the artist’s comic representations of political figures and world leaders have long become a thriving business.
Shimoni’s brand first caught the attention of the hipster consumers whose nickname he references in his label name – Hipstory – when they depicted late local politicians. Israel’s fourth prime minister, the controversial Golda Meir, appears in his hipster rendition with her trademark cigarette in hand, a minimalist dark blazer covering her forearms and a small black stud piercing one of her ears. An even more amusing portrait, one that became synonymous with the illustrator’s oeuvre, is that of the father of modern political Zionism. Shimoni’s version of Benjamin Theodor Herzl sporting a piercing, his long beard and clad in a bright jacket is reminiscent of the majority of the young men who can be spotted on Tel Aviv’s busy thoroughfares. Some of them probably own one of Shimoni’s framed prints, or at least a passport cover or a postcard.
But the creator behind these images of influential figures clothed in millennial costumes doesn’t think of his body of work as a factory of profitable merchandise. For Shimoni, as he tells The Jerusalem Post in a recent conversation, it’s all about “taking portraits of great people who have done incredible things and rendering their stories accessible to people who may not have heard about them before.”
From Marie Curie to Greta Thunberg
Apart from the current Women’s Month series, which features an eclectic array of feminine role models – from Princess Diana to Rosa Parks – Shimoni toiled on other series which focus on scientists and artists. His tongue-in-cheek drawings have garnered him the attention of international publications and important entities, raking in several significant commissions. In 2015, The New York Times asked him to create the aforementioned portrait of Hillary Clinton before she announced her presidential election campaign. Two years later, he was invited to “hipstorize” Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg for her reelection campaign, a collaboration he is taking up again as the latest ballot in the Scandinavian country approaches.
“Hipstory went through many different life spans,” Shimoni recalls. It began as his final project at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, where he obtained his BFA in Visual Communications in 2014. Since then, it took on a life of its own and changed directions. “At first, I focused on individuals who held political roles. I began with political figures who had already passed away and represented the world of yesteryear, pre-social media and the fast pace in which we live today. Over time, I understood that my project could communicate with and touch so many people who aren’t from that field. Today I focus on characters who I call ‘the real influencers.’ These are people who have created the reality that influences our lives today. I’m trying to use the strength of my brand in order to create a vehicle that would drive change through education and influence young people as well as adults.”
As an example, Shimoni cites his portrait of Marie Curie, the Polish-French physicist and chemist known for her pioneering research on radioactivity.
“I understand that there are incredible women operating on many fronts who don’t receive enough recognition. Curie was such an interesting woman, and each little boy and girl should know who she was. I feel honored, like it’s my mission to take a figure like her and insert her into current pop culture.”
Another recent portrait he especially enjoyed working on, Shimoni shares, was that of the teenage Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. Thunberg, who became the unexpected face of the climate-change campaign and is known for her searing public speeches in which she takes world leaders to task, “is so interesting, cool, fresh and moving,” Shimoni enthuses. “Hers is so far from the portraits I used to do in the beginning. It’s so great to see the spark in her eyes when she speaks, as opposed to the cynicism of some older politicians and public speakers.”
Cracking a character’s cultural DNA
Looking at Shimoni’s work, one can’t help but ponder Andy Warhol’s earlier works, like the iconic silkscreen painting of 1962 titled The Marilyn Diptych. Featuring 50 replicas of the actress’s image washed in neon colors and in black and white, this canonic work was recognized as a social critique on the role of celebrities in popular culture and the automated, fetishized process of art-making. Shimoni, who also manifested an urban portrait of Monroe, seems to be operating as far away as possible from Warhol’s Factory.
For one, he is creating his portraits in his studio in Tel Aviv and not in the art hub of New York. And unlike the provocative artistic idol of the 1960s, Shimoni isn’t quick to embrace or state an ideological or aesthetic position.
“My purpose was to create for myself and for my environment a mirror that reflected a feeling of a loss of ideology,” he says. “I had illustrated quite a range, from Shulamit Aloni to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and made these leaders look like my generation regardless of their political stance. For me, my art was not supposed to deliver some stark criticism but rather to inspire a discussion.”
When he works on each character, Shimoni conducts two kinds of research: theoretical and visual.
“I read a lot in an attempt to understand how each figure was perceived in the past and how it’s regarded today. I try to understand who these people were as individuals,” he explains.
“The elements I use to decorate their portraits represent the places these characters come from and the things they like to do, not just what they’re known for,” Shimoni elaborates. Hints of his process are evident in the final result, like in the portrait of the recently-minted US Vice President Kamala Harris. “When I did her portrait, I added an earring she wears that looks like an oak, because her hometown is Oakland. So the visual research, like in her case, is really an effort to crack the character’s cultural DNA but also to give it a new take.”
Asked why he chose to dedicate an entire series to women, Shimoni responds, “From the very beginning, I got feedback that there weren’t enough women represented in my project. Hipstory has been around for six years, and the world really changed in this time. It was evident over the past year; as the world grappled with the coronavirus, a lot of the global discussion highlighted the success of female leaders in coping with the pathogen as opposed to the failure of male politicians. We made great progress, and it should be represented and celebrated.”