'Volatile and dangerous’: The nexus of politics and art in Israel

Art – especially political art – has been drawing a lot of fire in Israel recently. Is this a bad omen or a sign of growth for the local art world?

Art adviser Sarah Peguine briefs tour-goers during an art tour in Tel Aviv (photo credit: ALEXIS OSTROBROD/PITAYA WORK)
Art adviser Sarah Peguine briefs tour-goers during an art tour in Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv residents and bystanders who happened by Rabin Square in the morning hours of December 6, 2016 were greeted by an unusual sight: a four-meter tall sculpture of the prime minister.
A golden Benjamin Netanyahu presided over the square in front of the Tel Aviv Municipality building, creating a stir among onlookers as they gathered in crowds and inquired as to the origin and meaning of the structure, reminiscent of Soviet-era monuments of leaders that can still be seen in such locations as Moscow’s Red Square.
An evacuation order from the municipality hung on the sculpture, announcing the absence of proper authorization for it to be displayed. Before the sculpture could be removed, however, one bystander decided that he’d had enough and pushed it to the ground.
The sculpture was still making headlines, when, several days later, another art incident made waves: Students at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design hung posters depicting Netanyahu beside a hangman’s noose. Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit announced that he would order the opening of an investigation into the matter, and meanwhile, a new poster surfaced in response – this time showing the prime minister with a noose superimposed over his genitals.
Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev was quick to release an indignant statement, deeming the chain of events acts of incitement: “It began with a statue in the city square and now it has come to a noose.”
Political unrest and resentment of the Right are not the only incentives for these acts. Indeed, many believe that the contemporary art scene in Israel is going through one of the most taxing periods it has known in years.
Itay Zalait, the sculptor and artist who created the “King Bibi” sculpture, said on the day that set the protest in motion that “the most important thing is to make people think and to not take things for granted. To imagine, without saying [whether] it’s good or bad....”
Both his artwork and the stir it caused are a good example of how art’s meeting point with life can sometimes give birth to social changes, especially when people are looking for new ways of approaching problems that are getting old and that they have perhaps grown accustomed to.
While Zalait’s example points to a revival in Israeli art that some have attested to, the critics say that it is precisely this kind of art form – political art – that is missing most in Israel.
Money is another concern. Many galleries, theaters and music venues find themselves facing closure due to financial difficulties, and government budgets allocated to artistic institutions seem to be thinning by the day.
Is the Israeli contemporary art scene going through a crisis, or is it on the brink of finding new paths?
Slaughtering sacred cows
“Every other day they’re announcing the opening of a new food market in Tel Aviv, but what about subsidized art studios or galleries?” asks Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi, a Ukrainian-born realist painter who immigrated to Israel some 25 years ago.
Through her prolific creation, the artist often takes a stab at the Israeli establishment, its treatment of migrants and refugees and at what she perceives as the widespread racism that still permeates Israeli society.
'The history of Violence,’ 2016, oil on linen (photo credit: COURTESY OF ARTIST ZOYA CHERKASSKY-NNADI AND THE ROSENFELD GALLERY)'The history of Violence,’ 2016, oil on linen (photo credit: COURTESY OF ARTIST ZOYA CHERKASSKY-NNADI AND THE ROSENFELD GALLERY)
“In recent years I’ve begun noticing that politics started to meddle with things that were not touched in the past,” says Cherkassky-Nnadi. “Think about the Barbur Gallery. This really crosses the red line and it’s a line that has not been crossed before.”
Jerusalem’s nonprofit Barbur Gallery was recently threatened with closure by the municipality after it refused to cancel a lecture by the CEO of Breaking the Silence (an NGO founded by IDF veterans who pass on testimonies of their service experience in volatile areas such as the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip).
“Look at what happened to Natali Cohen-Vaxberg,” Cherkassky-Nnadi continues, citing another example of the censorship she believes Israeli institutions impose on artists. “They [some politicians and followers] turned her into a monster, as if she were Hitler, no less.”
Cohen-Vaxberg is an Israeli artist, actress and playwright who was interrogated by the police after she posted a video of herself on YouTube where she could be seen defecating on the Israeli flag. In 2016, the police announced that it would recommend prosecuting the artist for breaching the Flag and Emblem Law.
“I understand other artists’ reservations. I, myself, was always embraced by the mainstream and don’t consider myself a radical artist,” Cherkassky-Nnadi says. “But the discussion about whether this video was good or not as an art creation is beside the point. Sacred cows are meant to be slaughtered by art.”
Cherkassky-Nnadi’s wish to see her counterparts “slaughter sacred cows” through their creative work corresponds with a larger, decades-long movement of artists who have used their work to raise moral questions and tackle social issues in a tradition commonly referred to as “political art.”
International artists appear to side with the notion that the reality in Israel is worthy of discussion through art. One of them is world-known guerrilla street artist Banksy, whose recent endeavor, the Walled Off Hotel, overlooks the security barrier in Bethlehem. In a statement made to the press, the camera-shy British artist explained that the hotel’s purpose was to first and foremost spark dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.
People stand outside the Walled Off Hotel, which was opened by street artist Banksy, in Bethlehem (photo credit: REUTERS) People stand outside the Walled Off Hotel, which was opened by street artist Banksy, in Bethlehem (photo credit: REUTERS)
Gatekeepers of the art world
While political art in Israel is still not very commonplace, the dialogue Banksy would like to inspire in Israel is already in existence, if not as developed as some wish it would be.
One prominent voice participating in the conversation is Tohu magazine. The independent online publication is the first art platform in the country to be published in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English.
Tohu (Hebrew for “chaos”) was founded through a crowd-sourcing campaign in 2015 by Avi Lubin, an independent curator and PhD student, and Leah Abir, who served as the Haifa Museum of Art’s chief curator until two years ago.
The magazine, whose diverse contents vary from visual texts to art reviews to academic essays, focuses its activity on Israel and Middle East-related themes, or as Abir puts it: “Content that is aware of the socio-political context within which it was created.”
Their readership spans the entire region and beyond, reaching audiences in the US and Europe.
“Our contributors are also from all over the world,” Abir says. “We have writers from Chile, Berlin, Paris, Athens and the US. We also have Palestinian contributors who sometimes opt to publish under a pseudonym to protect their identity.
“The majority of the country operates in some ongoing blindness to what’s happening in the countries surrounding it. The trilingual aspect is really our raison d’etre and the content as well as the design are adapted to each language and its readers.”
Abir’s activism doesn’t end there. She is also the curator of Raw Art Gallery, a renowned commercial gallery in south Tel Aviv known for its thought-provoking exhibitions.
“Curators are the gatekeepers of the art world and we have the power, right alongside the artists, to make a difference,” she says.
A CURATOR who holds an approach distinctly different from Abir’s is Ella Yaari, of another commercial gallery – Under 1000. The successful gallery stands out among its contemporaries due to its unique guiding principle: any artwork displayed has a maximum price tag of $1,000 – well below the average cost of a work of art but still mostly unaffordable to the average art lover in Israel.
Ella Yaari, curator of Under 1000 (photo credit: NATI GOLD)Ella Yaari, curator of Under 1000 (photo credit: NATI GOLD)
While Under 1000’s pioneering concept has been lauded by many, others mock its activity and liken its lower prices and retail-oriented approach to the success of dollar stores, claiming that the gallery undercuts artistic value as well as prestige of the trade.
According to Yaari, Under 1000 is actually acting to help maintain the balance in the local art scene.
When asked about the political art scene in Israel, Yaari offers an economics-based outlook. The local art scene is undergoing a big economic crisis, she says. When artists struggle to support themselves through their art, they don’t feel free to express themselves politically for fear of drawing a backlash and decreasing their sales, she explains.
SARAH PEGUINE would likely concur with Yaari’s wish to render art accessible to the masses. Indeed she believes that she does so on a daily basis, albeit in her own way.
Peguine is an art adviser and social media consultant specializing in contemporary Israeli art. Four years ago, she left her position as co-director of the Dvir Gallery to launch her own project: leading private, intimate art tours through Tel Aviv’s most intriguing art spots and studios. Peguine also places special emphasis on social media activity, targeting clients where she knows they spend the majority of their time anyway – occupied with their smartphones.
“I used to be scared and intimidated to enter galleries,” Peguine recalls. “I don’t think art should be elitist or accessible only to a certain type of people. Through my online art guide, weekly newsletter and daily Instagram updates I try to break that barrier.”
Peguine’s project, titled Oh So Arty, has recently breached the geographical barrier as well, extending its activity to other major cities across the world and offering tours guided by local experts in London, Paris, Rome, Madrid and Los Angeles to name a few. If Peguine doesn’t seem to be very politically oriented, it’s because she likes to focus on art’s social influence and role in society.
“At the end of the day, what’s so special about art is that it crosses borders, makes people meet and creates dialogues,” she says. “That’s exactly the aim of my project, too.”
While Peguine’s tours through spots such as Kiryat Hamelacha, a growing hub of art galleries in south Tel Aviv, offer an educated glance at the trendier part of the Israeli art scene, not far from her, tours take place that suggest a darker alternative and a more political vision.
YONATAN H. MISHAL, who defines his multifaceted activity as that of an “urbanist, writer, artist and cultural entrepreneur,” is the founder of CTLV, an organization that leads tours through south Tel Aviv and Jaffa and aims to give tour-goers a taste of urban life while using the city’s artistic landscape to provoke questions about identity, ethics, human rights and culture.
CTLV has developed 20 different tours, but the three main ones center around Tel Aviv’s old central bus station, the diverse Naveh Sha’anan neighborhood with its many migrants and asylum seekers, and a tour focusing solely on street art.
Despite the fact that not all of the artwork discussed in CTLV’s tours is political, the nature of the tours very much is. Treating the city as a dynamic, ever-changing entity that inspires the creation of art and is art in and of itself, Mishal steers tour-goers away from sterile artistic institutions and into the city’s at times unpleasant political reality. He does so by introducing them to poorer neighborhoods, rundown artistic monuments and forgotten sites.
“There’s something about cities that makes them live organisms; art is the mechanism for these organisms to rethink themselves,” Mishal says.
“CTLV started out because I’m a wanderer. I just wander through the city. I participated in an experiment the Technion [Technion-Israel Institute of Technology] carried out that tested how people walk through the city. They told me that the way I walked was unpredictable – I suddenly pop into galleries or am fascinated by some alleyway and make a detour. Then I realized that most people don’t understand how to walk through the city and that the way I perceive the city could be intriguing for others.”
If art has survived so far in the current climate, it’s thanks to the energy of the metropolis, Mishal says.
“The city is so chaotic, no wonder it can’t be reined in. In a way it is its own governor, and Tel Aviv manages to exist despite the bad authorities that have been controlling it for over 50 years. I believe that art as we know it can only be created in cities.”
AS THE social unrest continues to unravel in Israel’s art world and outside it, some believe that talking in terms of a crisis is not accurate at all. Doron Rabina, the newly appointed chief curator of the Tel Aviv Museum and a seasoned artist and curator who has operated in Israel since the early 1990s, actually foresees a bright future for contemporary Israeli art.
Still, he admits that he’s entered a role that forces him “to stand at a certain forefront at a very difficult time [for Israeli art]."
“When people talk about a crisis, it’s often because it’s hard for them to face change. I believe that Israeli society is changing in the sense that it’s going through a process of vulgarization, an escalation of violence and a lack of tolerance,” he explains.
“But alongside it, there’s an emerging cultural drama here that could really turn out to be wonderful. Power centers are shifting, budgets are moving and it’s too soon to claim that this change is for the worse. Maybe this pendulum shift will breathe fresh life into Israeli art.”
Rabina points to another significant change. “The Tel Aviv Museum and museums worldwide in general are facing a strange transformation these days, as they are forced to deal with a situation they have not faced before,” he says. “The global process of digitization makes it difficult to lure people away from their electronic devices and into art institutes."
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he continues, “because museums can create digital platforms that would entice crowds to visit them and provide them with additional information, as the Tel Aviv Museum has done and will continue to do."
“But the meeting point between the virtual space and the substantial space is difficult. The two shouldn’t contradict each other, as difficult as it is. Just because dating apps exist these days, it doesn’t absolve people of the need to date and meet in person, right?” Nonetheless, Rabina is optimistic about the metamorphosis the local art world is undergoing. “After all, Israel is such a volatile and dangerous place. That’s what makes it so interesting. Maybe that explains why the artists here are so passionate and why Israeli art was and will probably continue to be unlike anything else.”