The art of falafel

The briefest of glimpses of one of the 20 items in that adorn the well-lit gallery display area will reveal that El-Natan was not just any artist

A falafel maven surrounded by his works of art (photo credit: YA’AL HERMAN)
A falafel maven surrounded by his works of art
(photo credit: YA’AL HERMAN)
Appearances can be deceptive. One might also add that social or, possibly, media-induced conditioning can lead us to arrive at wholly inaccurate conclusions about the people around us.
What, we might wonder, does our regular Egged bus driver do when he’s not ferrying the public about town? What about the checkout operator at our neighborhood supermarket? Might she harbor a secret penchant for, say, cultivating bonsai trees, or spend some of her off-duty hours reading medieval Spanish poetry? Then there’s the guy who deftly fills your pita with falafel balls and salads – what does he do when he’s not keeping the chips and chickpea orbs coming? Moshe El-Natan made a living from doing just that, but his real passion lay in a very different, and far more creative, line of activity. That will be abundantly clear to anyone dropping by the Engel Gallery on Tel Aviv’s Ben-Yehuda Street for the “Dreams of Peace and Prophecies of War” exhibition between now and May 22.
Even the briefest of glimpses of one of the 20 items in that adorn the well-lit gallery display area will reveal that El-Natan was not just any artist. There is nary a romantic pastoral scene to be had, and any of the works will have you engrossed within moments, scratching your head at some of the seemingly incongruous juxtapositions in the frames.
El-Natan was born in Persia in 1904. His family relocated to India when he was a youngster, and it was there that he embarked on his visually creative path, apprenticing with a street painter named Diharam. He also lived in Iraq for a while, where he got married and started a family, before eventually making his home in Jerusalem in 1937.
Artistic leanings notwithstanding, El-Natan was a practical fellow and he soon found a way to keep the financial wolves at bay by establishing his fast-food outlet, which he eventually called Falafel King, on Jerusalem’s Agrippas Street. The name came by default, after the owner’s original moniker proposal was denigrated by all and sundry.
“He wanted to call the place State of Israel Falafel, but people said he shouldn’t put the country-in-the-making in a food context, and that would be disrespectful,” explains gallery manager Matar Engel.
El-Natan’s first choice of enterprise appellation reflected his patriotism, and intimates a prophetic bent or, at least, a forward-looking ethos. The latter certainly comes across clearly in many of El-Natan’s paintings. The business did pretty well, and the proprietor didn’t exactly keep his ancillary pursuit under wraps, even managing to squeeze the odd canvas betwixt wall fixtures more readily associated with eatery fare.
One can only surmise what El-Natan customers made of his works. What, for example, would have been going through the mind of the average falafel eater as he munched his way through his pita while considering the deeper significance of rockets hurtling through the sky in the 1955 oil painting Futuristic City? The chocolaty sepia picture looks like an illustration for some sci-fi tome of the early 20th century, depicting densely packed urban buildings with all manner of spaceships buzzing across the sky, with numerous celestial bodies hovering serenely in the backdrop. The roof of an elongated apartment/office block also appears to have been pressed into duty as a landing strip for the aforementioned high-speed flying machines.
Israel Consulting America, made in the same year, has plenty of interplanetary aircraft traffic, some doing the lunar trip and others on the solar route. The rocket convoys form neat symmetrical triangular shapes on either side of the scene, which also conveys more of El-Natan’s beliefs and mind-set, as well as a somewhat simplistic, if not naïve, take on art. An enormous eagle – an overt reference to the United States – takes center stage, with the winged birdlike figure of David Ben-Gurion looking admiringly on and grasping a strangely concocted cage structure that contains a bunch of characters that appear to be taken from ancient mythology, or great cultures of yore. The American eagle has a large white bear in its vice-like grip – alluding to the Soviet Union – this was, after all, the era of the Cold War – while the bottom left-hand corner is taken up with a pile of discarded tanks.
El-Natan clearly had a surrealist streak to him, and there are a number of palettes calmly progressing across the firmament.
Engel feels that the falafel-serving painter had something of the prognosticator in him.
“There is this work called Aliya, for example, that had all sorts of figures and things that didn’t really exist back then,” says the gallery director.
“There is the idea of ‘on an eagle’s wings’ and a ‘magic carpet’ (terms that allude to the aliya of Yemenite Jewry, in 1949-50), which didn’t really exist in 1939 [when the picture was made] and weren’t really part of mainstream thinking in those days.”
Wherever you look, El-Natan comes up with surprises. He was also an ardent Zionist. Ben Gurion is a prominent fixture of the Falafel King’s oeuvre, and there is yet another unexpected element in El-Natan’s cultural code. Notwithstanding his Orthodox religious lifestyle, he also harbored a burning desire to join the local Freemasons’ lodge. Unfortunately for him, he was not thought to be suitable for membership, but that did not stop him including a plethora of masonic symbols in his output. That is evident in Mason’s Coffin, from 1961, and in The Masons from the year before.
The eatery owner was very much an outsider, and was not part of the local artist community, which allowed him free rein to address topics that did not normally feature in works produced by the better-known painters of the day. El-Natan, it seems, also had some left-leaning political views, as reflected in Long Live Abie Nathan, Hero of Peace, produced in 1966 the year in which Nathan surprised the world by illicitly flying a plane to Egypt. True to El-Natan’s almost childlike approach, the picture includes a couple of banners in Hebrew, which read “Long live Abie Nathan, peace hero” and “We, the inhabitants of the world, want peace.” The picture also features a surrealist bunch of animals – a giraffe, an elephant, goats, ducks, you-name-it – spaceships and planes, and figures from both sides of the Middle Eastern conflict waving white flags.
There is more in the way of current affairs in a stark portrayal of the 1961 Eichmann trial, which depicts the Nazi about to be hanged by the strapping swimsuit-clad figure of Ben-Gurion. Just in case we don’t get the identity of the doomed figure, El-Natan has written Eichmann’s name in Hebrew across his midriff, with “6,000,000” and a swastika added. Flames – presumably of hell – roar beneath the gallows and the skeletal figures and bones of Holocaust victims abound.
There is ne’er a dull moment in “Dreams of Peace and Prophecies of War.” 
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