The Tel Aviv Museum Guard Who Got His Own Exhibit

Valery Bikovsky began drawing during his shifts at the Helena Rubinstein contemporary art museum in Tel Aviv. Now his own work is being exhibited at the Haifa Museum of Art.

Ellie Armon Azoulay
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Ellie Armon Azoulay

Valery Bikovsky is a well-known figure to the curators, artists and museumgoers at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv. And yet, for many of the people who meet him, it isn't actually clear exactly what Bikovsky does. Unlike the other museum guards, Bikovsky prefers not to wear a suit; he welcomes visitors and sometimes fills them in about the exhibits on display. But most of the time he stays in his office, visible to all, working busily on something they can't quite see. That is, unless they're lucky – in which case they may just get a sketch or a poem from this usher turned artist.

“He sketched us, our faces, every one of us surrounded by tiny animals,” recalls Uri Gershuni, one of five photographers from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design who mounted an exhibit at the pavilion in 2010, and who is now curating Bikovsky's first exhibit, "Yekaterina the Great," at the Haifa Museum of Art. “And the poems he wrote – without knowing us well at all, he managed to see something about each one of us that was touching and exact – a kind of personality analysis. It amazed me to see how many things he saw from his position as an observer. The human gesture, the gift, touched me.”

Bikovsky has worked at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art for over 20 years, and for more than 12 at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion. It was there that he began drawing, in 2002, completely by accident. He always draws people, both those he can see from his office and those whose faces he recalls from memory.

The artist says he chooses his subjects based on some striking detail, or if someone "touches my heart."

"If I don’t like him," he says, "I don’t draw him. I don’t care what his job is. When there’s a holiday, I make cards for everyone, from the electrical workers to management. I love people.”

Over the years, he has given out many of his sketches, while keeping others carefully stored in the lockers in his office. Museum workers, senior curators and even former director Professor Mordechai Omer have collected sketches and poems from Bikovsky, often teasing him about curating an exhibit or editing a book.

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One of Bikovsky works.Credit: Courtesy
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One of Bikovsky works.Credit: Courtesy
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One of Bikovsky works.Credit: Courtesy

“I gave my first poem to Moti [Omer]," Bikovsky says. "He said, ‘You’re an important person,’ and put my poem in his bag. Once I drew his portrait and he told me, ‘Get some portraits together and we’ll do an exhibit.’ When I had them ready, he died.”

Now the photographer Gershui, who says he “saw Bikovsky's desire to be accepted and appreciated,” is curating Bikovsky’s first exhibit. "Yekaterina the Great," which is currently on display at the Haifa Museum of Art as part of a larger exhibit, depicts major characters from around the art world – managers, curators and artists – whom Bikovsky has met at the Helena Rubinstein museum.

The sketches are all black and white, drawn on old museum paper, posters and materials from arts-and-crafts activities. The subjects include Professor Omer, Bikovsky himself, various curators and artists, and members of his family.

Alongside them are two series of colorful dual-sided collages. Mounted on the left side of the space, they present his view of the Tel Aviv Art Museum and the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion – the landscape, the buildings and the sculptures shown in his work. Another series in the exhibit features pages from a book of spectacular nature photographs.

Most of the poems in the exhibit are in Hebrew, although his native language is Russian, because “a poet wants to write in more than one language," he explains. "A poet is a person who feels and has to share that feeling with a person who touches his heart. I had to learn how to write poetry in Hebrew.”

He adds, “Writing the poems is no problem. Reading them – that isn’t so simple.”

Indeed, at the opening of his exhibit at the Haifa Museum of Art, Bikovsky wrote poems especially for the occasion. His excitement was evident as he read them aloud, with his son beside him, and he stumbled occasionally over the words.

“In Russia, I used to get up onstage and read aloud with no problem," he says. "Here the letters aleph, ayin, het – they’re hard. Somebody ought to give Eliezer Ben-Yehuda a kick in the butt.”

A salad of nations

The exhibit is named after Bikovsky’s sister, Yekaterina, who recently passed away. His parents were born in Odessa, and in 1941 his father, an engineer, was sent to build barracks for refugees and political prisoners. After that, he was recruited to join the Red Army. He never returned.

His mother, who was pregnant with Valery at the time, remained in Odessa with Yekaterina, who was 5 years old.

Later the family went to live in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, where they had relatives. But although Bikovsky was drawn to the liberal arts, he enrolled in construction and engineering studies at the technical school there – "like Father did."

"It’s a profession, not a great ambition," he says. "I had to help my mother, and I had no time to choose something special.”

In his spare time, however, Bikovsky wrote poems. “All day I’d do sketches until I got tired of them,” he says. “There was an Uzbeki girl and I wrote her a poem. It was my first one, and suddenly I started writing more and more.”

It was in Tashkent that Bikovsky met his wife, Klara, a pharmacist. There he worked as an engineer and eventually got his master’s degree. “I just sketched building plans. I didn’t even doodle,” he says.

Life in Tashkent wasn't bad, says Bikovsky. On the contrary. “Nobody stopped us from living, studying, developing at work. We never felt different. After the war there were Uzbeks, Russians, Moldovans, Georgians, lots of nationalities – a salad. Nobody felt different, like they were being taken advantage of.”

But in 1991, when Bikovsky was 49 years old, his wife’s brother, who was living in Israel, encouraged them to come here. "It wasn’t my initiative,” he says. “You know, like sheep,” he explains – one goes, the others follow.

What was hard to leave behind?

“My job, my friends, the mentality, the routine of life. Socialism. We left apartments there that we’d earned through work. After all, nobody buys there. You earn an apartment by virtue of your work, seniority and experience. We gave everything to the country, to Uzbekistan. Our pensions, too – 30 years of mine and 30 years of my wife’s. We got nothing.”

What was the transition like?

“I thought [Israel] was an Ashkenazi, European country. But when I went to the Carmel Market [in Tel Aviv] with my wife for the first time, the music coming from the market stalls was like the music of the Uzbeks. I said to her, 'I thought we were coming to civilization, and we’ve come to an Oriental country. We left the East and we went to the East.'”

Bikovsky enrolled in a computer course, where he met a young man who worked as an usher at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The man suggested he get a job at the museum as well, and so it was that Bikovsky began working as an usher there in 1992.

“For a year, I’d sit and guard the paintings," he says. "After that, I started doing guard duty at night and on weekends. Suddenly, a spot opened up at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion and the security officer asked me if I wanted it. That’s how I got there in 2000, and I’ve been there to this day.”

He loved the exhibits and remembers each one by name. “I stayed at the Tel Aviv Museum because of the exhibits," he says. "After all, I didn’t go to work in my profession. If I’d done that, I’d be working in offices. At the technical institute I was a senior employee, but here they’d have me doing work on the ground and taking home NIS 4,000 without knowing what would happen tomorrow. The museum is a stable workplace. I’ve gone 21 years without being unemployed, and I work with cultured, artistic people. We have a good relationship.”

But Bikovsky responds skeptically to the advertisement for the exhibit, which states that he is a security guard at the pavilion. “What does that mean?” he asks. “I’m in charge of that building. There are many workers, and I’m responsible for them. Visitors come with questions. Artists come with paintings, looking for someone to show them to, get an opinion and suggest an exhibit. I can look at the painting and see what kind it is: contemporary, impressionist, classical. That’s a security guard?

"I’m also the intelligence guy. When something goes wrong with the air conditioning, the electricity or the ventilation, I have to figure out what it is. Writing that I’m a security guard is propaganda for the exhibit. Maybe it’s PR. I see who comes in the door, the right way to talk to him, how to explain things. It’s politics.”

Bikovsky. Always draws people, both those he can see from his office and those whose faces he remembers. Credit: Uri Gershuni