A Seriously Comic Show

'Take the Bassa with Sababa' is the first ever exhibition of Israeli comics in London. But will the British public understand the humor?

'Take the Bassa with Sababa' proclaims the poster for the first Israeli Comics Show in London. A Hebrew and Arabic slang mix that means roughly 'take the good with the bad', the show is now in its last couple of weeks at the Spiro Ark Gallery, a center for Jewish cultural activities in the heart of London.

Exhibitions of Israeli artists are rare enough in London, and an exhibition of Israeli art outside the mainstream, such as comics, is indeed an unusual occurrence. Bearing in mind that Israel is usually associated with conflict and political impasse, the question arises: how far can a British audience really respond to the work and concerns of Israeli artists who are working in an art form so closely related to an Israeli popular culture that is unknown to the general public in the UK? How many 'sababa' (good) and 'bassa' (bad) experiences do these two such different populations really share?

Even the title of the show seemed designed to emphasise difference. Explaining the show's Hebrew/Arabic title, one of the curators, Avi Pitchon, noted that it was a conscious decision not to translate the title into English and to go for an amalgam of Hebrew and Arabic. This was to emphasise the 'everlasting chasm typical to Israel's identity crises'.

But there were many comics in the show that delved into universal experiences in a visual language that required no translation.

For example, Meirav Shaul's work is a ballet of deliberate as well as ambiguous suggestions, creating psychologically charged scenarios. In Shaul's 'Wolf', a child in a blanket sleeps with a wolf's head hanging over her. Is this a fairytale or a nightmare? In 'Couple', a man and a woman are placed with a cat between them. We aren't told the story outright, but the disengaged expression on the woman's face - and the fact she is wearing sunglasses - suggest the level of intimacy between the 'couple' is far less than their physical proximity. And who hasn't been in a sticky situation like that?

In many ways this show is artistically unified, presenting illustrators, cartoonists and graphic novelists in one space, a mix to which the London art scene is not accustomed. I asked one of the exhibiting artists Amitai Sandy, if this was representative of the art scene in Israel, or just special about this particular show?

He explained that in Israel most visual artists are multi-media artists, 'dwelling in many media, from illustration to comics to animation to television to design'. He continued: 'There are many reasons for this multi-talented situation: First, Israel is a young country with no rigid traditions of different schools, so it's easy to move from one another and study the different media within the same 'Visual Communications' BA Studies in the art and design academies.

'Another reason is more down to earth: the Israeli market is pretty small, so it helps if you can do different styles or mediums to make a freelancer's decent income.'

Amitai's own work is wide-ranging. Having studied at the Bezalel School of Art and Design, he is a graphic artist and illustrator, with work that has been in Israel's mainstream press - Yediot Achronot, Haaretz and The Marker. He is also the publisher of Dimona Comix Publishing.

I asked him what he meant when he describes himself as amongst other things, a 'political artist'? When he makes political work, as opposed to illustrative/comic work, does he think differently about the image and how strongly and clearly the message needs to come though?

He responded: 'I treat all my visual work under the same visual communication guidelines, no matter what's the subject or who's the client. I do see a difference between work for hire and an independent political voice, expressed in uncensored free media or on the street. But whenever I can I try to express my political views in my illustrations for commercial newspapers - for example even as little as by using under-represented characters -'affirmative action' for women, blacks, Arabs etc (we don't have no Afro-Americans in Israel, except for a few basketball players). So even the lowliest newspaper illustration could be infused with some subtle subversive message...'

Other work that dealt with an Israeli experience and seemed initially to require more of a background in Israeli culture was the work of Dula Yavne. She studied at the Ascola School of Design, Tel Aviv, and is a professional illustrator for leading newspapers and magazines in Israel. Yavne has published one comic book in Hebrew, 'Up the A'.

Her paintings and prints in the show seemed so carefully illustrated it seemed like they were just waiting to be animated in the eye of the viewer. I was attracted and repelled by one powerful image, a boy with pencil in his head, a subject both being drawn and deconstructed at the same time. It seemed the very object that drew him and thus created him, was also piercing him, making him both real and trying to kill him, at the same time. Perhaps Yavne is suggesting the power that comics have to create characters, narratives and scenarios, as well as to attack and criticise them and the reality outside them as well.

I had the opportunity to discuss Dula Yavne's work with her by email. The discussion focussed on the meanings in her works and her experience as an Israeli artist participating in the London show.

SL: How far do you feel that comics and graphic novels are internationally accessible? Are there limitations not just because of language and translation, but also in regards to cultural references that are specific to a place?

DY: Well, I guess you could say that reading a graphic novel from another country is not too different from the experience of watching a foreign film. But in comics, you usually get it translated so you don't have to go through this painful process of adjusting your ears to the new, squeaking sounds of a foreign language.

It is true that I lean a lot on Israeli icons. I was quite surprised to discover how people around the world get what I mean, including the militarism, pacifism, Moshe Dayan lookalikes. When I created those pieces I only had the Israeli audience in mind, I have to say, but in some strange way, it seems to really work. Maybe I underestimated the world outside... shame on me.

All in all, putting the icons and political issues aside, my works are really about very common subjects: love and loss, and generally, being human. And that's really pretty much the same everywhere. Isn't it?

SL Describe the new book you are working on.. The one about the girl looking for compensation relating to her soldier 'boyfriend' who is dead?

DY: The new book I'm working on is probably the most ambitious project I've ever worked on, and also the one that's dearest to me. It's part comics and part picture book for adults. I can't elaborate on it much as far as the story line goes but I can tell you it revolves mainly around lost potential. The grand question of 'what if'. It deals with some 'untouchable' issues in Israeli society, and wishes to challenge the collective memory. I know it all sounds very vague but I promise to pour my tortured little soul into this book and make it worth the wait...

SL How did you enjoy being part of show in London? Do you think the audience appreciated the show? What comments did you get?

DY: I loved it. First of all, I think that the young Israeli illustration scene has a lot to offer, both visually and conceptually. The organizer, Doron Yacobi, did it with a lot of love and passion. I also think that the audience did appreciate it. What I enjoyed the most was the fact that people actually took real interest in what they've seen there, and were really occupied with understanding what they're looking at.

I found myself conducting very long conversations about my works, aspects of Israeli history, and the selections I made in my works. The interest was sincere, and that felt good. A lot of the people seem to have a somewhat twisted perception about the freedom of speech in Israel, I think. They were very surprised that I'm able to publish my very left-wing works and get away with it.

Well, I do have a lot to say about the way things are operated in this country, that's for sure, but so far no one has tried to set me on fire or have me stoned to death.

Dula Yavne's work can be seen at www.myspace.com/Dula_Yavne

Amitai Sandy's work can be seen at www.flickr.com/photos/amitai/sets/570036/

Take the Bassa with the Sababa, Israeli Comics in London www.israelicomics.co.uk Featuring: Michal Baruch, Ifat Cohen-Gabai, Roni Fahima, Amitai Sandy, Koren Shadmi, Meirav Shaul, Assia Vilenkin, Dula Yavne, Gilad Seliktar

At the Spiro Ark Gallery, 25-26 Enford Street, London W1H 1DW

From 17th February - 30th May 2008

Sarah Lightman is an artist and curator. See her work at www. sarahlightman.com