As part of a gentrification process taking place in the area, the 'Kiryat Hamelakha' compound in south Tel Aviv has become a center for the local art scene, with many abandoned workshops having been converted into galleries and workspaces for artists. But alongside the artistic spirit that permeates the place, there still exists the harsh and heart-breaking phenomenon of street prostitution provided by transgender women and other women, mostly addicted to drugs and malnourished.
“I Feel Pretty,” an exhibition by artist Hagit Shahal, which ran from late October through mid-November at the Artspace Tel Aviv (Makom Le’omanut) gallery, a nonprofit foundation, in the compound created a fascinating and brave dialogue with the prostitution in the area, to which society turns a blind eye, abandoning the people trapped in it to their fate.
The outer wall of the gallery displayed a work called “Save Me!” by guest artist “Shredder,” the pseudonym of a street artist who specializes in protest art. The work is made up of three types of texts gathered by the artist: Texts quoted from the “When He Pays Me” Facebook and Tumbler pages, where activist Tali Corral has posted testimony from prostitutes; texts from the online forum “Amazing Sex,” in which clients rate the prostitutes they’ve visited like any other consumer item; and informative texts from organizations that fight prostitution.
The work, which had been displayed as a protest earlier in the year directly across from the Pussycat strip club, was now on exhibition facing the streets clients pass along in their cars as they search for a sex worker.
Within the gallery, Hagit Shahal displayed her disturbing works of strip-club performers – both pole dancers who work at strip clubs and the women who dance in cages. The works depict the pole dancers as faceless, their very humanity suppressed.
Shahal creates the outlines of the pole dancers, then gouges them with her engraving knife, dismembering and shattering the bodies with the aim of disrupting the objectifying gaze. In so doing, she gives the women back their power. “At the beginning of the work the women are whole, but gradually, over time, they disappear and break down; what’s left is body parts wrapped around a phallic pole,” she says.
“The colors of the series, black, white and bright red, create direct images that look like traffic signs or posters at a demonstration,” notes the exhibit’s curator, Nir Harmat. “Shahal works with a technique known as linocut, and her carving technique, which includes the use of sharp knives, engraving, and gouging on the linoleum sheet, permeates the content of the works, which display a wounded and dismantled body.”
This body of work was born when Shahal was working on a earlier show, “What Do You Want?” which showed in 2011 at the Apart Gallery. Her research included examining stereotypical art representations of women showing everything from pleasure to pain, and it exposed her for the first time to online videos of pole dancers and strip clubs.
“I had never been in a strip club, and I thought of pole dancing as an erotic dance, the way it was marketed to the general public,” Shahal says.
What she saw in the videos, however, “was harsh and brutal. Many of the women’s movements are on their bellies, they crawl, they don’t stand up straight. During those moments when they are standing steady, they have the pole between their legs,” she says.
Harmat, the curator, adds, “The broken body is piled up and grows to be a glowing feminine shadow in the darkness of the ink print. The works have no space; they have no time. There’s a continuum and a pile of bodies designed to stimulate and release. The works seek to create an uncomfortable, disturbing viewing position that raises awareness of the subject and marks this industry as insulting the dignity of women, something that demeans, hurts and discriminates.”
What would you say to a woman who does pole dancing at a club and views it as art, claims that it empowers her, that she likes it and that it’s her free choice?
“I can’t argue with a woman who tells me, ‘I have a lot of fun doing this, it’s empowering, it’s artistic.’ Whoever says that, that’s great. But I’m sure that even the woman who says that and who’s convinced of it, in her subconscious even she knows that she is cooperating with a worldview that lowers her and humiliates her.”
Shahal worked on the exhibit for two years, during which a legal spotlight was directed at the stripper scene in the Israeli sex industry. In August 2017, Tel Aviv District Court Judge Michal Agmon-Gonen granted the appeal of the Ramat Gan municipality, which sought to close a long-open strip club near the Diamond Exchange. In her precedent-setting ruling, she wrote that, “Objectifying women is not entertainment,” and that the establishment in question engaged in “practices of contempt, the objectification of women and violations of their dignity.”
That ruling was followed this past August by new guidelines issued by the State Prosecutor’s Office that defined lap dancing as an act of prostitution and stating that clubs where it was practiced risked closure orders, nonrenewal of their business licenses and even prosecution for operating a business without a license.
“It didn’t influence the [artistic] work,” says Shahal, “but the change it caused encouraged me greatly. Michal Agmon-Gonen’s ruling is very important” for the way it redefines lap dancing. Now, she explains, “it has no other meaning than prostitution. The lap dance is the beginning, whose next step is to lead the customer to a private room for the purpose of sex for payment.”
An entire wall of the exhibition was covered with red banners, including some of the alluring names women use to entice customers, even as they erase their own identities, monikers like Lexus, Rihanna, Natalie and Lola.
“I went to an American website that advises strippers and pole dancers on how to choose a stage name,” says Shahal. “They divided it into categories, each of them meant to appeal to what men like. So, because men like luxury cars, they proposed names like Mercedes or Lexus. Men like alcoholic drinks, so they proposed the names Brandy and Gin. For the male gaze, what is more alluring to imagine, a performance by Hannah or one by Roxy?”
“The wall of names sums up the entire message of the exhibition – these are women without an identity. Nothing belongs to them, not even their name, even that is stripped from them,” says Shahal.
Yigal Amir did not approve
Shahal was born in 1950 in Tel Aviv. In her youth, she studied drawing and music, and in her 20s she performed as a jazz musician. “I’m not a performer by my nature,” she says smiling. “I didn’t like performing. I enjoyed making music, playing and singing with people and at some stage I felt I needed to choose between my two loves.”
In 1969, Shahal went to Holland to study art at the Free Academy in The Hague. She had a jazz group, and she recalls with clear enjoyment how she appeared before Queen Juliana on her birthday, but her love for painting and drawing won out. She specialized in lithography, screen printing and etching.
In 1989-91, she worked as a television sketch artist for ABC News, drawing courtroom illustrations of newsworthy trials in Israel. Later, she did the same for Israel’s Channel 2 News, for which she documented visually the trials of John Demjanjuk, Arye Dery and Yigal Amir. Amir, the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, “would tell me that my drawings were lousy and I didn’t know how to draw,” Shahal recalls with a smile.
Shahal recently published a first book of her own art, “I Feel Pretty,” which includes works from 2011 to the present day. The subject of gender plays a role in much of her work. Her exhibition “What Do You Want?” was a series of linoleum cuts of women dressed, packaged and imprisoned in such suggestive items as stiletto heels, pointy leather boots and corsets. All are items of clothing intended to serve the male gaze and which are inherently violent, chaining the woman, limiting her movement and hurting her.
“Feminism broke out in my artistic work in a much clearer manner in the last two decades,” says Shahal. “I’m a painter who loves paintbrushes, color, drawing and a sensitive line, but something interesting happened as the content of my works became more feminist: The works began to be in a more rigid and more bruising technique. You could say that this unyielding technique led me to places where it connected with the material that fascinates me today.”
Shahal is one of the founders three years ago of the Association of Women’s Art and Gender Research in Israel, whose members are artists, curators and researchers. The organization’s goal is to draw attention to female artistic work, she says: “to encourage research on both contemporary and forgotten female artists, and to encourage and support the activities of women artists in Israel. We organize, among other things, exhibitions, seminars, conferences and lectures.”
It was her initiative to invite Shredder to participate in her exhibition. “I was exposed to his work across from the Pussycat club and was moved by it,” she explains. “I got in contact with him, shared with him what I felt and proposed that he exhibit with me.”
“Prostitution is a real presence in the Kiryat Hamelakha compound,” says Shredder. “That’s why I’m glad to be part of an exhibition that deals with the subject, especially in this part of the city. I was amazed that none of the candidates in the Tel Aviv mayoral election talked about eradicating prostitution, in fact didn’t relate to this issue at all.” He says that it also has been given short shrift in the artistic realm, too, “and I’m very happy that it has been given a respectable stage here.”