Dressed in Drag, This Artist Is Love-bombing Israel’s War on ‘Unpatriotic Art’

Ze’ev Engelmayer is one of Israel’s most famous illustrators. But once he dons a baby-pink bodysuit, yellow foam wig and scarlet court shoes, he becomes Shoshke, its most defiant protest artist

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FILE PHOTO: Shoshke (aka Ze'ev Engelmayer)
FILE PHOTO: Shoshke (aka Ze'ev Engelmayer) Credit: Eviatar Amar
Rivkah Brown
Rivkah Brown
Rivkah Brown
Rivkah Brown

Tel Aviv’s Da Da & Da café seems a fitting place to interview the city’s foremost Dadaist. I first encountered Shoshke (aka Ze’ev) Engelmayer as many Tel Avivians do – strutting down Rothschild Boulevard in a baby-pink bodysuit and yellow foam wig, thick black spectacles and scarlet court shoes. So I struggle to hide my disappointment when this “voluptuous female superhero” arrives sporting the universal uniform of dads everywhere: gray hiking sweater and dark-wash jeans.

In fact, it's a few seconds before I’m certain that this painstakingly inconspicuous person is the same one as the larger-than-life protest artist who accosted me on Rothschild.

The only giveaway is the lipstick I point out he’s forgotten to remove. Unlike Shoshke, Engelmayer is easily embarrassed and rushes to get tissues from the counter.

Even those who spotted Engelmayer’s genius didn’t see Shoshke coming. His 30-year career as an illustrator and cartoonist had, until recently, followed an illustrious but predictable route from the visual communications unit of the Israeli army, study at Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design, work at prestigious Israeli newspapers and now, a cushy faculty position at Bezalel in Jerusalem.

Yet Engelmayer’s conventional CV masks a latent rebelliousness, one he channeled through his fanzines Syrup and White Night with Shakshuka. Here, Engelmayer graphically bastardised Zionism, portraying the First Zionist Congress in Basel as a kind of LSD trip, its theology as subtextually homoeroteric.

It was here that Shoshke was born: A simple black and white line drawing, a busty blonde “question mark” over the New Jew.

Even before inhabiting his creation, Engelmayer was developing a split personality: By day a straitlaced newspaper cartoonist; by night the creator of underground artwork. In 2016, he published his moonlit endeavours in “Journey to Vulgaria,” a compendium of “all the stuff Israeli newspapers wouldn’t publish.”

While many saw “Vulgaria” as the completion of Engelmayer’s transition from good boy to enfant terrible, he was just getting started.

“When the book came out I was happy. But then I thought: what now?” he recalls. His answer came two weeks later in the form of a call from Beit Ha’ir – the Museum of the History of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. The museum wanted Engelmayer to take over its entire four stories, a “crazy offer” to which he responded suitably crazily (and wildly over budget).

“The Prom-Assed Land” brought Shoshke to life in a riot of paintings, poufs and – in a performance piece entitled “The Birth of Shoshke” – the protest artist himself. Of course, it wasn’t just Botticelli to whom Shoshke's spectacular birth was indebted, but a long tradition of Israeli skewerings, from Igael Tumarkin’s “He Walked in the Fields” (1967) to “10+ Climbs on Venus” (1970) by the 10+ group (aka the Tel Aviv School).

Toxic masculinity

Engelmayer’s innovation was to inhabit his art. Since emerging from his plastic clamshell two years ago, he has spent more time as Shoshke than Ze’ev. The reason may be that the machismo Shoshke is challenging is less topical (both Tumarkin and the 10+ were responding to ongoing wars) than reflecting the mood – the popularity of political strongmen and hardening of misogyny that recently came to a head in a nationwide demonstration protesting violence against women. If toxic masculinity is a daily reality, so too must Shoshke be.

The artist’s more cynical use for Shoshke is as a human shield. “When I’m Shoshke, I’m not thinking about what the consequences are going to be for Ze’ev,” he says. “When I’m Shoshke, I’m someone else.”

Shoshke can do things Ze’ev wouldn’t dream of – illegal things, such as doctoring recent municipal election campaigns, so that posters emblazoned with the words “It’s time to divorce the Palestinians” instead declared it was “time to fall in love with the Palestinians.”

What he’s doing is either hopeless or brilliant; rather than engaging rationally in debate, he flips the script. “My messages are not always very logical,” he admits. “What I want is to steal the imagination. Restart your thinking.” Shoshke’s absurdity is, sometimes literally, disarming. “At the end of November, I held a one-woman protest outside of the Knesset in which I burned my artwork,” he recalls. “The Knesset guards called the police, but the policewomen who came to arrest me couldn’t be serious as they were laughing so much.”

'Lukewarm resistance'

Yet it is possible to be both extremely funny and deadly serious. Engelmayer isn’t laughing when he talks about the government’s growing hostility toward all forms of dissent, most recently cultural. In 2016, Miri Regev – the former military censor who began her tenure as culture minister advising local artists to wave more Israeli flags – proposed the so-called cultural loyalty law.

This bill would allow the government to withhold funding for cultural organisations “working against the principles of the state” in ways veering from the specific – desecrating the Israeli flag, as left-wing performance artist Natali Cohen Vaxberg did in 2014 – to the vague (“Inciting racism, violence or terror”). It spent two years creeping through the Knesset, but after it passed the first of its three readings last November, enacted legislation started seeming like a real possibility.

Engelmayer looked to his fellow artists for support, but says he was “devastated” by their lukewarm resistance.

“It was as if something terrible was about to happen and they were saying, ‘We’re not very happy about this, it’s not right.’ But the danger is very real,” he says. “If you take artists’ freedom, what do you have left? You have to scream!”

Or burn a million shekels’ worth of art. The day after the burning in Tel Aviv’s most famous square, the law was postponed indefinitely after various parties in the governing coalition refused to endorse it.

Engelmayer reflects that while this battle may have been a “victory” for artists, the war is yet to be won. In some ways, “it didn’t matter whether the bill passed or not,” he says: Regev’s intimidation has effectively induced Big Brother-type self-censorship. The result, says Engelmayer, is a fear that pervades the Israeli art world.

“Fifteen, 10, even five years ago, films about Israeli-Palestinian relations were common – not any more,” he says, calling to mind “Time of Favor” (2000), “Waltz with Bashir” and “Lemon Tree” (both 2008) and “5 Broken Cameras” (2011). He doubts whether he would even be able to stage “The Prom-Assed Land” today.

The fear factor

I've seen the fear Engelmayer talks about firsthand. Prior to our interview, I become convinced that painter Nurit Gur Lavy (Karni) is going to cancel. “I can be in the article,” she tells me on the phone beforehand, “but I don’t want to talk about politics. In Israel, it’s risky ... the atmosphere is that of a witch hunt.”

I contemplate the irony of losing an interviewee to the fear I’m attempting to write about. When she shows up, Gur Lavy tells me her artist friends practically forbade her from speaking to me. Which is strange, because her artist friends are all at the Artspace gallery, hearing a lecture from Shenkar College’s Dr. Guy Tal entitled “Censored Art: From the Renaissance to Facebook.”

Tal tells me he was invited to speak “in light of Miri Regev’s censorship of art,” demonstrate the ways in which “we [Israelis] are not more tolerant to certain elements in art (sexual and heretic) than people were 500 years ago.” Tal’s lecture exemplifies the oblique angle from which most Israeli artists enter the political fray.

Gur Lavy wonders why I got in touch, insisting that her work is apolitical. I tell her I’ve read “Flora Palaestina” and disagree. A riff on a botanical catalog, her 2016 art book assumes an observational vantage point that conceals criticism; accompanying the corn parsley, for example, is the number 443, referencing a road connecting Israel to the West Bank. “It’s about pain, complicity. My message is gentle,” she says. “I’m not standing in the streets.”

Then again, with paranoia about “unpatriotic” art at fever pitch, Gur Lavy is aware that even her kid-gloved treatment of politics is likely to sound alarm bells. “I tried applying for a government award for ‘Flora Palaestina.’ A famous professor of botany warned me, ‘Forget about it. With this name you’ll get nothing.’ And he was right.”

Paying a price

Engelmayer insists he doesn’t disdain artists who channel politics more subtly and, in an uncanny coincidence to Gur Lavy’s work, references Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies,” which drew criticism for ignoring World War I. “Painting flowers is also a political act. It says that war isn’t all there is; another world is possible,” he says.

The protest artist also acknowledges that he is paying a price for his lack of subtlety. He believes “The Prom-Assed Land” could have made him eligible for the Israel Prize – the country’s highest cultural honour – but he didn’t even bother applying. “There’s no way Miri Regev would’ve awarded it to me,” he says.

Then again, it seems he no longer needs government prizes or funding: He recently capitalised on his large social media following to crowdfund over 100,000 shekels (about $27,000) in three weeks.

Engelmayer has even harnessed his fame to turn the tables on the government. He believes the police didn’t charge him for his Knesset protest for fear of stoking media scrutiny (even admitting to feeling “a little disappointed when they let me go”). And when the central city of Ramle failed to remove controversial ads for the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party last October, Engelmayer took to Facebook with an ultimatum: “If in 24 hours the racist ads hadn’t been taken down, I would do it myself, and bring my followers with me,” he recounts. The next morning, the ads were gone.

Naive love of homeland

Israeli protest art is as old as Israel itself, but few have wielded it as effectively as Engelmayer. He cites Shimon Tzabar – the Israeli provocateur famous for co-signing a declaration in Haaretz decrying the occupation after the Six-Day War and, 40 years later, for a “Michelin Guide” to Israeli "prisons, jails, concentration camps and torture chambers" (over which Michelin threatened to sue) – as an inspiration. Yet Tzabar left Israel for London in December 1967 in an effort, as his unpublished autobiography would claim, “to mobilize world opinion against the occupation.”

But Engelmayer isn’t going anywhere. Not from a belief in the power of direct action over Diasporic influence, but out of an almost naive love of his homeland.

“The government has made all criticism seem like treason, which is absurd,” he says. “When you criticize something, it means you care about it, you want to make it better. ... I see my art as patriotic, for the good of my country.”

By staying, Engelmayer is refusing polarity and embracing ambivalence. Just as he can contain Shoshke and Ze’ev, so Israel can accommodate Arabs and Jews, left and right, love and criticism, he believes. A country saturated with certainty doesn’t need more statements – it needs question marks, he concludes: “Is everything a must? Must we be angry? Must things continue this way?”

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