Taking a Hard Line to Dictators: The Israeli Artist Who Creates Minimalist Portraits of Leaders

Noma Bar tells Haaretz how minimalism and optical illusions have helped him portray leaders including Stalin, Assad and Osama bin Laden

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Works by illustrator Noma Bar.
Works by illustrator Noma Bar.Credit: Noma Bar
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

Margaret Atwood’s new novel “The Testaments” is on display in bookstore windows all over the world; after all, the work shares the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction. The cover features the familiar figure of the handmaid – but with a young woman raising her arms skyward as part of her robe’s collar. On the back is a young woman with her hair gathered in a ponytail; her hair resembles the handmaid’s bonnet on the front cover.

These optical illusions – in fluorescent green, black and white – were drawn by Israeli illustrator Noma Bar. This colorfulness, so different from what has characterized “The Handmaid’s Tale,” was part of the author’s instructions. Atwood says the green symbolizes fresh leaves and the girl’s readiness for marriage – while highlighting the story and new characters. “The Testaments” will be published in Hebrew early next year.

Noma Bar's cover of Margaret Atwood's 'The Testaments,' October 14, 2019Credit: Noma Bar

“The instructions I received were to compare the sisters who grew up in two different places; one grew up under oppression and the other was free. For each I assimilated the other,” Bar told Haaretz by phone from London, where he lives. “There is a game here about how good can’t exist without evil. This brief had a lot of solutions and a lot of sketches, and this is what was chosen.”

Bar didn’t have time to read the book before he began crafting the design. “I started working on the cover while Margaret was still writing, so I received a summary from her that came in parts and there was no possibility to read the book in its entirety,” he says.

Noma Bar sitting in front of one of his exhibition pieces, London, 2013Credit: Francis Ware

Bar says he hasn’t seen the recently-released hit television series based on the book – because he doesn’t have the time. For the past two decades, Bar’s illustrations – many of which play with positives and negatives like Atwood’s cover – have appeared just about everywhere. His work has graced The New Yorker, The Guardian, The New York Times and The Economist, not to mention public institutions and companies including Apple and Coca-Cola.

Bar was born in Afula in 1973 as Avinoam Bernstein. His parents Hebraized the name to Bar. Noma was his family nickname. He studied at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. “At Bezalel they called me Avinoam, and in London I started using the name Noma,” he says. “It’s a weightless name. [The British] don’t know if it’s the name of a woman or a man. There’s a restaurant with this name. It’s convenient for me.”

Illustration for the cover of Don Delillo's Falling Man, May 2007Credit: Noma Bar

He left Israel after he graduated from Bezalel. “It was my wife’s idea at first,” he says. “We discovered a few bookstores in London that are involved with graphic design. In Israel it didn’t exist. Not today either. We felt something was happening in London, that there was a graphic design scene. At first I worked as an employee, and at a certain stage I began to publish.”

Bar’s first famous illustration was of Shakespeare in Time Out London, with a question mark in the middle of the Bard’s face. “The internet was in its infancy then; I would go to all sorts of places and give them my portfolio on a disk,” Bar says.

His work is minimalist and surrealist. “Everything connects stylistically and conceptually,” he says. “There’s always tension between two sides: the positive and the negative. There’s something puzzling. I’ll never draw shoes or a bicycle the way they look. I’m a surrealist and always have a story and double meaning.”

An illustration of Adolf Hitler, accompanying the article 'Mein Kash: Milking the Third Reich,’ Esquire UK, September 2006Credit: Noma Bar

Bittersweet symphonies

Bar has drawn his share of dictators and leaders, like his famous illustration of Hitler in red, white and black – and a barcode Hitler mustache. The drawing was published in 2006 in Esquire magazine for an article examining the trend of the many new books on the Führer. When the piece appeared, 1,000 books about Hitler were listed on Amazon, and another 20 titles were published that month.

In his 2017 book “Bittersweet: Noma Bar,” the artist says that from a visual perspective, Hitler is a wonderful figure – with his distinctive mustache and hair. But Bar adds that because some of his relatives were murdered in the Holocaust, he found it difficult to draw the dictator at first. To depict such a person could attribute human characteristics to him, he wrote. As time went on and after he had drawn Hitler a number of times, Bar realized that his creative act contained an element of therapy that helped him overcome the trauma.

Syrian President Bachar al-Assad for The World Today, June/July 2013Credit: Noma Bar

Saddam Hussein can be recognized in Bar’s drawing by his signature beret, with his face represented by the international symbol for radioactivity. “It’s an illustration based on one of my first illustrations, which I drew during the Gulf War when I was 17,” Bar says. “That’s actually when I did the sketch for this drawing.”

Bar has also drawn minimalist portraits of Josef Stalin, Kim Jong Il, Bashar Assad, Muammar Gadhafi and Osama bin Laden.

One key subject is Donald Trump. “Trump is so iconic that it’s very easy to distill him into a piece of hair, as it’s possible to distill Hitler into a mustache,” Bar says. “When a figure is a famous icon, it’s easier. When it’s a less iconic figure I sometimes need to do 200 or 300 sketches. I do sketches by hand; I still need my hand.”

A Noma Bar illustration of U.S. President Donald Trump sporting a dovish haircut for a Politico report on Trump and the media, May/June 2017Credit: Noma Bar

So why does he prefer minimalism?

“I came from a place of noise and had the desire to clean up all the noise around me,” he says. “Graphic design was crazy; there were designers who smeared the typography and everything was very noisy and my head exploded. I really enjoyed the quiet of the simple surfaces. And this simplicity, when it stands against the noise, works very hard and differentiates. Less is totally more.”

Bar also explores sex and sexuality; because it’s a sensitive subject, he tries to add a bit of playfulness. In 2013 he was asked to draw for an ESPN magazine article on sex at the Olympics. According to the piece, 70,000 condoms were used at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, so another 20,000 had to be ordered. The illustration was made up of the five Olympic rings, with each extending down in the form of a condom.

Illustration for an article on sex at the Olympics, ESPN magazine, 2013Credit: Noma Bar

Bar did the cover for a new edition of Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying,” a book about the liberated sexuality of a young female author. In the drawing, a woman’s legs are separated and her vagina is represented by a zipper – the word “zipless” plays a role in that 1973 novel. The New York Times chose that cover as one of the best of 2013.

Bar illustrated an article for GQ France on what makes a penis beautiful; the French magazine said clean and trimmed were important, too. Accordingly, Bar drew a series of possible care products such as a hair dryer whose end is designed like the head of a penis.

A Huffington Post article on fertility treatments was accompanied by a drawing of a stork; the space between the top and bottom of its beak looks like a syringe – with the sack holding the baby resembling a sperm.

No trolling

Do you prefer business work or books and magazines?

“If the instructions are interesting and I have the ability to express and tell a story, it can also be a business customer. Anyone who comes to me knows why they’re coming. It’s quite rooted in what I do.”

Do you turn down customers?

An illustration by Noma Bar for Margaret Atwood's latest book.Credit: Noma Bar

“We turn down work, both because of the scheduling constraints and sometimes because of an uninteresting job. For example, I’ve said no to anti-Muslim books. I work closely with an agent, and he helps me decide whether a job is appropriate or not.

“I’ve worked with companies like Coca-Cola, which has a lot of bad press, but it’s a company that has a lot of brands and a million good things. Cigarettes I’ll refuse, for example. If the Sacklers’ company asks me, I think I wouldn’t work with them anymore. I won’t work with books that attack Islam or Judaism, or Israel.”

Why don’t you work with Israel?

“Because they don’t ask me. We’re supposed to be the people of the book, but we don’t have a visual culture. When I go to Italy, France, England – there’s a history of posters and graphics. It hasn’t trickled down to us. I can’t explain why. Maybe for religious reasons, maybe because of the political situation, design is seen as a luxury. When security is the thing, there’s no time for design.”

Bar does a lot of projects out of ideology, such as the “Cut the Conflict” exhibition at London’s Rook & Raven Gallery. “The work began when I sat with an Iranian in London and realized that we couldn’t have met in our own countries,” he says. “Later, I posted on Facebook and asked people from various countries that are in conflict to send me diverse materials.”

Bar collected images such as flags, letters, pictures, newspapers and fabrics. From every pair of countries in conflict, he composed a new image. “Like a child of divorced parents, I began to connect countries in conflict,” he says.

Noma Bar, September 2, 2019Credit: Michael Heffernan

This is how he created silhouettes of two doves made out of cut-up wallpaper, with one side representing India and the other Pakistan. Together the cuttings comprise a new image. Bar created another image partly composed of Haaretz and partly of the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar. At the point connecting the two he placed a dove, which from a different perspective resembles a gun.

Bar says he works alone without assistants. “It limits the amount of work, but it’s good for me. If I start to direct energy to managing people, I’ll think less. I trust myself, and I don’t think that other people can help me. It could be I’m wrong and it leads me to turn down work,” he says.

“I’m in the world of illustration. I don’t design logos or brochures. I don’t design websites and I don’t do branding. There’s no fat here. I have an idea and an illustration; all my energy is there. In Israel, I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t be able to concentrate. I don’t have technique, I have creativity.”


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