Is Israel's Art World Plagued by Ethnic Discrimination?

Gallery owners and curators insist ethnicity makes no difference in Israel's art world. But is that really so?

Untitled work by David Adika, 2010.
David Adika

A respectable number of artists of Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern, origin are currently active in Israel, but most of them are not among the best known and most successful on the country’s art scene. Still, prominent figures in the art world declare time and again their absolute blindness to an artist’s ethnic origins. Judging by what they say, it is as if the mere reference to one’s ethnic origin is worthy of contempt. What difference does it make? An artist is an artist is an artist. But Mizrahi identity goes well beyond ethnicity; it is an ethnic identity as well as a political philosophy, and culture, too. What’s more, it does exist in the social reality of our lives, and it significantly affects the balance of forces in every realm of society – including the artistic one.

Financial relationships in the art world have always been founded on patronage: Artists created artworks from the recesses of their soul and the patron underwrote them, supplied a venue for display of the works, and even determined their commercial value. In the modern era, the patron is the art gallery. Although capitalist market forces have undermined the place of the institutional galleries and made them more commercial, at the same time artists have begun to promote themselves and sell their work independently.

Still, artists just starting out, including those in Israel, usually need a gallery to display their work, promote them and provide the support they need to break into the market. Established galleries of contemporary art, like Sommer, Gordon, Rosenfeld, Braverman and Chelouche, forge long-term relationships with artists and in exchange receive half the profit from the sale of their works. Aside from display space, the galleries provide artists with a seal of quality assurance. In a market as small as Israel’s, that is a great deal.

Nira Itzhaki
Tali Shani

“There are no repertory galleries that show artists and work with them for years on end, and which engage in the Mizrahi identity,” says Nira Itzhaki, owner of the Chelouche Gallery in Tel Aviv. “I am familiar with and I give high grades to studies and exhibitions on the subject of Mizrahi identity, such as those of Shula Keshet and Tal Ben Zvi, but I do not choose an artist or relate to an artist as Mizrahi or non-Mizrahi, because I simply don’t care about it. What I care about is his statement as an artist.” What’s more, Itzhaki claims, “The good artists break through and it doesn’t matter what their ethnic origin is. Ethnicity is not an impediment or a wall vis-a-vis the progress of an artist.”

The question here is, who determines who is good enough to be shown in a gallery? Itzhaki contends that impediments to the advancement of artists exist within internal power mechanisms that are unrelated to East or West.

Artistic hegemony

As for history, says Itzhaki, who has been working in the field for about 35 years, “There was a hegemony of artists like Zaritsky, Streichman and Steimatzky from the ‘New Horizons,’ group, all of whom came from the West. But the war was not over ethnic origin, rather artistic language and its content. Then, in the 1950s, a lot of artists were shunted aside; anyone who was not abstract and did social realism did not belong to this clique. Later on came Raffi Lavie and the ‘Want of Matter’ style, which grabbed center stage.

“The field of art has other rules, which have to do with issues like where you studied, which gallery accepted you, and your personal relationships. Nowadays it’s all a lot more unraveled, and a clear-cut hegemony no longer exists. But even then the exclusion of artists didn’t have to do with ethnic identity, but with the artistic hegemony of that time.”

Ravit Harari, one of the most active curators in Israel, concurs. “It’s more about connections and circles of acquaintance than about ethnicity. Personal relationships and professional behavior very much influence the way in which things develop in the art world.” Then again, the internal balance of power within the art world, which is based on cliques and personal acquaintances, is not devoid of ethnic considerations.

Ravit Harari
David Bachar

Not all Mizrahi artists engage expressly in their ethnicity or in the culture from which they emerged, but like every artist, they do create from within their world, from the soul, which is itself formed by the tradition and culture in which they were raised. For example, you have the artists Vered Nissim and Yehudit Sasportas, who do not engage in Mizrahiness, but most certainly engage in their family and personal biography. For Itzhaki, it is not possible to speak of a “Mizrahi art,” since “everything depends upon context, place and personal biography. There are many more artists working today who are engaged in their personal biography, and some of them are Mizrahi.”

In the Israeli art world, Mizrahiness isn’t conceived of as having a viable or significant ethnic identity. Essentially, the question of ethnic identity led the artists interviewed for this article to think of Palestinians. “The involvement of Arabs in their identity,” said Harari, “is much more substantive than that of the Mizrahim. I do not think there is a single successful Arab artist who is not engaged in his Arabness.”

She adds that there are successful Mizrahi artists who do engage expressly and directly in the Mizrahi issue. “Although there are not many of them, they are extremely significant. I do not feel there is a ghetto that has formed around this issue; it depends on the artists themselves. If you engage in Mizrahiness in an authentic and worthy manner, then there is a place for that. There is Khen Shish, who engages in themes related to her Tunisian roots; David Adika, who refers to colonialism; Nevet Yitzhak, whose work considers East and West. “They are artists who are well-connected to strong galleries and who have been successful for some time. It may be that there was such a ghetto in the 1960s and the 1970s, but I don’t feel it exists today,” says Harari.

Open questions

Is it possible that the local art world is characterized by a general ethnicity blindness, as is claimed – or is the blindness mainly aimed at Mizrahiness? It seems that Mizrahiness is reduced to ethnic origin – something that is disregarded because preoccupation with it is considered illegitimate. Aside from the engagement of Mizrahi artists in their personal biography, Mizrahiness is not thought of as an identity or a political idea of any consequence, one that can be engaged in or deconstructed. As Itzhaki notes, “I truly and wholly feel that the language is more political and less Mizrahi in the realm of art.” In this way, the Mizrahi matter is left transparent and there is no attempt to cope with the implications of many years of exclusion, which even if it is not directly linked to Mizrahiness, stems from and is influenced by the ethnic balance of forces in Israeli society.

All of these remain open questions, which most of those engaged in the field seem to prefer to disregard. For example: Are artworks that address Mizrahi identity and which receive the institutional seal of approval merely decorative art meant for the “white eye”? And why is it that in this field, which engages both in abstract meanings and meanings concretely related to our daily life and local politics, that no critical discourse has arisen? Does it have anything to do with the rising tide of commercialism, which requires a shallow reference to the political and the social? Gallery owners and art curators are obligated to address these questions, to engage in them and to break them down; otherwise they will find themselves left far behind in the critical and political discourse that is developing in the international art world.