Opinion

The Mizrahi Pioneers Who Transformed Israeli Art

For years, the 'gatekeepers' opined that there was no such thing as Mizrahi art. Luckily, some artists were determined to prove them wrong.

Eli Petel's artwork of performers Dudu Topaz, Avi Toledano and Albert Iluz.
Eli Petel

In the home museum run by my mother – who was a vigorous curator of temporary exhibitions – several works were showcased for quite some time: the outdoor and studio wedding photos of two of her children; a parchment portrait of the kabbalist miracle worker Baba Sali; and a charcoal drawing of Van Gogh’s old peasant shoes, in an aluminum frame. This was no random selection; it allowed household members to bask in the important things in life.

It would be superfluous to explain why she would hang up the images of my siblings or the Baba Sali. But what was a sketch of Van Gogh’s painting, one she made in art class, doing there?

According to cultural researcher Sarah Chinski (1951-2008), the home curation served to build a Western identity under the guidelines of the acculturating authorities. In the home of Chinski’s Ashkenazi parents, for example, one could see a tapestry of Vermeer’s "Milkmaid"; deer returning from a frozen lake on snowy mountaintops in the midst of dark, evergreen forests; family photos; and the ubiquitous Van Gogh, whose colors had faded with time.

It's not surprising to learn that a Van Gogh was in Chinski’s parents' home as well as in my mother’s, since it represented something of “cultural value." However, was there some essential difference between the display put up by the petit-bourgeois Chinski family and by my Moroccan mother? Well, clearly, the Chinskis were the more obedient ones. In my mother’s art domestica, there were two opposing currents working in the formation of an identity: a mindless internalization of the national artistic canon, along with a personal and defiant interpretation of its imperatives. My siblings’ wedding photos are no different to the staged scenes on the Chinski walls. But their Van Gogh was quite different to my mother’s charcoal sketch. They displayed a cheap reproduction (as was commonly done at the time), while my mother presented a simulacrum – a copy of a copy. The Babi Sali portrait was further incriminating evidence of her penchant for spiritual trash.

In 2002, Chinski published a sensational article called “Eyes Wide Shut: The Acquired Albino Syndrome of the Israeli Art Field.” It opened with a description of a modest gift the Israel Museum had bequeathed to itself and, therefore, the general public, in honor of the country’s jubilee celebrations in 1998. This was an exhibition called “Onwards: Orientalism in Israeli Art.” The exhibition was concerned with “the manner in which the West views the East, and the way it actually invents it so it reflects back an inverted view of itself, as an identity that is essentially different from its own.”

We would undoubtedly have remembered this bold offer to critically appraise Israeli art with more gratitude, were it not for a regrettable fact leaking from the subconscious of the museum’s management, making a mockery of its declared intentions.

Concurrent with the exhibition, the ethnography wing of the museum opened another display, which tried to look at Mizrahi aspects of Israel from another vantage point (i.e., Jewish culture originating from the Middle East and North Africa). It was called “To the Graves of the Righteous: Tombstone Pilgrimages and Associated Festivities in Israel.” For the price of a single ticket, you could visit two conflicting features: the first was visited by individuals not labeled by their ethnogeographic affiliation, people taking a day off to take in some culture; whereas visitors to the other exhibition included organized groups from towns in the country’s outlying areas (commonly home to Mizrahi Jews who immigrated to Israel in the 1950s).

In my mind I picture my uncle Hananya, a worker at the Sugat sugar factory in Kiryat Gat, transported by bus along with his coworkers, all of them enjoying a day off. He moves away from the group and wanders through the museum’s halls until he mistakenly reaches the “Onwards” exhibition. Just like the villager who wishes to gain entry into the law in Kafka’s short story “Before the Law,” my scatterbrained uncle asks the gatekeeper-guard for permission to enter. “If it appeals to you so much, try going in despite not having my permission," answers the guard in riddles. "But note, I’m very strong and I am but the last of the guards. Between each room there are other gatekeepers, each one stronger than the other.” My uncle smiles submissively and goes away in search of his group.

Eli Petel, head of the Fine Arts Department at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.
Sagie Azoulay

I think Chinski also envisaged a similar scene. “These exhibitions displaced the traditional division of labor in relating to ‘the East,’ creating two distinct groups: Whereas ‘the East’ in the exhibition of the graves of the righteous meant the ethno-Moroccan community, the ‘East’ in the 'Onwards’ exhibition was geared to ‘Western’ visitors.”

'Basically Western art'

Mizrahi artists who have gained academic status and the acclaim of critics are the ones who toed the line, in a manner that moved art critic-historian Gideon Ofrat to declare: “There are Mizrahi artists in Israel. There are works of art here that draw inspiration from the East. There are even works that affirm characteristics of alienation. But there is no ‘Mizrahi art’ in Israel, since the work of artists with a Mizrahi background is basically Western art – and as such does not extend beyond the Western character of Israeli art.”

The jury is still out on the question of whether only artists with a Mizrahi background can create Mizrahi art. Until it returns its verdict, one can decipher some of Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev’s emotional words through this prism, understanding the intensity of emotions and its sources.

A current sign of the times is the strong attack on the old Ashkenazi elites as part of the assault on democracy and its institutions. But the truth must be told: The elites in Israeli controlled cultural tastes, rejecting Mizrahi art while viewing its creators as a silent and unremarkable mass. This was expressed in the "albino syndrome" associated with the Israel Prize.

Having reached the pinnacle of power in the art world (and hailing from the same poor town as my uncle), Regev refuses to continue bowing her head before the gatekeeper – at the same time dispensing with Kafka or Chekhov, or anything else making up the canon of Western literature.

But it’s difficult to suppress artists over time, particularly Mizrahi ones. Thus, several unruly artists have broken out of the pigeonhole. Each member of this small group, to which Israeli culture is highly indebted, refused to adopt Western characteristics encouraged by the arts establishment. They all returned to their sources and communities while utilizing the cultural agents of the hated Ashkenazi elites, such as Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, Army Radio and the Haaretz culture and books supplement, edited by Benny Ziffer.

Ziffer, whose place in the contemporary cultural world is that of an astronaut cut loose from his mother ship and left drifting in space, is worthy of special attention. His oppositional stance with regard to the discourse on identity, and his determined evasion of being labeled (aside from muted hints of being an eccentric reactionary), enabled him to create one of the biggest furors in the cultural world. He alone realized that the poetry of the Mizrahi poetry group Ars Poetica – particularly that of Roy Hasan – deliberately disrupts categories such as "refined" or "trash," "skilled" or "amateur," "secular" or "traditional." There are better poets than Hasan (Erez Biton is much better), but Ziffer sought and created upheaval in one of the bastions of the European bourgeoisie in Israel (the Haaretz supplement).

The disruption caused by the wonderful artist Eli Petel is reflected in the production of a fictitious cultural canon: a picnic table in a nature setting; a drawing taken from a photo of performers Dudu Topaz, Avi Toledano and Albert Iluz sitting in a restaurant. Acting with bold defiance, Petel – who heads the arts department at Bezalel, and who was a central figure in the recent scandal in which a poster depicted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a noose – pretends to be the official documenter of Israeli culture. He proposes an outrageous syntax of images, which is meant to disrupt accepted identities.

In his two albums with The Kuwaitis, singer-songwriter Dudu Tassa revived the songs of the Kuwaiti brothers – his grandfather Daoud and his great-uncle Saleh, who were considered the greatest songwriters/musicians in Baghdad in the early 20th century. In Israel, they only performed at private functions for the Iraqi community. The national radio culture silenced them and they died at a relatively young age, saddened by the experience. Their music was swept away by a lost collective nostalgia, and it was the "The Golden Peacock" by Itzik Manger (sung in Yiddish by Chava Alberstein) which became emblematic of the national yearning for the old world left behind. The success of Tassa’s albums restored the lost honor and dignity of the Kuwaitis, giving them the aesthetic and cultural perch that had been stolen from them.

“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it,” wrote Frantz Fanon. Each one of these artists, and others, has fulfilled their mission. Each entered the national fray and dismantled another brick in the canon, poking a finger at its institutions. Each answered the gatekeeper with a resounding voice: “There is Mizrahi art!” Then they moved him aside and placed it at the center.