Academic journal article Shofar

A Dancing Russian Bear

Academic journal article Shofar

A Dancing Russian Bear

Article excerpt

A work of art hangs on the wall of my New York apartment. On a background of intense red, a group of teenagers in Ukrainian folk costume dance to the accompaniment of an accordionist on the stage of a Soviet cultural center. The audience frames the work from below. A severe-looking Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian national writer, peers down on the scene from an embroidered white banner above the stage. Nobody looks happy. Drawn with the exaggeration of a caricature, the picture is both funny and sad. This was the first real work of art that I bought for myself; what's more, I bought it simply because I liked it, not for any practical reason. In other words, it was a very nonimmigrant thing to do. But on that balmy summer night, when I walked into the art opening at the Rosenfeld Gallery in Tel Aviv and saw this "Ukrainian Folk Dancing" (fig. 1), I fell in love. The work was by Zoya Cherkassky, a Kiev-born Israeli artist. It was a part of a series set in Soviet schools, kitchens, and courtyards that called to mind my own Soviet childhood. The effect of the series was dazzling; it felt nostalgic and anti-nostalgic at the same time. I was moved by seeing a part of my story represented and proud that the artist was a member of my cultural community. I met Zoya at the opening, got her catalogs, went to her studio to see her work in progress, and remained a devoted fan (and Facebook friend).


When I heard the news of Zoya Cherkassky's upcoming solo exhibition at the Israel Museum, I couldn't wait to see it. It's one thing to view an artist's work in the gallery that represents her, another to view it in the main art venue in the country among major world artists like Ai Weiwei, whose retrospective shared the floor with Cherkassky's. Her exhibition is called "Pravda," a Russian word for truth, but also the name of a notoriously propagandistic Soviet newspaper.1 The title purports to reveal the unadorned truth about Russian immigration to Israel, yet it also alludes to the ideological brainwashing, both Soviet and Zionist, to which immigrants were subjected. The exhibition sprawls over several rooms and consists mainly of large-scale paintings. One room charting Zoya's

development as an artist features earlier sketches, drawings, and her letters to friends and family. There is also a looped video interview with her.

"Pravda" engages with the subject of aliyah—the Zionist ideological lingo for immigration—showing immigrants' experiences from the old country to arrival in Israel to so-called absorption. The paintings satirize in equal measure the immigrants and the hosts.

The key work here is the diptych "1991 in Ukraine" (oil on linen, 2015) and "Friday in the Neighborhood" (oil on linen, 2015). The first painting presents a snapshot of the brutal reality in early post-Soviet Ukraine. Seen from a long shot against a white snowy background, the action unfolds in several scenes scattered over a decrepit construction site. Both the composition and the color palette evoke Bruegel's winter landscapes depicting the reveling of peasants. In the bottom left, three men assault another man with two-by-fours. To the right, a pervert exposes himself to two little girls. Behind them is a fence decorated with expletives and antisemitic slurs. Further in on the right, a rape is in progress; and to the other side, a drunken party is taking place, with one of the revelers doubled over vomiting. In the background, in front of nondescript Soviet apartment blocks, are mirror images of two demonstrations—one with a red Communist flag, another with a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian nationalist flag.

In contrast to the white snow in "1991 in Ukraine," "Friday in the Neighborhood" is dominated by yellow sand. While the scenes in this painting, set in a remote town in southern Israel, are different, the sense of desperation and physical violence remains the same. In the foreground, an elderly man rummages in a dumpster. …

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