When Art Shocks: Disturbing is Good

On January 10th, a solo exhibition by Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi opened at the Israel Museum. Ms. Cherkassky-Nnadi depicts daily life in the Soviet Union and in Israel in the early nineties. She relates the reality lived by Soviet Jews in the last days of the USSR, and after they arrived to Israel in a million strong wave of aliyah. Describing the collective experience of a million people calls for generalization, and the artist employs grotesque to tell the story of cultural isolation, poverty, humiliation and abuse that the immigrants experienced.

She engages with painful dilemmas still very real for the Russian speaking community in Israel. Mutual stereotyping between the newcomers and native-born Israelis; the immigrants’ struggle to make the ends meet; and, most painful of all, the question of identity and belonging. “Who is a Jew?” is not a theoretical question in Israel. In a country where organized religion is funded by the state, and where the Orthodox establishment wields political power, the answer still defines one’s social status and self-perception.

No wonder, then, that Ms. Cherkassky-Nnadi’s bold, graphic images are highly disturbing. A brief internet search uncovers a barrage of extremely hostile, disparaging comments. The artist is accused of a slew of sins, and personal attacks abound. Even had I not seen the actual exhibition, the tone of anonymous online commentators would have made it clear: Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi has really captured the zeitgeist. The fact that her work touches a raw nerve of so many means that she found a way to engage with deep-seated fears and frustrations.

It is a very good thing. Art is not synonymous with hasbara, rose-tinted Israel advocacy. Real art asks inconvenient questions and leaves viewers unsettled, searching for answers. Ms. Cherkassky-Nnadi excels at shocking the spectators. After the initial shock settles, they have to ask themselves: is this really the country I live in? And then: how do I make it better?

Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi, Rabbi’s Deliquium, 2016, Oil on linen, Private collection, Israel (from the website of the Israel Museum)

The exhibition has a number of highlights, yet one painting stands out. “Rabbi’s Deliquium” depicts a young family in their kitchen, the woman dressed according to the strictest Orthodox standard, her husband and baby wearing kippot.  A rabbi in black garb is inspecting their half-empty fridge. He holds a lid off the pot with a pig head peeking right at him. The context is clear: the family is undergoing conversion, and the rabbi is there to make sure their kitchen is kosher. It is blatantly not – and to me it seems that the fault is not with the family. The fault is with the system that ignored grievances of countless people who were Jewish in the former Soviet Union, and found themselves to be Russians in Israel. The system that failed to include them, interest them deeply in Jewish values and the beauty and relevance of Jewish tradition. Beyond economic difficulties inevitable after any mass wave of immigration, the crisis of identity created by this alienating experience has been the most difficult to overcome.

This is what we need to work through in order to make Israel a better place. Kudos to Ms. Cherkassky-Nnadi for bringing it up and for creating art outspoken to the extent that it cannot be ignored.

About the Author
Anya Zhuravel Segal lives in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood of Jerusalem with her husband and two children. They recently spent ten days in home quarantine after a teacher’s aide in her son’s preschool tested positive for coronavirus.
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