ODESSA, Ukraine — A mention of matkot (paddle ball) usually brings to mind Israeli men in Speedos on a Mediterranean beach, not a fine art gallery on the Black Sea.
But this week, Israel’s unofficial national sport was the subject on display in the Museum of Modern Art in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, where organizers hope it will paint Israel in a positive light.
Anyone who has ever visited the Israeli shore in the summer has seen large swaths of it taken up by beachgoers of all types energetically whacking a small rubber ball back and forth with wooden paddles, in a game known locally as matkot.
These paddles form the basis of the art display, with over 70 Israeli artists using them as the canvas and the inspiration for their works.
“I’m pleased to bring some Israeli spirit and sunshine here. There is nothing more Israeli than matkot,” said artist and curator Jaffa Meir, welcoming a crowd of some 200 people to the opening of the Odessa exhibit.
“There are no winners and losers in matkot. I invite you all to Tel Aviv to come and see the real thing,” she said.
The exhibit debuted in Berlin, has had a run in Madrid, and has been slowly wending its way across Russia and Ukraine, having already been displayed in Novosibirsk and Kiev in recent weeks. After Odessa it heads to Kharkiv.
“Matkot has become like hummus; something that was once a simple thing of the people is now becoming high culture,” said Meir, explaining why a beach pastime was the subject of an art exhibit.
Many of the works by leading Israeli artists have a beach or matkot theme, but others go in very different directions.
Meir’s own works are a reinterpretation of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, with the rubber ball strategically acting as Adam’s fig leaf.
One work transforms the paddles into a map of Israel, another becomes a bicycle, while others are simply decorative.
In keeping with the spirit of matkot as Israel’s national pastime, there is even one that depicts Zionist founding father Theodor Herzl with a paddle in hand.
Organizers said art was a very effective way of boosting Israel’s image in the region.
“We want to show Israel in all its aspects,” said Gennady Polischuk, the director of Nativ in Ukraine and neighboring Moldova. Nativ is a department in the Prime Minister’s Office that encourages immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union.
“What really interests people here is the modern art of Israel, and the reaction has been fantastic,” said Polischuk.
Locals were also impressed.
“It looks like a lot of fun and not a very complicated game,” said Alexi Murin of the Odessa municipality’s department of culture and sport. “We hope to have a tournament here on our beaches next summer.”