With gut-wrenching drawings, artist Zoya Cherkassky shares Israel’s pain with world

There is no escaping the sheer horror, pain and trauma in mixed-media works on paper, in which even the brightest colors are overshadowed by the blackness of Saturday, October 7

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

'The Terrorist Attack at Nova Music Festival' by Zoya Cherkassky, October 2023.
'The Terrorist Attack at Nova Music Festival' by Zoya Cherkassky, October 2023.

Leading Israeli artist Zoya Cherkassky got on a plane to Berlin with her eight-year-old daughter as soon as possible after October 7.

Cherkassky’s husband stayed behind with her mother, but she had to get her daughter out.

“She takes the bombings very hard. She starts trembling and can’t calm down for hours,” Cherkassky said.

Although she is in the German capital, staying with friends, she cannot stop thinking about what is going on at home.

In particular, she is haunted by the images of the events of October 7, when thousands of Hamas terrorists burst through the border fence with Gaza, invaded over 20 Israeli communities in southern Israel under the cover of heavy rocket fire on much of the country.

The terrorists tortured and slaughtered 1,400 people, mainly civilians. They destroyed kibbutzim and towns and took 224 Israelis and foreign nationals hostage to Gaza. There are at least 100 Israelis whose fate is still unknown.

The horrific images of that day are in Cherkassky’s mind’s eye at all times. As an artist, the best way for her to cope with her trauma, as well as the collective trauma of all Israelis, has been to create art and share it with the world. The result is urgent, frightening and heartbreaking works on paper.

‘Kidnapped Women’ by Zoya Cherkassky, October 2023.

“I think right now it’s very important to make the world aware of what is going on. Sometimes people just automatically justify whatever comes from Palestine. They don’t even understand the difference between Palestine and Hamas, or between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. They automatically support Palestine,” Cherkassky said.

“This situation is very different, so it’s very important for me to try to explain it in my way, the way I can do it,” she said.

‘7 Oct. 2023’ by Zoya Cherkassky, October 2023.

Although already appreciated in national and international art circles, Cherkassky, 47, achieved wider public attention thanks to her first solo exhibition at the Israel Museum in 2018. That featured 25 large-scale oil paintings dealing with the experiences of immigrants from the former Soviet Union to Israel. She made aliyah herself as a teenager with her family from Kyiv, Ukraine in 1991.

Cherkassky also creates many mixed-media works on paper, which she sometimes shares with followers on social media. The works she has created in Berlin since October 7 take this format. So far there are six of them, and she expects there will be more.

‘BRING THEM BACK HOME (The Kidnapped Children)’ by Zoya Cherkassky, October 2023.

“When we got ready to leave home, I packed some drawing and art supplies because I knew something was going to come. In a moment like this, you cannot think about anything else, so I knew I would be making art about it,” Cherkassky said.

‘Crying Female Soldiers, 7 Oct. 2023’ by Zoya Cherkassky, October 2023.

“I grabbed pencils, wax crayons, watercolors — whatever. My whole [Tel Aviv] studio can’t fit in one bag, but it’s enough for me to do what I want,” she said.

Deeply disturbed by the war in her birth country Ukraine, the artist created a series of mixed-media drawings in 2022. For that series, she paired  works she had previously created depicting scenes from her childhood or visits back to see family and friends over the years with newly created ones influenced by images pouring out of Ukraine following the Russian invasion.

Cherkassky is known for using eye-popping bright colors in many of her paintings. The Ukraine series does not veer from that. Although she uses some black, it does not dominate.

In the images she has created since October 7, there are also bright hues of red, purple, green and pink. But there is more black than usual. In addition, all the drawings have ominous black backgrounds that force the subjects — Israelis running for their lives from terrorists’ bullets, hiding in a safe room, being marched off to captivity, or being kept hostage in an underground tunnel —  further than usual into the foreground.

The message is clear: The attention should be on the Israelis who have suffered and continue to suffer.

‘A Burned Family, 7 Oct. 2023’ by Zoya Cherkassky, October 2023.

One image is composed in only black, white and grey. It is of a family of four, all naked and with faces reminiscent of that of the subject in Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” The work is titled, “A Burned Family.” (Countless Israelis were burned alive in their safe rooms by the terrorists.)

Cherkassky has met up with many friends from Ukraine who are refugees in Berlin. She considers herself much more fortunate and looks forward to returning home to Israel as soon as she feels it is safe for her daughter. She said that she always prefers to be in Israel in times of crisis.

“I think of us as refugees with privileges. It’s not like we fled with nothing. We have friends who are putting us up, I can continue to work, and we have money to buy whatever we need,” she said.

In the meantime, she is pleased that she can do her part in explaining to the world what Israel is going through. She has not been a fan of official Israeli hasbara (public relations), especially not under the current government. However, the effort she is contributing is different. She considers herself part of the citizen-led efforts to keep the country functioning while many government ministries have failed to do so.

Accordingly, Cherkassky has has generously allowed news outlets to publish her images, and for grassroots and volunteer organizations to use them freely.

Artist Zoya Cherkassky poses in front of one of her works in her solo exhibition ‘Pravda’ at the Israel Museum. (Eli Pozner/Israel Museum)

Cherkassky said she will continue to share on social media the series’s images as she creates them, prepared for a mixed reaction from her more than tens of thousand international followers on various platforms.

“I’ve been happy to see that most of my colleagues who are not Jewish or Israeli understand the situation. They understand that Hamas are terrorists and not freedom fighters,” she shared.

“But also get a lot of comments from antisemites or Israel haters. I just ban them from my account,” she said.

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