Zoya Cherkassky paints her truth in first solo Israel Museum exhibition
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Zoya Cherkassky paints her truth in first solo Israel Museum exhibition

Unafraid to shock and offend, Kiev-born artist uses edgy humor and crass stereotypes to portray mass post-Soviet aliya experience

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

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

Artist Zoya Cherkassky recently gave journalists a tour of her first solo exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. As she approached the final section, she stopped and turned to the group.

“Okay, now we are entering the scary room,” Cherkassky warned.

The “scary room” contained large oil paintings, including one called “The Circumcision of Uncle Yasha” depicting the bloody removal of a middle aged man’s penile foreskin by surgeons sporting side locks, their faces obscured by religious books. Another painting titled “Aliya of the 1990’s” was a pornographic image of a mostly nude blonde woman bent over, displaying her genitals. A third, “Itzik,” portrayed a wild-eyed, swarthy Middle Eastern falafel store owner grabbing his terrified blonde Russian waitress.

‘Itzik,’ Zoya Cherkassky, 2012. Oil on canvas, 150×200 cm. Private collection (Courtesy of Israel Museum)

While the rest of the exhibition’s works may be less graphic and traffic in fewer crass stereotypes, they are almost equally disturbing.

Cherkassky’s caricaturesque style and use of bubble gum colors that pop from the canvas belie her subject matter. Her works have humor, but no real joy. She means to provoke, forcing viewers to confront the harsh realities faced by the 1 million immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union following the fall of the Iron Curtain as they tried to adjust socially, culturally and religiously.

The 25 oil paintings and the 80 works on paper in the exhibition chosen by senior curator of Israeli art Dr. Amitai Mendelsohn and titled, “Pravda” (truth in Russian, and the name of the former official newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party) depict not only the absurdities and frictions of the new immigrants’ experiences, but also their lives back in the USSR. In some images, a sense of nostalgia is present, but in others, the artist lays bare the failures of Communism and the Soviet Union.

‘1991 Ukraine’; ‘Friday in the Projects’ (diptych), Zoya Cherkassky, 2015. Oil on linen, 200×270 cm each, Israel Museum purchase. (Courtesy Israel Museum)

Nowhere is this more evident than in a large diptych comprised of “1991 in Ukraine” and “Friday in the Projects.” The former shows a snow-covered open area near a construction site, with industrial buildings in the distance. It’s a horrific scene of debauchery and multiple types of violence: A man rapes a woman, a man exposes himself to children, and a group of men beat an individual bloody. The latter painting is equally disturbing, depicting a poor neighborhood in the Negev desert city of Beersheva. There, young men stab one another, junkies shoot up in a doorway, and a missile falls from the sky.

The message is clear: It’s been out of the frying pan and into the fire for the Soviet Jews (and their non-Jewish family members) who moved to Israel. Soviet Communism and Israeli Zionism are both failed utopias.

The memories depicted in “Pravda” are collective in some cases, and personal in others.

‘New Victims,’ Zoya Cherkassky, 2016. Oil on linen, 140×230 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Rosenfeld Gallery. (Courtesy of Israel Museum)

Cherkassky, 41, herself arrived in Israel from Kiev, Ukraine during the massive immigration wave. Her landing in December 1991 was more or less soft, with her parents sorting out their employment situations relatively quickly. Cherkassky, who had studied drawing and painting seriously from a very young age, was admitted within less than a week to 9th grade at the prestigious Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Tel Aviv. She continued her studies at Beit Berl College.

Although Cherkassky’s family thought of itself as Jewish in the Soviet Union, in Israel, the artist is not considered Jewish by the religious law of matrilineal descent.

“My father’s parents were both Jewish, but my mother is Jewish on the wrong side,” she said.

‘Bread,’ Zoya Cherkassky 2015. Oil on linen 120 x 240 cm. Private Collection. (Courtesy of Israel Museum)

Cherkassky said in an interview with Haaretz that she moved primarily in artistic circles for her first decade and a half as an Israeli and did not develop a political consciousness until she was around 30, upon returning to Israel in 2009 after several years in Berlin. At that point, she began leaving her studio to go out into the streets of Israel, and also into Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, to paint. Cherkassky also co-founded New Barbizon, a collective of five Russian-Israel women artists focused on realism.

One of Cherkassky’s forays into the streets near her south Tel Aviv studio in search of models resulted in her meeting her husband, a Nigerian man. The couple has a young daughter who they send to a Russian-language kindergarten.

Cherkassky, who defines her style as social realism, is at this point an avowed and vocal communist.

“In my opinion, only communism can be an alternative to the extreme right and fascism. All those liberals can’t give it any fight,” she told Haaretz.

‘Rabbi’s Deliquium,’ Zoya Cherkassky, 2016. Oil on linen, 120×150 cm. Collection of the Lerer family (Courtesy of Israel Museum)

While some of Cherkassky’s paintings, like “One Day of Ivan Denisovich in Israel” showing a poor, elderly Russian man scrounging for rotting vegetables at the market, highlight the difficult plight of immigrants, others point to the refusal of many Russians to fully integrate into Israeli society.

“Russian olim [immigrants] did not enter the melting pot. They speak Russian with their children, send them to Russian kindergartens, and shop in supermarkets and stores stocked with Russian foods,” Cherkassky said.

“For Russians, there is no such thing as kosher,” she said.

Cherkassky illustrates this point humorously in “Rabbi’s Deliquium,” in which an ultra-Orthodox rabbi comes to check on a young Russian immigrant couple who are undergoing Orthodox conversion to Judaism. They look the part, with the husband wearing a yarmulke and the wife dressed modestly. But when the rabbi opens the refrigerator, he comes face to face with a pink, non-kosher pig’s snout sticking out from a pot.

“They Eat Russian Lard,” one of the two paintings at the entrance to the show, portrays the same idea. Here is a deli counter filled with a variety of pork products placed alongside an array of cheeses. Some of the meat and cheese overlap, and one type of bologna is even labeled “dairy meat.” Definitely not kosher.

‘They Eat Russian Lard,’ Zoya Cherkassky, 2013. Oil on canvas mounted on wood, 70×159 cm. Yurai David collection. (Courtesy of Israel Museum)

The entire exhibition is impressive, but it’s hard to get the “scary room” out of one’s mind. Cherkassky doesn’t shy away from being grotesque or exaggerating stereotypes to make her point. She also isn’t deterred by the hateful names she’s been called, like “slut” when walking on the street with her husband, and “racist” when she first shared her “Itzik” painting publicly a few years ago.

“Israelis think Russians are whores and Russians think Israelis are monkeys. This painting and the others in this room are about how Israeli society is soaked with stereotypes from all directions,” Cherkassky said.

Already known among collectors of Israeli art and represented by the prestigious Rosenfeld Gallery, Cherkassky reported that prices for her works, which range between $600 and $40,000, have already risen since the exhibition opened on January 10.

To Cherkassky, this solo show at the Israel Museum signals that she has achieved mainstream status. It’s a major honor for such a young, foreign-born artist. It’s one she earned with her talent — and also what is tattooed across her forearm: Attitude.

“Pravda” runs at the Israel Museum until October 31, 2018.

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