It would be easy to assume that Israel’s cultural and artistic identities are inextricably linked with the nation’s turbulent political history. Certainly there is no ignoring the influence that statehood and the Holocaust had upon the nation’s visual artistic landscape.
Nonetheless, Anat Gilboa, visiting professor of art history at UCLA’s Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, who will teach upcoming classes on Israeli visual culture at the Skirball Cultural Center and at UCLA, insists that Israeli visual culture has deeper dimensions.
“I believe students or the average American are most interested in the political side of Israel, what they see in the news,” Gilboa said. “But Israeli culture is richer than the conflict, and that’s something I want my students to understand.”
She’ll have ample opportunity to get the point across in the months ahead. The five-session course “Identity, Protest and Hope in Israeli Visual Culture” at the Skirball (April 3-May 1) is essentially a condensed version of a class Gilboa will teach in the spring through UCLA’s Nazarian Center. Earlier this month, the public got a sampling of Gilboa’s work during her presentation at “Israel in 3D,” an all-day series of panels with UCLA faculty and visiting scholars exploring different dimensions of Israel.
“Our basic assumption is that understanding Israel means, among other things, understanding Israeli culture,” said Arieh Saposnik, director of UCLA’s Nazarian Center. “This is something that is all too lacking, not only on a university campus, but it’s even lacking in the American Jewish community. The minute professor Gilboa was brought to my attention, she was immediately of interest.”
Adele Lander Burke, vice president of the Skirball’s Learning for Life adult programming, added, “She can teach anything relating to Jewish art history. Israelis are part of the international arts scene today, and we thought it would be interesting to explore the connections Israeli artists are making and how they are expressions of Israeli society.”
Gilboa plans to divide the Skirball class into five sections: religion, the Holocaust, war and conflict, ethnicity definitions and the redefinition of gender roles — male and female. The class will cover a spectrum of examples across artistic disciplines, from the work of painter and Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak, to the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design-schooled painter Reuven Rubin, to the hip-hop funk band Hadag Nahash. Painting and graphic art will be considered, along with film, photography, music and pop culture.
Gabi Klasmer (b. 1950) Shimshon, Jerusalem, 1982. Collection of Skirball Museum.
Gilboa studied art history as an undergraduate at the University of Haifa and Tel Aviv University, but earned her doctorate, also in art history, in the Netherlands. She sees Israeli visual culture as an amalgam of several different influences including European, Mediterranean and Muslim countries. What has emerged, she said, is a visual culture that is as “idiosyncratic” as it is uniquely Israeli.
“Over the past couple of years, I’ve grown interested in how visual culture relates to my own history as an Israeli, since I’ve also lived in Europe,” said Gilboa, who has previously taught at the University of Haifa. “An art historian always focuses on the relationship between society and visual culture. Those are the tools that I will use.”
In the class, she’ll consider fine-art work, but also other examples that illustrate pop culture. She points to the 2004 Hadag Nahash song “Shirat Hasticker” known to American listeners as “The Sticker Song.” With lyrics written by the Israeli novelist David Grossman, the song is a compilation of pop culture and slogans from bumper stickers that have appeared in Israel. In something of an unlikely pairing, a then-50-year-old author and activist teamed up with a young hip-hop group to create a rap hit.
UCLA students will have a full 10 weeks to delve more deeply into the topic during the spring quarter at the university, where Gilboa will teach two undergraduate classes. Earlier this month, members of the public were able to get in on the action during Gilboa’s presentation “Myth and Model of the Sabra (native-born Israeli) in Israeli Visual Culture” at the second annual Israel in 3-D conference.
Named after the prickly pear from the region, the sabra has come to represent Israeli natives who have defied harsh circumstances and odds-defying barriers. The image reappears in the visual arts from Zionism to the present, not always in the most flattering of ways, researchers say.
“This idealized image of the sabra emerges in large degree as a counterpoint to imagery of the traditional Jew,” Saposnik said. “So you have this strong, upright, young — often blond — sabra, and we see the visual depictions of this image in many works of Israeli art as early as the 1960s. Then, from the 1970s to the 1990s, the visual image of the Israeli changes a great deal.”
Visual arts devotees located on the West Coast don’t often get the opportunity to see visiting art exhibitions from Israel. With the community classes at the Skirball, and symposiums and events like the ones at UCLA, officials from both institutions are hopeful that will change.
“We don’t want Israel studies to remain in the confines of a conference,” Saposnik said. “Our center’s aim is to bring Israeli studies to the community beyond a university campus.”