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When An Israeli Artist Uses The Bible For His Satire

Israeli cartoonist Ze'ev Engelmayer and his drawing of the Tower of Babel
Israeli cartoonist Ze'ev Engelmayer and his drawing of the Tower of Babel
Reut Barnea

HOLON "The Bible is great raw material — an eternal soap opera ..."

The most famous story ever told is the latest subject matter for one of Israel's best-known satirists, 52-year-old Israeli artist and illustrator Ze'ev Engelmayer. With the opening of his exhibit at Holon's Israeli Cartoon Museum, Calcalist spoke with Engelmayer about his work, provocation in art and knowing where to draw the line.

CALCALIST: Why the Bible? That's banal.

ZE'EV ENGELMAYER: The Bible is visible in Israel pretty much everywhere: When the country is led by people with names like Benjamin and Sarah (Netanyahu), and a president called Reuven (Rivlin), it's only natural that a local artist would address this. The fact it's banal does not deter me, it's actually a challenge. I'm trying to read these texts with fresh eyes.

Are you not afraid creating provocative artwork about something like the Bible?

The Bible in itself is very provocative. You cannot treat these stories with some sanctimonious gentleness. These artworks will obviously receive all kinds of reactions, and not everyone will like them. But the Bible contains stories larger than life that deal with every possible aspect — love, adultery, forbidden relations, natural disasters, Sodom and Gomorrah. It's like Game of Thrones but B.C.

Among those artworks that might not be well received is one where a chubby boy is lying on a sofa in the desert and his mother, standing above him, calls "wake up, Isaac, dad wants to slaughter you." In another, Adam and Eve discuss online nudity.

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Source: Holon's Israeli Cartoon Museum

Humor doesn't reflect contempt, quite the opposite. I can't stand the term "respect for tradition" because this respect doesn't allow these texts to live and remain relevant. I also dislike the term "consideration for public feelings." Art sometimes hurts public feelings.

You've had the reputation of being the "bad boy" of Israeli cartoonists for years, the one that slaughters sacred cows on every occasion.

Not at all. I never created any work of art just to piss someone off. Well, almost never. In my view, I'm actually the responsible adult of Israeli illustration. Every time I slaughter a sacred cow, one warm tear runs down my cheek and is absorbed by the soil of the homeland.

Are there any topics you still keep away from?

I made a series of works about the Islamic State (ISIS). I actually drew them nice and polite — they would always say "thank you." But I'm not going to make them public. I like the feeling of having my head attached to my body.

Your visual language is probably one of the best known ones in contemporary Israeli culture. You started drawing when you were in high school in Canada, and when your family returned to Israel you were accepted to the Bezalel school of arts. Had you stayed in Canada, do you think you would have produced similar artworks?

Had I stayed there, my brain would have probably frozen. In Israel, reality is fascinating and it forces you to react. Here everything flows and mixes: the language that's comprised of Yiddish and Arabic and American slang, the streets that bear both signs for "King of Falafel" and "sushi," as well as graffiti. It's a visual salad that perfectly matches my collage-like language.

Is the connection with the audience important for you?

Of course. I love the unmediated connection with the audience. My father used to sell art in stalls across Israel so I've gotten used to street sales and it feels natural to me to distribute cartoons this way. I would love it if my works hanged on walls in every home in Israel. I prefer it this way rather than overpriced art owned by millionaires. Well, I don't object if my works are also owned by millionaires ...

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