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Feminist activism in art | Dr. Tal Dekel and Lior Elefant


She(s)says






Subversive courses of action in the artistic–socio–political sphere in Israel.

The article was first published in: "Gender" - A Multidisciplinary Academic Journal of Gender and Feminism, Issue 5, December 2018


Introduction

Many researchers and theorists have dealt with the various interrelations between feminism, art and activism (Reilly, 2018; Volkova, 2013). Contrary to the Kantian view of art, which sees art as a transcendental entity not subject to or influenced by socio–political–cultural processes (Trajtenberg, 2010), theorists studying feminist art seek to emphasize the relations between art and social reality, that is critically examining the power relations, mechanisms and processes that bind the artwork itself together with the artists, representatives of cultural institutions and their systems, art critics and the wider audience.


Since the early 1960s art has assumed a significant role in the social process that set in motion the feminist socio–political movement that emerged around the world (Broude & Garrard, 1994; Freedman, 2007; Hooks, 2000). Many women found a way to express protest and resistance through art, incorporating feminist messages into their art, which seeks to undermine the social–gender order and operate far beyond the realm of art, limited to museums, galleries and the like. Feminist art is one form of activist art, which Lucy Lippard claims (Lippard, 1984) is a critical social practice that seeks to operate in the real world, undermines social, political and economic boundaries and hierarchies, and incorporates research and theory, artistic work and social criticism. Over the years, feminist art has become commonplace across Europe and the United States, and gradually in other countries.


However, for various reasons, only starting in the ‘90s did Israeli artists start embracing a critical feminist perspective in their work in a systematic, fundamental way, at least two decades after feminist art movements became active around the world (Dekel, 2011). [1] In this essay, we seek to examine feminist activist art in Israel in the past decade. Inspired by the words of art historian Katy Deepwell, “[Activist art by feminists is] the analysis and strategies of how and for whom we live and work and what this says about us” (Deepwell, 2009, p. 4), we seek to analyze the artworks and through this, explore the courses of action, socio–cultural contexts and characteristics of this art, while inspecting the complex, multi-layered relationship between images and acts of resistance and protest, and the patriarchal culture and its leaders. We shall demonstrate how these artists present a stance that combines activist strategies for radical transformation of society in Israel with works of art that raise questions on the state of society, while inspecting power relations therein.


The discussion about gender and art, and power relations between them, is not new; numerous feminist scholars have dealt with it (Broude & Garrad, 1994; Chadwick & Latimer, 2003; Jones, 2003; Nochlin, 1989; Reckitt & Phelan, 2001). However, claims are made by feminist researchers against the feminist analysis led by thinkers such as Carol Gilligan (Gilligan, 1982), Sandra Harding (Harding, 1992) and others, who place gender at the core of their research, making it the central—and effectively only—analytical category, through which power relations in the modern world are examined. But this category puts together women of different social groups, who experience a variety of circumstances; analysis using this category alone does not allow for a complex or multi-layered diagnosis, which can take into account the many differences between them in reality (Clement, 1996; Crenshaw, 1991; Yuval–Davis, 2006). Following on from that criticism, and from a worldview that values diversity, in this essay we seek to present a diverse collection of artists, not only in terms of ethnicity and heritage, but also class, age and career stage. Moreover, we believe the issue of diversity applies not only to the groups of interest in society, but also to the works of art being examined. Plastic arts are not the same as theater; cinema isn’t television, and so on. Therefore, in order to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the field of activist visual art in its various forms, in this essay we shall examine different types of artists, creations and methods of action: plastic arts, public installation works, theater, web series and cinema.


We chose to discuss artworks that reverberated and achieved significant visibility, making it to the social mainstream through social institutions and popular public spaces. Be it in the public spaces of the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and the city’s main boulevards, in leading museums, in movie theaters, online and even at the Knesset—the seat of the Israeli parliament—the works we chose had significant public exposure, rather than necessarily being limited to the art–savvy crowd. The artworks discussed in this essay are not limited to the spaces of little–known galleries, spaces that can hold only small audiences, or exclusive cinematheques.


For these reasons, this essay does not deal, for example, with activist art by Palestinians or artists of Ethiopian descent. While such feminist activist art certainly exists, and we believe in its importance, sadly it has not reached wide and significant enough recognition, nor is it endorsed and amplified by the mainstream as of yet.


All of the examples in this essay deal with activist feminist art in Israel, and they differ not only in artistic genre but in methods of action and objectives, too. However, they all share a distinct common denominator: challenging the boundaries of artistic action in the public space and seeking to bring about social change in the real world. For the sake of an informed discussion, this essay will be divided into four sections, each discussing a different method of action in the public space. While the examples brought in this essay are recent, this form of activism is deeply rooted in the history of feminist activist art; the examination of contemporary examples can be a window to innovations and inventions in the field, but also to the sad reality of the lingering need for actions for social change.

Despite the prevailing assumption that gender equality exists in Israel and the feminst struggle has achieved its goals, and therefore there is no longer need for feminism (Triger, 2011), manifestations of oppression and marginalization of women of various social groups keep occurring, sustaining the need for struggle, including in the field of art. The first part of this essay deals with one of the most common practices in feminist activism (in art and in general), namely raising awareness for gender inequality and targeted action for change in the public space. The second part deals with the fight for visibility and representation in the public space; the third deals with collective artistic action by women, and the fourth with the most intense crossing of boundaries—from the domestic–communal space onto the legislature and government institutions, found in Jerusalem in the Israeli case.


The outlook leading the analysis and discussion in this essay is Bourdieu’s notion of art as an independent field, influenced by other fields that exist in the world, with interconnected processes, power relations and mechanisms that influence the field of art and are influenced by it (Bourdieu, 1993). This notion requires asking questions about the institutions, the organizations and the power relations between all those involved, in order to better understand not only the field, but the artwork itself. In addition, the theoretical framework for this essay combines the reception theory, which oscillates between the two centers of society and art [2], and research methods in social sciences in general and ethnography in particular; the artistic analysis will be conducted within the symbolic and spatial contexts within which the artworks were created (specificity).


Some of the artworks discussed in this essay had never been examined from a research perspective [3], and we view their identification as part of the activist–feminist field of art as a form of activism in itself. Discussion of the artworks and the artists essentially posits them and their actions in the fields of both art and activism, recognizing their place in an artistic dynasty with roots and history. Too often works of art and the artists who create them are seen without context, divorced from history, adding to the marginalization and erasure of many artists from artistic reality and memory, and adding to a sense of inferiority attached to this kind of art in the general art world. Therefore, in our view, mapping this history and putting it on paper is in itself feminist action of utmost importance, such that proposes artistic feminist activism in the field of reseach and sets another cornerstone for bringing research closer to the actual work in the field.


1. Institutional critique

Institutional critique in art, which emerged in the West in the mid-20th century, fired its arrows of criticism at various institutions in the art world and their leaders, while exposing the covert power structures in this field. [4] Its criticism was not limited to a praxis for theorists and art critics to engage in, but led artists, too, to start expressing their protest and criticism of issues and failures in the art world. Furthermore, criticism by artists was not confined to the field of art, but began targeting phenomena, institutions and entities outside of the art world, dealing extensively with social and political issues in a bid to mend society.


According to media researcher Danica Minić (Minić, 2014), feminist art activists began working to in the 1960s and ‘70s to improve their condition, including through monitoring (“head count”) and actions to raise awareness. Examples for this can be found in the work of many artists during the ‘70s (Chadwick, 1990, p. 347; Robinson, 2015, p. 44) and later on by artists like the Guerilla Girls, a group that started operating in the ‘80s. These activist artists counted the number of women artists featured in museums and the number of artworks featuring images of women in museums, summarizing their findings either in percentages or in definite numbers (Demo, 2000).


Einat Amir, an artist, collected in 2016 figures on gender imbalances in the Israeli art world. In the spirit of activism as expressed by the Guerilla Girls, Amir chose to collaborate with five other women artists, inviting each of them to design a T-shirt based on her findings, which would then be offered for sale to the general public. One of the shirts, for example, stated the grim figure: “Solo exhibitions in Israel Museum and Tel Aviv Museum: 70% men, 30% women.” Another shirt read: “Gallery representation: 39% women artists, 61% men artists.” In her ongoing artistic action, Amir asked her teachers at Hamidrasha—the Faculty of Arts at Beit Berl College, a leading art school in Israel—to wear these shirts with their incriminating statistics touching on unequal power relations, in which they, as prominent and influential lecturers, had an undeniable role. The teachers, all men, were asked to wear the shirts and walk around with that incriminating testimony in the public space in general and around the college campus specifically, as some sort of an amusing scarlet letter, perhaps cooperating, perhaps indulging in an ironic, self-aware postmodern move.


[IMAGE 1] Yair Garbuz wearing Vered Nissim. From MEN #2, a project by Einat Amir, 2016 (Shirt produced by Vitrina Tel Aviv Museum).

The project, entitled MEN #2, was accompanied by a live art installation at Tel Aviv Museum, during which Amir’s men teachers, who were her tutors during her studies at Hamidrasha, read out to the audience Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Men Explain Things to Me” (2015). They read it as they were wearing the T-shirts designed by the artists who collaborated with Amir, displaying harsh statistics like the gender imbalance in teaching positions in art schools.


Lippard argues that one of the characteristics of activist feminist art is its duration and existence both in the artistic mainstream and outside of it (Lippard, 1984, p. 343). Indeed, according to Lippard’s claims, Amir’s project lasted for a long time, starting from the initial phase of looking into statistics in archives and libraries, on to teaming up with other women artists who collaborated with her in designing shirts based on her findings, and then a performative presentation by the teachers who were asked to wear them around campus and around the city, culminating in a live installation work at a prominent, central museum, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. [5]


Amir, much like the American Guerilla Girls and other similar groups across Europe, Africa, Asia and South America, operates in the field of plastic and visual art, and her and others’ actions have a proven activist record. However, this is not the case for the Israeli theater world. [6] Only in 2016 was a category for theater added to The Gender Index, which examines gender imbalance in Israel. Still, that category only looked at representation among actors (Tzameret-Kertcher, Herzog, Chazan, Basin, Ben Eliyahu & Brayer-Garb, 2016). [7] Against the backdrop of this, an event in May 2017 is of particular importance: The Kibbutzim College School of Theater Arts dedicated a show to original theatrical work by women, entitled Creating Change. [8] For about an hour and 15 minutes, it featured monologues, dialogues and scenes written and directed by women alone, dealing with their world from their own perspective. Having encountered nearly no theater pieces written by women in their studies, the show was the brainchild of two first-year students, Maayan Preedan and Tamar Amit-Joseph, and it was put up under the guidance of one of the teachers at the college, Moran Arbiv-Gans. Its creators recognized the activist nature of such an event while preparing for it, in part thanks to comments and reactions by other students, both women and men.


In order to call on students to submit proposals for scenes, Amit-Joseph and Preedan put up posters across campus with data they had collected from the biggest theaters in Israel. [9] They found that plays written by women constitute only a tiny fraction of these institutions’ repertoires. [10] Preedan and Amit-Joseph didn’t think that either proven data, pointing to inequality in their field, or the need for action to correct it, would be up for debate; they were surprised by the resistance from some men and a minority of women in the student body, who claimed the figures were distorted and that “the feminists are trying to take over.” In contrast, many female students reacted with enthusiasm and were happy with the chance to submit their own writing for the event. [11] The head of the School of Theater Arts at Kibbutzim College, Itzik Weingarten, backed the initiative from the onset and encouraged the organizers to follow through with it, but also provided some of the resources needed to hold the event, in the form of a performance hall, lighting and institutional support, which independent student art badly needs.


The feminist action in this case wasn’t only in insisting on a show created fully by women, but it was manifested in its content, too. In a process led by Arbiv-Gans, 13 short pieces were selected, touching on a variety of issues: rape, sexual harassment, masturbation, prostitution, obsession, love, body hair, sexual orientation, ageism, and more. The variety in points of view presented by the creators opened up the viewers to a wide range of experiences, opinions and worldviews, literally giving a public stage to issues considered “personal.” The patriarchal social construct entails hierarchy between the “personal” space (private and intimate, associated with emotions and “femininity”) and the “public” space, where social and “political” life takes place, based on science, facts and objectivity, and considered masculine (Lubin, 2013). By presenting these themes from the point of view of women and on the public stage of a prominent educational institute such as Kibbutzim College, Creating Change had become a theatrical event that puts into question worldviews that regard the “personal/feminine” as lesser than the “public/masculine,” and more broadly, the perceived dichotomy between the two.


Creating Change promoted a variety of practices and fields: Acting students—women—wrote, directed, created and danced; directing students acted, wrote, sang and played; and men acting students also performed, in scenes written by women. Furthermore, by calling on other women to put up their works, Preedan and Amit-Joseph strove to promote other women but themselves, encouraging and pushing them forward, with artistic and production assistance, in some cases all the way from the early stages of writing through the performance itself. They generated action designed primarily to lift other women up, as those who had to deal with angry reactions, objection and covert violence directed at the show were not the women who participated in it, but those who created the event. Preedan and Amit-Joseph, obviously, also participated in the show, but their purpose wasn’t to promote themselves, but to create a piece with multiple women participants, and as the name of the event suggests, create change.

The show was open to the general public, and despite the criticism it received became a success, running for another show beyond what had initially been planned. However, despite his initial backing for the event, after it was held Weingarten said that should a similar show happen the following year, it would only be open to students at Kibbutzim College’s School of Theater Arts. [12]


2. Visibility

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, on March 8, 2016, two artists, Alex Kurbatov and Vanane Borian, set up an installation at a central Tel Aviv street that consisted of a 50-meter-long (about 165 feet) and a-meter-and-a-half-wide pathway, leading up to a three-meter-high sculpture depicting female genitalia. Both the pathway and the sculpture itself were made from business cards the two artists had collected from sidewalks around the south and central Tel Aviv, which encouraged clients and johns to turn to sex workers.


[IMAGE 2] Alex Kurbatov and Vanane Borian, untitled, 2016. Installation.

The artists’ choice to place their installation on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard is no coincidence, and was meant to disrupt the existing normative order. As Kurbatov explains:


“We collected the cards for about a year. Men who pick up these cards are looking for a big vagina, so we just did it in their faces. Ahead of Women’s Day, we wanted to raise awareness to women who had been marginalized. We, as a society, really like to sweep this issue under the rug. We don’t talk about it enough, we don’t give it enough attention and space, and that’s why we chose Rothschild Boulevard out of all locations—a place that’s considered fancy and clean and free of immoral social phenomena.”

Vanane Borian adds her explanation: “We were inspired by the urban reality. All of the women’s fragmented bodies are on these cards that are on the floor, and people are stepping on them. They see it and it’s like it has no value anymore. The woman simply loses all value, turned into an object, not even a whole object” (Dvir, 2016).


On Valentine’s Day 2017, the artist duo, Borian and Kurbatov, used once again these prostitution cards scattered all across the city for artistic purposes, setting up a massive installation, which was removed by police forces only a few hours later. The piece consisted of a large sheet of fabric, with hundreds of business cards with the phone numbers of sex workers pinned to it. The fabric was hung between two trees, like a billboard ad. The business cards were organized on it to spell the phrase “I just called to say I love you” (Marom, 2017). Employing grotesque humor as a strategy, they shed light on a painful issue that is silenced, pushed out of the public discourse and away from the public eye. The installation, which causes a visual and ethical disruption in the public space, is an expression of protest finding a voice and visual language for the lacking representation of women and for issues silenced by society. This is an effective example of political protest, carried out by using and deflecting the language of mass media onto a subversive feminist message, cunningly implanted into the very heart of the self-indulgent mainstream—the opulent Rothschild Boulevard, an area that is a clear emblem of power and money, as well as one of the most prestigious leisure centers in Israel.


Borian and Kurbatov bring into the public space types of knowledge and narratives that are usually missing from the prevalent discourse in Israeli society. Once made aware of the content, the artists’ installation pieces turn passersby from passive consumers of knowledge to active consumers, who are forced to reposition themselves in light of the knowledge they are not normally required to contend with. The mere intervention in space as a surprising element (the surprise stems from the location and timing of their installations, in a space that isn’t widely associated with prostitution, and in the daytime) symbolizes its transgression. The installation and the issues it touches on are the core of it: They expose in daylight and in an unexpected location an issue that is usually kept hidden and only quietly murmured about, in a way that forces passersby, both men and women, to stop suppressing it and reconsider their position about it. [13]


In addition, the artists’ identity as recent immigrants to Israel raises poignant questions concerning the prospects and possibilities of political and symbolic action from the margins of society—in terms of gender, but also in a national and ethnoreligious sense (Dekel, 2016). Following on from the philosophy of theorist and feminist political activist bell hooks and her seminal work, “Marginality as a Site of Resistance,” (hooks, 1990), the margins can be seen as a bustling space with great potential that flies under the normalizing society’s radar, serving as a site free of the hegemony’s pressure and the coercion of normativity. Hooks make a radical case for the margins, proposing them as a space for creative and active resistance and for the evolution of a counter-hegemonic discourse.


The issue of visibility has been the focus of research for many feminist researchers dealing with visual media, and it is no coincidence, for example, that the lion’s share of the field of feminist research on cinema and television deals with the content that appears on screen and the visible, and mostly invisible, representation there (see Haskell, 1987; Mulvey, 1975; Rich, 1992; White, 1999). American LGBTQ+ rights group GLAAD monitors US media to examine representations of the community [14] and work against negative ones. [15] In addition to research, the organization acts to bring about new, positive representations and increase visibility for the various LGBTQ+ communities. In a 2017 study looking into American television, GLAAD found that less than 5 percent of TV characters were identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community. Of those, only 16 characters were identified as trans* persons. [16]


Over the past years there has been an increase in visibility of lesbian, gay and trans* representations in television and cinema. A comprehensive study has yet to be conducted, but a growing trend of incorporating LGBTQ+ characters is clear (Cohen, 2011; Padva, 2007; Yosef, 2004; Yosef, 2010). Having said that, in Israel, too, representations of transgender or non-binary persons hardly exist on-screen in prime time television. One exception is the popular show “Big Brother,” [17] which featured over the years a trans man and a trans woman, who both won public affection. [18] In Israeli cinema, LGBTQ+ characters are a rare sight, but even there, a significant increase can be identified over the past few years, in part thanks to festivals like Lethal Lesbian, [19] featuring short and feature films created by Israeli women from the LGBTQ+ community, with the aim of promoting lesbian, bisexual, queer and other women in Israeli cinema; and TLVFest [20] that features LGBTQ+ movies from around the world and supports Israeli art.


Making movies, shows and series for television and cinema requires fitting many criteria, and it is also a financial, emotional, physical and mental burden that not all artists can withstand. However, the internet in general and YouTube in particular completely transformed the state of representation of various minority groups. The internet led to a golden age of short—and much cheaper—content that doesn’t necessarily need to fulfill the same technical or content requirements that movies or TV shows do. It is also much more accessible, allowing an outreach of dozens, or even hundreds and thousands, of people with one click. It is no surprise that the age of users is increasingly lower, and their diversity is expanding.


"Spectrums” [21] is an Israeli documentary web series from 2017, which presents over seven episodes 10 different characters from the trans* community in Israel. It was created by Zohar Melinek-Ezra—an openly gay man—and Afek Testa Launer—a transgender man. The series can be found on several mass media platforms, none of them being television: Its episodes were published on Facebook, YouTube and Israeli website Mako, and after gaining public attention, selected episodes were featured in film festivals and shown in special screenings that included panel discussions with the creators and participants. Due to the variety of platforms, it is difficult to assess the overall number of viewers, but according to the series’ Facebook page, it has between 50,000 and 100,000 views. The Facebook page itself has about 10,000 followers.


It is an activist series in its essence can be deduced from its full title, “Spectrums: a New Gender Movement in Israel.” It was created to bring to the screen representations that had not been there before. However, this wasn’t its only objective. In an interview with Eness Elias, who covers culture for the Haaretz newspaper, Testa Launer said:

“We wanted to create representation for a community that is usually represented from the outside. This external representation is very flat and doesn’t really represent, but reinforces a preordained narrative that doesn’t challenge the gender binary, whereas we want to bring about a discourse that can create a change in perceptions of gender in general”

(Elias, 2017)

That change the creators seek is in part achieved through the medium they chose to employ—short episodes, all available for free and with subtitles in a number of languages, portraying the trans* community in all its colors.


In many ways, the internet has transformed activism and clearly affected the participation of minority groups in protest movements around the world. Though this essay does not focus on online activism, “Spectrums” can be seen as an artistic expression in the digital field, which is part of the basic principles of this type of activism. Local knowledge—in this case, of members of the trans* community—seeks to become global, as was done by women Arab activists during the so-called Arab Spring (Radsch & Khamis, 2013). Relaying knowledge externally to create change is not new, and raising awareness is considered a feminist tool of utmost importance in the fight for recognition and acceptance, as exemplified by the myriad of groups that began their work to raise awareness in the 1960s and ‘70s (Chesebro, Cragan & McCullough, 1973; Joel & Yarimi, 2014). In addition, the artists, a gay man and a transgender man, are part of a minority group that is usually being marginalized and silenced in the public space. The series’ creators do not rely on mainstream media to represent them, hence turning to social media.


“Spectrums” as a series has clear feminist objectives: striving for radicalism that dismantles the gender binary; presenting a variety of voices and experiences (the series features representations of Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews, too. Palestinians are a rare sight on Israeli screens, and representation of Mizrahim—Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern heritage—is only starting to regain its standing over the past few years), and undermining the patriarchy by setting in motion a social protest with gender at its core. “Spectrums” makes intelligent, educated use of social media, networks and the new genre of web series. The positive reactions the episodes have earned, which can be seen on the series’ Facebook and YouTube page, are a testament to its success on the very basic human level.


3. Collective action

In 2016 filmmaker Dana Goldberg and poet Efrat Mishori established an NGO, KinoClan—Women with Cameras. [22] It is essentially a group of women creators, which “initiates and produces hands-on video workshops, film screenings and diverse collaborations, providing women with a safe space and audiovisual tools with which each can tell her own story” (from KinoClan’s website). The organization's objective, according to its founders, is to provide a platform for women’s voices, images and experiences, which normally do not have a place on movie screens or in the literary discourse in Israel. The organization—mostly women—creates short and feature films, holds workshops and masterclasses, and publishes literature by women. A feature film produced as part of the organization’s activity, “Death of a Poetess,” won awards at the 2017 Jerusalem Film Festival.


Goldberg and Mishori established the organization as respected artists; Mishori in the field of poetry and literature, and Goldberg in cinema. They were driven, among other reasons, by the need to raise funds for women artists. The necessity for an alternative means of fundraising arose, in part, as one of the most efficient ways in Israel to secure funding is through public film funds. Over the years, not only were fewer movies by women produced, but public funds gave less on average for women filmmakers than for men filmmakers (Elefant, 2017). Mishori and Goldberg’s NGO opened up new paths for fundraising and more ways to encourage cinematic art by women.


KinoClan is an excellent example of collective feminist activism by women, claiming their rights, visibility and perspectives. The Israeli movie industry is a predominantly masculine space, but KinoClan’s collective action challenges that reality. It is a declared feminist organization, making it part of a more modern type of activism, which Maxine Molyneux argues also includes women’s movements and collectives working for cultural and political change (Molyneux, 1998, p. 222). KinoClan call themselves an ensemble, rather than a collective, but their mode of action is collective in nature and their organization fits Molyneux’s criteria (Molyneux, 1998) for a woman’s movement of collective: social organization by women (but not necessarily women only) that shares common interests and whose objectives and aims have to do with gender, opposition to the existing order and gender control. Sheila Rowbotham (Rowbotham, 1992) argues that in a collective, seeking independence is not just a personal endeavor by its members that only relates to them, but rather shared by all members of the group, and even well beyond it—to women who are not members of said collective. The process of search and change follows from the objectives decided upon by the founders and members of the organization.


KinoClan’s cultural activism shows not only in its mere existence as an organization and in its objectives, but also in the content it produces. Goldberg and Mishori’s movie “Death of a Poetess,” which was created as part of the collective’s activity, deals with two women, who are not normally seen on movie screens in Israel, let alone as the leading characters—a Palestinian citizen of Israel (Samira Saraya) and an immigrant from the former Soviet Union (Evgenia Dodina). Other short films created as part of the group’s activity also focus on marginalized characters, contributing to visibility and representation. Literature workshops held by the collective yielded a series for women’s poetry (“Esh Ktana 77”), supporting artistic creation by women through platforms that had not existed before.


The art collective Studio of Her Own—Women’s Art Center, a group of feminist Jewish artists, created an outdoor exhibition in Jerusalem ahead of the 2017 International Women’s Day, titled “In Her Image.” [23] This exhibition was the outcome of a workshop held at the Yad Sarah Family Center in Jerusalem, which provides assistance and therapy in cases of domestic violence in the religious and ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. The workshop included sessions for women who experienced domestic violence, where they created photography works using smartphone cameras. The process of creating images for the exhibition included the women staff members (including social workers and the center’s director), the artist–tutors who taught the women artistic photography, and the women seeking therapy themselves—all together, they were devoted to the artistic process and submitted together visual products for the exhibition, with all treated equally.


The public space that was selected for the exhibition was two adjacent prominent urban centers in Jerusalem—the Shats pedestrian mall and Bezalel Street. They are among the most well-known artistic spaces in the city and are situated close to well-known institutional exhibition spaces, like the Jerusalem Artists’ House and the old Bezalel Academy of Art building. The idea behind this choice of location was to let women who experienced violence feel they can achieve respectable artistic capabilities worthy of a “real” exhibition, but also to give them and their difficult life histories exposure in the public space, to replace years of hiding and oppression, which they had experienced all of their adult life in their abusive family. The images were posted on street lights, disrupting—much like in the case of Kurbatov and Borian’s works—the mainstream urban space. Women and men, across the religious spectrum, could be seen gazing up at the street lights to see the artworks hung above their heads. The images included a photograph of wet laundry on a hanger, a metaphor for the processes of cover-up and masking of the violence a woman endures in her own home. Another work shows an empty storefront of a shuttered shop, with two mannequins missing arms and legs; one is placed on its stand, whereas the other is laid sideways on the floor, relaying a sense of loneliness and violence.

[IMAGE 3] A general view of “In Her Image,” by members of Studio of Her Own, 2017. Installation.

Art historian Maura Reilly, who coined the term curatorial activism, described its guiding principle, arguing the main purpose of organizing art exhibitions with attention to social change and a sense of urgency, is to ensure big parts of society are no longer pushed away from the art world’s predominant narratives. She claims this practice is committed to anti-hegemonic initiatives, gives a voice to those silenced by history, and as such, focuses to a great extent on art by women, people of color, non-Europeans and queer people (Reilly, 2018). Reilly stresses a need to curate exhibitions by women artists, and particularly feminist ones, as a form of curatorial affirmative action, seeking to undo the marginalization of invisible women in contemporary artistic narratives and in art history in general. This is precisely what is achieved by the curators of this project—Noga Greenberg and Yael Horn Danino, by the Room of Her Own collective, in the Jerusalem space (Zorea, 2017).


4. Power to the community

Power to the Community is a collective that draws from feminist, multi-cultural and multi-national ideology, operating in South Tel Aviv, an impoverished, violence-stricken part of the city. [24] A project produced by the collective in 2017, entitled “Women in Space,” is an artistic action designed to give the women residents of that part of the city visibility in the urban public space. According to the collective’s members, underlining the visibility of these women serves several objectives at once: increasing the women’s sense of personal safety, reclaiming the public space that had been taken from them, and encouraging tolerance for marginalized groups in society (Lee, 2017). As the collective’s members attest in a position paper, their motivation for this artistic initiative came for two main processes: on the one hand, wanting to turn public attention to the hardships faced by women who live in South Tel Aviv, with the aim of promoting a solution for crime rates, density, neglect and inadequate infrastructure in this part of the city, which undermine the residents’ sense of security and keep them away from public spaces in their neighborhoods, specifically after dark; on the other hand, identifying and giving presence to the existing representations of women in the public space—primarily on billboard ads, which they see as problematic and ethnically and gender-biased, that is they include both outright sexism, which contributes to the flourishing of rape culture in society, and also speak to the problem of homogenous visibility, as most ads feature women from a specific social group, which is not diverse. The vision laid out by the collective’s members in the project was claiming the rights of the inspiring women residents of South Tel Aviv over the space, and giving presence to diverse, powerful and activist representations in the public sphere.


The project documented nearly two dozen women—Jewish and non-Jewish—from the neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv, who are influential characters in their communities. They were asked to create their own images that would include a personal statement. They then set up an exhibition at the Ahoti House gallery—the only cultural center in the area, founded by local residents, rather than by politicians, municipal officials, volunteers and activists who live away. [25] In addition, the collective’s members printed out posters combining the photo portraits with text—a quote from each woman, sharing her thoughts and opinions about the space she lives in. The group of women included an Eritrean political refugee who survived torture camps in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on her way to a safe haven; a senior resident of Mizrahi descent who was born in the same neighborhood; a Christian migrant worker from the Philippines; an Israeli prostitution survivor who remained in the neighborhood to help others still in the sex industry, and more.


[IMAGE 4] A general street view of “Women in Space,” 2017, produced by Shula Keshet and Inbal Egoz (poster photography: Carmen Elmakiyes Amos; street photography: Inbal Egoz).

In collaboration with the Tel Aviv–Jaffa Municipality, they plan to put them on billboards in all parts of the city, and so, for the duration of the project—instead of famous models with uniform physical appearance, promoting clothing, perfumes and commercial services—the urban space will be filled with women who are activists from the city’s south, who have diverse body types and ethnicities, in a bid to sustain an effective fight against racism and sexism. Furthermore, the South Tel Aviv activists and the members of this artistic collective feel these images, scattered across the city, would nurture a sense of pride and ownership of the community of women from South Tel Aviv over the urban space they live in.


This project serves as an effective example of spatial mediation for two main reasons. The first is by reconnecting the residents of the southern neighborhoods with the public spaces and streets they are excluded from due to the dire state of personal safety. This is a result of the ever-growing presence of political refugees and migrant workers, who are pushed into the area surrounding the Central Bus Station, forming a new social and class–economic–gender point of tension with older residents of these neighborhoods, who are forced to share the already crowded space and poor infrastructure. [26] Secondly, this artistic project connects these women with the rest of Tel Aviv’s residents, in the city’s center and north, who are exposed to a variety of key figure in the southern community, encouraging closer ties between the different parts of the city and introducing in a direct way the faces of women from diverse social, ethnic and class groups.


The aim of “Women in Space,” then, is to let women living in the neighborhood of Neve Sha’anan make themselves and their community present in the neighborhood space and in the city as a whole, claim their rights over the space, and expose all residents of the city to inspiring women who live and work in South Tel Aviv. This is in line with French philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s “The Right to the City” (1996), where he explains how urban life in late capitalism poses particularly grave challenges for various groups. Lefebvre argues that not only do residents have the right to move freely, make a living and enjoy leisure activities in their own city, but they all have a right to take part in and influence the city’s fabric of life, too, and actively participate in its political life and various decision-making processes (Lefebvre, 1996). Israeli geographers Chen Misgav and Tovi Fenster follow this link of thinking in their study on women activists in South Tel Aviv, where they conclude that gender is a crucial aspect in understanding women’s position and stance in space (Misgav & Fenster, 2016). Their study allows for a better understanding of the stark differences between the women of South Tel Aviv, who are normally Mizrahi or migrant workers and come from a low socio–economic background, and the women who live in the city’s center and north. Being part of this group is in clear opposition to the demographic composition of the women who live in more well-off parts of Tel Aviv, like its central and northern neighborhoods, who do not live in areas with big refugee or migrant communities, and are clearly not refugees or migrant workers themselves.


The diminished status of the women of South Tel Aviv forces and binds them to movement that is limited mostly to the bounds of their own southern neighborhoods. A climatic moment of inspiring border–breaking transgression as part of a feminist art project occurred in July 2017, when the “Women in Space” exhibition was put on display at one of the main halls in the Knesset, the seat of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem. It was placed next to a meeting of the parliamentary Education Committee, which at the same time debated the state of women in the public space in Israel. And so, the feminist activist project “Women in Space” let them, for a moment, avoid erasure and displacement from the public space, a feeling that is all too familiar for marginalized women in the socio–economic periphery in Israel.


Summary and conclusions

The artworks discussed in this essay merge detachment and estrangement together with a communal, urban and national sense of belonging. The lived experience of women in a patriarchal culture, which is particularly sexist in the context of Israeli ethno–nationalism, lets these two extremes meet and connect despite an alleged contradiction at the core of these conflicting feelings, and allows for the creation of something new. Public action by women who identify as feminist activists gives presence to gendered experiences of women in a patriarchal society and in a space that is hostile toward women. Tearing down the boundaries between the private and public space is a known feminist practice. Intensive discussion of this transgression and reflective and analytic examination of it are also crucial for understanding activist feminist art in Israel.


A sense of being a stranger in one’s own city, for example, is typical of women in the public space. This estrangement is the realization of minoritarian politics, which holds prospects of resistance. The political function of the term “minority” is derived from the political theory of philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, as Israeli researcher Ohad Zehavi explains: “Minority is political action seeking to undermine the oppressive power, resist the ruling power, evade the necessity of violence” (Zehavi, 2010, p. 91). Minority, which challenges the majoritarian order with continuous action, cohabits with the experience of estrangement: “Minority calls to make yourself a stranger in your own world, so that the stranger in your world gets a place of their own, right next to you” (Zehavi, 2010, p. 98). On the surface, estrangement may be threatening, supposedly leading to detachment and a diminished sense of belonging, but for those who choose minority as a mode of resistance, it is practically the only option.


The activist feminist art discussed in this essay is minoritarian in the sense of the radical and contrarian politics it holds. It was created to generate and promote a conversation on a variety of issues of gender, class, ethnicity, nationality and religion, and with a variety of women from different social groups. At times it does so by employing humor or irony; other times with bottled up anger or a burst of it, or using critical–performative reenactment. Feminist artists articulate in a visual–artistic manner issues in the world that demand exposure and change, and their works become the tool with which they communicate with the crowd, recruiting them into reflective thinking on burning social issues.


Many similarities can be drawn between artists in Israel engaged in activist feminism and artists doing so across the world. Online activism, public protest, head counts and art collectives are not unique to Israel, but the local context provides their unique colors and influences the artists’ mode of action. This contextual framework also touches on the content of the art; alongside universal issues like motherhood, sexuality, the labor market, and so on, there are also entirely local issues that are directed at the society in which they exist, such as the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, ethnic minority rights, immigration and civil liberties. This essay deals not only with the activist content, but with the creative process, too. This study, which is interdisciplinary in essence, seeks to point to thought, mapping and conceptualization processes relating to the activist feminist field in the arts in Israel. It sheds a light on the modes of action and processes of reception of activist feminist art, exposing the various conversations it nurtures. We propose using this essay as the foundation for further study, which is necessary for the development of this discourse and its promotion in the field.


The activist artworks created over the past years in Israel are characterized by the refreshing perspectives they offer of silenced issues, and they contain disruptive and undermining elements, therefore carrying potential for a change of perceptions (Robinson, 2015, p. 44). The artworks discussed in this essay reflect various media and modes of action, but their objectives are indeed similar: They all seek to challenge the predominant methods in the field of arts and the hegemony that rules over resources and acceptable modes of action, and aim for a radical transformation of the discourse and of society. Whether they do so through cinema, theater or plastic arts, activist feminist artists in Israel offer radical, challenging prospects for a just and equal society.




Photo: Shir Newman

Dr. Tal Dekel

Head of the Master’s Program in Visual Literacy Studies at Kibbutzim College and lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Art History. Dekel headed the Association for Women’s Art and Gender Research in Israel and the Gender Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University. She specializes in art and feminisms, and processes of identity formation looking at categories including gender, age, ethnicity and nationality.






Photo: Yael Ilan

Lior Elefant

Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, having earned an M.A. in gender studies from Tel Aviv University. Over the past decade, Elefant has been actively promoting women in media and cinema: She is a co-founder of feminist online publication “The Readers,” director of the Lethal Lesbian film festival, and chairwoman of the Women in Film and Television-Israel Forum. Her study, supervised by Prof. Nitza Berkovitch, deals with mechanisms of gender inequality in the Israeli film industry, focusing on the experiences of the women operating within it.



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Notes

[1] Due to length constraints, this essay does not present a comparative study of feminist art in other countries or a historic review of the development of this field. For more on this subject, see for example Byerly & Ross, 2008; Cox, 2015; De Jong, Shaw & Stammers, 2005; Deepwell, 2009; Elam, 2003; Johnston, 1973; Loist & Zielinski, 2012; Minić, 2014; Torchin, 2015.

[2] Art reception theory allows us to examine the relations and feedback between the artworks, as actions created out of specific culture and conditions, and the ways in which these actions influence the culture in which they are created and enable methodical learning of the effect they create. As art researcher David Sperber (2017) explains, activist art should be seen as continuous action, and merits to be read through its acceptance and the discourse it facilitates. Examining the artworks’ meaning-making processes allows an evaluation of its contribution to social spaces and its interaction with social fields outside of the world of arts.

[3] This essay on feminist activist art in Israel is, to the best of our knowledge, the first of its kind, and we are not aware of any essays or books that treat this topic as a phenomenon or a comprehensive artistic expression. Specific artworks—some of them mentioned in this essay—were covered in news reports or short critiques in written media. (Nevertheless, several books were written on feminist artworks that are not discussed in this essay, but these books describe the works as “feminist,” but not as “activist”. See for example Dekel, 2013.)

[4] Institutional critique has become one of the most prominent tools in critiquing and analyzing the field of art, following in the footsteps of critics like American Benjamin Buchloh. Artists and critics alike used it to speak out against art galleries, publications, journals, and particularly museums as elitist, exclusive institutions. This sort of critique focuses on exposing the political, financial and social mechanisms that dictate what and who will be displayed at supposedly neutral, public museums and who is not allowed in. For more, see for example: Buchloh, 1990; Fraser, 2005.

[5] The project’s website: https://www.einatamir.com/men2.

[6] The very few studies that deal with feminism in Israeli theater include Lev-Aladgem 2003a, 2003b; Lev-Aladgem and First, 2004, but they are qualitative ethno–visual studies, and do not deal with monitoring and critique.

[7] The Gender Index found a relative advantage for men, with 55%, compared with 45% for women.

[8] The show (in Hebrew) can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqFGbUBPwlY&.

[9] There are many fringe theaters in Israel, too, but the study included repertory theaters only.

[10] In 2015, only 13% women directors in repertory theater, and in 2016 18% (Asheri, 2018).

[11] The quotes are from reactions the creators published on their Facebook pages.

[12] (Tamar Amit-Jospeh, personal communication, May 4, 2017).

[13] Despite the artists’ argument that prostitution is not talked about in Israel, there is extensive activity to raise awareness to its problems. Examples for it include the robust activity of a Knesset caucus lobbying for legislation to criminalize customers of prositution, alongside public advocacy work targeting strip clubs and escort services, and further action to increase public awareness to the issue of prostitution in Israel. Additionally, civil society groups like the Todaa Institute seek to promote an open discussion on this issue, which was also visited by various researchers in academia, like Yeela Lahav-Raz (Lahav-Raz, 2014).

[14] The LGBTQ+ community: lesbians, gay men, bisexual, transgender and queer people. We realize that the community is diverse and includes multiple sub-communities, and that many women and men do not see themselves as part of the community even though their sexual orientation supposedly makes them a part of it. For the sake of clarity only we opted, in this essay, for the use of LGBTQ+ to represent the community as a whole, its sub-communities and the individuals who are members of it. We call for extension studies on this issue to allow a broader, more thorough view of society.

[16] “Transgender” is used here—and elsewhere—as an umbrella term for non-binary or non-cisgender identites. These include transsexual, genderqueer, and more.

[17] “Ha’akh Hagadol” (“Big Brother”) is one of the most popular shows on Israel’s leading private TV networks, based on the international Big Brother™ franchise. Since it started airing in 2008, it has had high viewership and its content echoed across other mass media.

[18] Michael Alroy in 2015; Talleen Abu Hanna in 2016.

[22] https://kinoclan.org/; the organization was active for nearly two years, until 2017. Full disclosure: Lior Elefant served on its board.

[23] For more about the exhibition (in Hebrew): http://www.amanim.com/michalsa241/.

[24] More information about the collective can be found on its Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Powertothecommunity/about/.

[25] More information about Ahoti House, by the Ahoti—For Women in Israel movement, can be found on its Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/%D7%91%D7%99%D7%AA-%D7%90%D7%97%D7%95%D7%AA%D7%99-302206103243248/. Full disclosure: Tal Dekel serves on its board.

[26] The presence of many refugees and migrant workers in the area of South Tel Aviv and the conditions they live in did not come out of nothing. Israel’s policy has contributed to the deteriorating situation, as well as incitement by some Knesset members. Gentrifying forces add to all that, pushing the area’s original residents into increasingly smaller spaces, to be replaced with luxury residential buildings they cannot afford to live in. This is not the platform for discussion of such a complex issue, but for more information see: ASSAF—Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (2018). Tel Aviv. Retrieved from: https://assaf.org.il/en/about/; Gudovich, Rami (August 31, 2017). Lo ta’aminu ma kore bidrom Tel Aviv [You Won’t Believe What’s Happening in South Tel Aviv]. Retrieved from: https://www.haaretz.co.il/opinions/.premium-1.4404771.

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