Painful and Piercing Public Art as Therapy
A fully set shabbat table with 240 empty chairs stretched bleakly across the plaza of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Two hundred and thirty empty beds in all shapes and sizes filled up a Jerusalem square. Thirty blindfolded teddy bears sat, some tied together, next to a fountain in Tel Aviv. Those are just a few of the dozens of installations that popped up all over Israel and have been replicated since in cities throughout the world in response to the plight of the hostages kidnapped by Hamas on October 7.
The installations were among the earliest and largest examples of art produced in the wake of what has come to be known, in Israel, as Black Saturday and the subsequent war with Hamas.
Since then, streams of powerful, painful, piercing works have made their way into the public sphere. They include installations and pop-up exhibits as well as renderings on social media and online art magazines.
“October 7 left an entire country speechless and in shock. We had no words to express this unprecedented incident,” said Merav Rahat, a curator, artist and researcher who writes about the Israeli art world and contemporary design. “And from this place emerged this enormous flow of art, which provided an outlet for feelings that words could not convey.”
Internationally renowned Ukrainian-born Israeli artist Zoya Cherkassky was among the first to break the visual silence. In a series of mixed-media works on paper—widely shared on social media—she expressed the shock and horrors of that day, with many of the pieces referencing famous artworks.
Perhaps most well-known of the series is 7 Oct. 2023, which depicts a terrified family at Kibbutz Be’eri holed up in the darkness of their ma’amad, or safe room. The only light comes from the jagged-edged beam of a ceiling bulb—a conscious recreation of the same ceiling bulb that appears in Pablo Picasso’s iconic painting Guernica. Picasso’s 1937 work was created in response to the Nazi bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in which over 1,000 people were killed. As Cherkassky explained in an interview with the Forward, “Guernica is the first image that my memory brought to me. Because it’s so similar: It’s just a massacre of innocent people.”
The art that has emerged in the wake of October 7 serves a range of purposes, explained Rahat, the first being simple self-expression. But there is also art as activism, she noted, including the installations meant to create an international call for the release of all the hostages in Gaza.
And then, she said, there is art for the purpose of hasbara—defined as education, explanation or public relations. That was partially the inspiration for Oren Fischer’s mixed-media drawing that also focuses on the ma’amad, ironically titled Unsafe Room.
In the naïve, almost childlike work—shared widely on social media and accessible on Fischer’s Instagram feed—a man struggles to prevent gun-toting terrorists from prying open the door to a safe room. Inside, his family is hiding as carnage unfolds just outside the room. The words “Never Forgive, Never Forget” are scrawled in Hebrew across the top.
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“A few days after October 7, I started to see people posting things on the internet that denied what happened—conspiracy theories mixed with antisemitism,” Fischer said. “So, I decided to paint what happened there, the way I understood it, with all sorts of details based on the testimonies I heard.”
Injecting irony and dark humor into the artistic discourse is illustrator Dana Barlev. She has compiled her own works and those of other Israeli illustrators into an online comic book titled Gaza Strip. The artist admits to having “hesitated about whether humor is appropriate now,” she said. “But you want people to laugh as a way to lighten their load.”
In one featured work by Leo Atelman, a masked Hamas terrorist with bloodied hands opens the front door of the ruins of his bombed-out house in Gaza and announces: “Honey, I’m home.”
The tone of the caricatures, cartoons and illustrations in Gaza Strip varies. The first edition—there have been two to date—includes 42 pages of works, some poignant and searing, like the cover image by Or Yogev of a woman with downcast eyes clasping redheaded babies, surrounded on all sides by dark and looming terrorists. The reference is to Shiri Bibas and her two young boys, who, as of mid-December, were the only child hostages still in captivity.
A number of artists have made a conscious choice to commemorate the people lost or places affected, rather than depict atrocities.
“In the first few days after October 7, the internet was inundated with images and clips of the horror that we all saw,” said illustrator Or Segal. “We felt there was a need for these people who were hurt by all that happened to be portrayed in a respectful and empathetic manner.”
That was the impetus behind the Names & Faces project, which Segal launched on Instagram with three other Israeli illustrators—Shahar Tal, Yael Volovelsky and Maya Bar Yehuda. In the project, various artists depict individuals affected by the October 7 attack and its aftermath.
The resulting illustrations—some 60 to date—have also been projected on outdoor screens in Tel Aviv and are set to be part of an upcoming outdoor exhibit in Jerusalem.
Notably, the works are titled in three languages: Hebrew, English and Arabic.
“It’s in Hebrew for Israeli society and the illustrators themselves for whom the work is an attempt at healing,” Segal explained. “It’s in English in order to share this with the world—for the purpose of hasbara.”
As for Arabic, Tal explained that “among those killed and kidnapped are Arabs and Druze. We have a shared destiny and it’s important for us to try to speak to everyone and to include everyone who is a part of this story.”
A different initiative seeks to commemorate the places that were razed that day. “I wanted the kibbutzim and communities of the South to be remembered not just through the terrible images of evil and destruction, but for the beauty of the area before the disaster,” said illustrator Amit Trainin, who heads Bezalel Academy of Art and Design’s department of visual communication and is the creator of the Wrapping Memory project.
The initiative consists of illustrations—70 to date—created by Bezalel faculty and final-year students that capture the magical atmosphere of the region pre-October 7. There are bucolic landscapes, fields of scarlet anemones and quaint scenes of kibbutz life, depicted using a variety of techniques, including watercolor, markers, pastels and digital illustration. Each can be purchased and downloaded with the money going to help rebuild the destroyed communities.
Trainin, who grew up on a kibbutz in the South that wasn’t infiltrated, noted the benefits of the project on those most directly affected by the horrors. “Although this wasn’t my intention from the start, I discovered from therapists that the project also has a healing role in processing the trauma that happened,” he said. “Often in trauma, memory is damaged, and these illustrations help restore the gap in memory of what was before and enable people to touch the wound indirectly, from a safe distance.”
Rahat, the artist and researcher, believes that therapy is one of the main roles of the Israeli art that has emerged since October 7. “I think it’s the first time that there’s been such a severing of the boundaries between therapeutic processes and art as a tool of self-expression,” she said.
The hunger to create and share these works of art is a testament to the widespread trauma that gripped Israeli society. “We are the first generation of this trauma,” Rahat added. “All of us experienced it—we all know someone affected. And all of us need an outlet that words cannot provide to let out this scream.”
Leora Eren Frucht is a Canadian-born feature writer and editor living in Israel.