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June 4, 2013 11:49 am

Zionist Art Gets a New Platform

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Neta Dror, pictured, a Jerusalem-based photographer and advisor for the Arthur Szyk Prize of Disruptive Thought and Zionist Art project, says the prize is not an attempt at hasbara (public diplomacy) for Israel, a charge she is sure will be made by Israeli art critics. Photo: Menahem Kahana. – Joshua Stulman grew up reading a little known comic book series about the adventures of Jewish super hero “Shaloman,” created by Al Wiesner. Shaloman takes on bigotry and Holocaust denial, uncovers terrorist plots to destroy Israel, and even rescues an Israeli and an Arab child, helping them to overcome their differences.

Now, at 30, the New York City-based Stulman has created his own comic book featuring Jewish superhero “Magen: The Shield of Israel.” In the first 25-page issue, the ripped and smiling Magen, wearing a blue and white body suit, joins forces with a heroic captured female IDF soldier to escape a terror cell operating an arms smuggling factory in a maze of underground tunnels.

Stulman submitted his comic book for the Arthur Szyk Prize of Disruptive Thought and Zionist Art, sponsored by Artists 4 Israel and the Jewish National Initiative (JNI), along with more than 100 artists who submitted a piece of work, from music to paintings to dance to film, in hopes of winning the $1,000 prize.

A five-member jury of Israeli and American writers, public relations specialists and arts experts, including Elianna Bar-El, editor of Time Out Israel, will select the winning piece—which “challenges the static conception of Zionism with ideas that extend beyond the work of art itself”—in June.

Organizers say the mainstream slant on art related to Israel, even in Israel, tends to be negative and anti-Zionist, and the prize is meant to create a platform for those pro-Israel artists who want to express a more nuanced, intimate relationship with the country.

Craig Dershowitz, executive director of the New York-based Zionist organization Artists 4 Israel, says political art “is a difficult topic to cover, and it’s always so much easier to make negative political art.”

Artists and filmmakers critical of Israel, in fact, have become accustomed to receiving international accolades. At this year’s Academy Awards, two films accused of anti-Israel bias by many pro-Israel viewers, “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers,” were nominated for Best Documentary. On May 25, Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad won the “Jury Prize” in the “A Certain Regard” category at the Cannes Film Festival for his film, “Omar,” a Palestinian love story that presents Israeli security forces negatively, as they brutally torture the protagonist.

In the world of fine art, Dror Feiler, a composer and musician born in Israel, and his Swedish wife, artist Gunilla Sköld-Feiler, received attention for their 2004 controversial installation, “Snow White and The Madness of Truth.” The piece featured a bathtub of water colored red, upon which floated a small white boat named “Snow White” carrying a portrait of Hanadi Jaradat, a Palestinian suicide bomber. The artists said they wanted to call attention “to how weak people left alone can be capable of horrible things.”

But Daniel Fink, co-director of JNI, a Zionist organization, says the Arthur Szyk Prize is “not about countering arguments.”

“It’s about affirmation, and affirmation in the community as well,” he says. “Hopefully this will turn into other types of prizes.”

The winner’s work will be displayed in a gallery or shown in a performance space in Tel Aviv, depending on the medium, in an event that includes the broader Israeli artistic community.

Neta Dror, a Jerusalem-based photographer and advisor on the project, says the prize is not an attempt at hasbara (public diplomacy) for Israel, a charge she is sure will be made by Israeli art critics.

“It’s not about being an award for being a pro-Israel Zionist,” Dror, 27, says. “It’s not the point. It’s more about saying don’t be afraid. We know that people will completely ignore you in the normal art world if you say these things, but we’re going to give you a stage to say these things.”

The contest is about creating honest artwork, which has become difficult for Jewish artists around the world, Dror says, explaining that she has heard from Jewish artists in France and elsewhere that they don’t like to reveal they are Jewish or say what they feel about Israel for fear of harming their careers.

Dror graduated in 2001 from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. Some Bezalel teachers, Israeli curators and artists she has encountered push an “unspoken” anti-Israel agenda, she says, which made her avoid mixing art with politics.

“I knew that I can’t be extremely political in my work in Israel because I’m not going to do what’s expected of me which was to be anti-Israel,” she says. “It was my reaction to what was going on in Israel. I kind of ran away from my world.”

Dror hopes the new prize will help make the art world more open to critical discussion about Israel.

“You have to allow freedom,” she says. “What this prize is basically saying is be as destructive as you want regarding Zionism, but don’t be anti-Zionist.”

While the majority of submissions came from Israeli artists living in Israel, some came from Diaspora Jews like Stulman, who as a Zionist says he experienced a stifling of his pro-Israel art first-hand. As an undergrad at Penn State from 2001-2006 during the second intifada, Stulman created an exhibition that dealt with Holocaust denial in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, indoctrination of youth into terrorism, and Palestinian disregard for Jewish holy sites. But he says the entire arts faculty, initiated by his advisor, censored the exhibition, which never went up.

“This particular professor just had it in for Israel,” Stulman says. “He kind of pushed me into activism, because it wasn’t something I was entirely interested in doing to begin with.”

“It left me with a real desire to stand up in the fine arts, where I don’t see a lot of people standing up for Israel,” he adds.

Stulman went on to the Pratt Institute, where he graduated in 2010 with an MFA. While there he created a series of large-scale political cartoon paintings relating figures like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and his comments at the United Nations regarding homosexuals. But Stulman decided this tactic was a little too hard-hitting and decided to shift to education, to use his artwork to inform about the Jewish state. Taking news articles straight from Israel and adapting them into adventure stories, Stulman’s black-and-white comic book is a combination of real-life events and fantasy in a 1940s serial spy tradition. His superhero Magen, meaning “shield” in Hebrew, is inspired by superheroes like Captain America, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

The artists behind Captain America, Stulman says, wanted Americans to talk about Nazism at a time when Americans were reluctant to, as World War II had not yet begun. Similarly, Magen ignites conversation about terrorism, what it is about, and how it operates, topics Stulman feels people are wary to raise.

Stulman cites Arthur Szyk’s “brilliant illustrating” in the golden age of comic books as a source of inspiration for his work. Szyk, a Jewish graphic artist, book illustrator, stage designer and caricaturist, fled his native Poland in 1937 and arrived in the U.S. in 1940. There, his art work supporting the creation of a Jewish state and wartime caricatures of Adolf Hitler and other Axis power leaders raised awareness and called viewers to action on behalf of Eastern European Jews. Szyk’s later work urged civil rights for African Americans.

Decades later, Stulman is seeking to make a name for himself through Magen, a superhero with a strong Zionist character. But Stulman hopes his audience will look at the art first and the message second.

“I want the comic to be viewed as a comic first in a way that Superman is viewed as a comic book first,” he says. “I want the artistic integrity. I love hearing the criticism.”

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