Zoya Cherkassky: Drawing as a Way of Mourning

Zoya Cherkassky. Massacre of the Innocents, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Fort Gansevoort, New York

Now on view in the Jewish Museum in New York, Kyiv-born Israeli artist Zoya Cherkassky has created a powerful series of drawings which she has dedicated to the victims of the HAMAS attack that happened on 7th October 2023.

It is never easy to find words to express extreme grief. In the face of a tragedy that rendered the whole world speechless, Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi (b. 1976) turned to her pencils and watercolours. The series of drawings she created after the attack is a silent cry, a heart-piercing lament in colours. In a small, barely lit space in the Jewish Museum with black walls and velvet wall hangings, which feels a bit like the interior of a funeral directors´ office, you encounter a dozen drawings which, despite their modest size, exude the solemnity of frescoes, and, the curator says, larger versions are in the planning. It was just two months after the events unfolded last year, that the exhibition opened, narrating the story of what happened on that October day. But there is nothing spontaneous about these works. Against a black background, wide-eyed figures with haunting gazes are placed in perfect harmony. Here, you only see the victims, mostly women and children, evidently, evil has no face and no place in this series.

In a drawing titled ´Terrorist Attack at the Nova Music Festival´ female revellers run across the desert in desperation, as if fleeing some unnamed horror. In ´Kidnapped Women´ a group of women, huddled together closely, are walking towards their doom. One of them has an Auschwitz style tattoo with a number on her arm, a reminder that there was a Holocaust survivor among the hostages kidnapped by HAMAS. Cherkassky does not hold back in her depictions of the victims of extreme violence: here you see the bloodied corpse of a woman who has been raped and there, dead bodies with their hands tied together, trapped in burning houses. In one drawing, ´Kidnapped Children´, the faces of the victims even have real portrait features. Cherkassky turns to the history of art as if asking the great masters of the past for their support. There are allusions to masterpieces depicting and condemning violence, from Giotto’s ´Massacre of the Innocents´ to Picasso’s ´Guernica´. Sometimes these references are too obvious, as in ´A Burned Family´, where the heads of the figures are reminiscent of Munch’s ´The Scream´. Yet on the whole, Cherkassky manages to find a balance between the timely and the timeless, elevating her images from the news clippings to powerful symbols of suffering, rage and despair.

Cherkassky has always been interested in addressing a wide audience and at times her style has verged on caricature. She left her hometown of Kyiv at the age of fourteen when her family emigrated to Israel. A few weeks later, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Later in her ´Soviet Childhood´ series, she visualized her memories of the USSR, recalling her personal experiences with nostalgia and caustic irony. In a series called ´Pravda´, dedicated to the adventures of a new repatriate in Israel, she observed the realities of her new homeland with the same tongue-in-cheek humour. When Russian troops entered Ukraine on 24 February 2022, her work acquired a new more tragic dimension. She re-created a few compositions from her ´Soviet Childhood´ series, incorporating the new grim reality of death and destruction. A family on a train turned into a group of refugees, and a girl who is looking out of the window waiting for her mother, now sees burning houses and tanks. Cherkassky called these pairs of drawings ´Before and After´.

After the attack of 7 October 2023, Cherkassky decided to leave Israel, yet her thoughts remained with the victims and their families and this was the impetus behind her creation of the ´7 October 2023´ series on view at the Jewish Museum. In what is an increasingly polarized and politicized art world it was controversial. According to an article published in the New York Times, protesters disrupted her public talk at the museum, accusing the institution of “manufacturing consent for genocide”. The security guards had to escort them out of the audience. Just steps from the museum, there are leaflets with the word ´Kidnapped´ in bold typeface, showing faces of Israeli hostages, still stuck to lampposts. They are silent reminders of what is becoming a less safe world.

Zoya Cherkassky: 7 October 2023

The Jewish Museum

New York City, USA

15 December, 2023 – 18 March, 2024

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