Zeev Engelmayer outside Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, which displays his work

Daniel Hanoch

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The Israeli Nightmare Finds Its Illustrator

A prominent Israeli artist draws the traumas of Oct. 7 in a jarring, surreal, and childlike visual language, capturing the nation’s pain

Dana Kessler
December 15, 2023
Zeev Engelmayer outside Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, which displays his work

Daniel Hanoch

Oct. 7 changed the way Zeev Engelmayer, a well-known Israeli cartoonist, humorist and performance artist, does things. He didn’t stop creating—not for a moment—but his style changed, rapidly and dramatically, and then changed again. For the time being, his art—like everything else in Israel—is in war mode.

Whoever is familiar with Engelmayer’s well-regarded work knows it has always been funny, irreverent, cheeky, rude, sacrilegious, offensive, nonsensical, absurdist, pornographic, crazy, repulsive, gross, vulgar, wild, and fun. But nowadays most of those elements are gone. One of his very first artistic responses to the massacre was a black-and-white image, simply titled “Nova music festival,” that quotes Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.” His most sustained effort since Hamas’ attack on Israel, however, has been assiduously drawing and sharing “postcards” on Facebook and Instagram. Colorful and drawn in a very naive style, some of these images resemble illustrations from vintage Israeli children’s books while others look like actual children’s drawings.

Every Israeli finds their own way of coping with this war’s terrible traumas. For Engelmayer, not surprisingly, it is by making art. Since the war started, he stepped away from most of his other projects, in order to focus on this new body of work.

If you’re Israeli, you will instantly understand why Engelmayer’s social media accounts are under the name of Shoshke, Engelmayer’s artistic alter ego. Engelmayer took on this persona about seven years ago, when a Shoshke costume—a grotesque, nude, and comically vulgar female bodysuit, based on one of his old and most well-known cartoon characters—was created for one of his performances. When he first put it on, he discovered how freeing it was to be this lewd and louche character. Indeed, he liked it so much that he hardly ever took it off. In the past seven years he has been creating, performing, and appearing publicly almost exclusively as Shoshke.

That is until the war. Since Oct. 7, Engelmayer has temporarily put Shoshke out of commission (although he is eagerly anticipating and strategizing her comeback). Engelmayer has instead dedicated his time to drawing these colorful and naive looking “postcards,” depicting mainly the hostages, on A4-size sheets of paper. The postcards take anywhere between one and seven hours to complete, and he draws more of them than he shares. Sometimes he looks at a finished drawing and decides not to share it, or at least not yet. But he doesn’t stop drawing these postcards.

Although the subject matter is heart-wrenching—children being held hostage or returning home to their parents, civilians with their arms raised at gunpoint—he finds this activity soothing. Especially the drawings that take him a long time—the ones in which he colors green fields, flowers, and human characters by hand with felt-tip pens or in acrylics. “It’s thinking about it and being in the situation, but in some other way than watching the news all day,” Engelmayer explained to me. “I think this work gives me a sense of distance and closeness at the same time.”

Just as Shoshke was ever-present during the judicial reform protests, Engelmayer’s work is a fixture in the Israel-Hamas war. When shrapnel hit a school in Tel Aviv in early December, a video showing the severe damage caused to a classroom was all over the news; up on the wall of the classroom was one of Engelmayer’s old posters, calling for tolerance and equality. His daily postcards, meanwhile, are also visible everywhere, all the time, be it on museum walls (they are even plastered on the outside on the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art), in television shows (one of them was used as a backdrop on a long-running entertainment show, Zehu Ze!), connected to the Abducted and Missing Families Forum, or on social media.

His daily postcards have a distinct unaffected, unsophisticated, colorful and cheerful style. This is not real naive art—Engelmayer is a famous and successful artist—so it should probably be characterized as faux-naive art or pseudo-naive art, which is what you would call a professional and trained artist who uses this aesthetic. It took Engelmayer a few weeks of experimentation since the initial shock of Oct. 7 to find out that this is—for now—the way he feels he can sincerely express his emotions about this ongoing tragedy. It’s not an easy or obvious artistic decision, but it works, in a way that is comforting for many, and shockingly strange (or strangely shocking) for others.

These illustrations, which are some of the defining artistic responses to this latest war between Israel and Hamas thus far, emerged through an organic process of mournful experimentation.

After his “Guernica,” he did some semi-realistic drawings, from observation. “Next to my house in Tel Aviv there is a bakery. We don’t have a bomb shelter at home so when there are sirens we run past the bakery and stand in the stairwell with the bakery staff. It’s quite a way to run and sometimes we hear the booms while we’re still on the way. So, I did some drawings of running for shelter, of anxiety. The upheaval I felt was immediately expressed in my work.”

The first thing to reappear in his work after the initial shock was the color. Then the use of text started returning as well, but in a much more minimal way. His first colorful post-Oct. 7 drawing was of an idyllic and seemingly peaceful kibbutz with the caption: Something terrible is about to happen. “I drew the kibbutz with small houses with red roofs, flowers, and a water tower, sort of like an old Franz Kraus poster. This massacre happened in such a beautiful place. I worked a lot with photo references from Kibbutz Be’eri and Kibbutz Kfar Aza and the whole area is amazingly beautiful, serene and pastoral. Then I added the caption. I felt that this painting was strong and conveys the horror, but I wanted to paint pictures that have comfort and optimism, because in the media and public discourse everything seems so black these days.”

Soon after, around mid-November, he started drawing in the naive style, the daily postcards seeming like they are either made for children or by children. “As soon as I started drawing more straightforward and innocent images, it gave me the ability to communicate in a much simpler way,” he told me. “I don’t call these drawings childish, but naive, with honest enjoyment of beauty and color, and with many details. Even when you paint difficult subjects there is beauty in our world.”

I told him that his childlike drawings actually made me feel the opposite of comfort; in fact I find them quite discomfiting. The dissonance between the childlike drawings and the terrifying subject matter feels to me like a kick in the stomach, a bit like the popular use of children, dolls, or lullabies in horror films. In this horrible reality, it seems that anything childlike is triggering.

“I agree,” he admits. “There is this side to it too. I’m not saying it’s only comforting. I drew some of the hostages’ return before they were freed—some of them have been freed since and some haven’t. I drew them based on their most iconic capture photos. For example, Grandma Yaffa, who was photographed being taken on a mobility scooter, so I drew her returning on a scooter, but a very colorful and happy one, and instead of terrorists like in the original photo she is surrounded by women and dancers and flowers who show her love and tenderness. She returned a few days after I posted the drawing. So it is true that there is a harsh discrepancy between the beautiful gentle and colorful situations I imagined the hostages in while in reality they were still in captivity.”

As soon as I started drawing more straightforward and innocent images, it gave me the ability to communicate in a much simpler way.

Humor reemerged in Israel pretty quickly after Oct. 7. The most obvious example is satirical TV show Eretz Nehederet, which recently created a few sketches that went viral. And although most of Engelmayer’s postcards are in no way funny-ha-ha, a few are. After 17-year-old Mia Leimberg was released from captivity together with Bella, her dog, Engelmayer created a drawing of Bella the dog biting a Hamas terrorist’s leg. It resembles a movie poster in which the name of the movie is Bella’s Revenge, and under the image he wrote “Quentin Tarantino’s new movie.”

“This is the kind of humor that I avoided up until now,” he admitted. “This illustration is somewhat reminiscent of the Danidin or Kofiko books [popular Israeli children’s book series first published in the late 1950s], and it’s the type of work that a month ago I would not have created. But in general, I believe that humor is very important in bleak situations. It’s not just about survival, it sustains us. A couple of years ago I visited an archive of illustrations and toys created in concentration camps during the Holocaust, and it amazed me to see how much humor there was. The ability to laugh is illustrative of the fact that there was life in all of this.”

I ask Engelmayer if he struggles with the question of what is and is not appropriate to draw at this time. “I do,” he admits. “Something that really helps me in the creative process is the fact that I have conversations with my audience. The amount of feedback and comments I receive in private is immense. Many families of kidnapped people want me to draw their loved ones. I don’t think art is supposed to please anyone, but in this case, I think that if I had gotten feedback that any of my drawings are disturbing or insensitive I would have removed them.”

He has received many messages about his work, most of them very positive. Schools printed them and created activities for children with it. “Two helicopter pilots who brought back the hostages invited me to come to their squadron, and they want to hang my helicopter drawings there,” he told me. “I get endless offers to create books, calendars, musicians who want me to draw CD covers for them. I always get many messages but never quite as many as now.”

One of the most astonishing requests was from a woman whose father was murdered on Oct. 7. “He was very brave, and he protected the family, and she asked me to illustrate his tombstone,” he told me. “She wanted it to be as colorful and happy as he was, so that’s what I did.”

He also received some negative comments, including in relation to a drawing he made of children sliding on a rainbow, which he created after seeing a spectacular rainbow over Tel Aviv in mid-November. “The day of the rainbow was amazing,” he recalls. “It was very beautiful, and everyone talked about it and photographed it. I looked at it and thought how beautiful it would be if the kidnapped children could just slide across the rainbow from Gaza to Tel Aviv. I drew this cute and naive image with childish colors. Some people were angered by the fact that in the drawing the kids glided to Tel Aviv since in reality most of those kids are not from Tel Aviv but from communities and kibbutzim in the Gaza envelope. They thought that I’m trying to say that Tel Aviv represents the whole of Israel. But that wasn’t my intention. I saw the rainbow in Tel Aviv, so I drew Tel Aviv. If I would have seen the rainbow in Haifa, I would probably have the kids slide from Gaza to Haifa.”

Engelmayer is quick to add that just because he refrained from depicting explicit violence so far does not mean he’ll continue to do so in the future. “I’m trying to be sensitive to the situation and to how I feel about it in every given moment, but it’s not like I rule it out in general.”

Similarly, he doesn’t rule out the possibility of his daily postcards becoming more overtly political. As the character of Shoshke, Engelmayer is explicitly political. In 2020, he was even arrested in his Shoshke costume while participating in a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the grounds of indecent exposure (there was also suspicion that the costume is supposed to mock Sara Netanyahu). But while Shoshke is a fearless, in-your-face political activist, Engelmayer’s daily postcards are much more subtle.

“The postcards are not about party politics, but they do have protest in them,” he said. “When I drew the men hostages, I was protesting against the fact that everyone keeps demanding the women and children to be released and it’s as if the men were forgotten. The fact that I remind people of the hostages on a daily basis is also political. During the anti-reform protests I made much more politically unambiguous posters. It’s not that I think differently now. I still think that the prime minister and the ministers he appointed are appalling, that they are taking us to ruin and that we must replace them. The fact that I’m not creating ‘Bibi Go Home’ posters now doesn’t mean I don’t think that anymore and it doesn’t mean I won’t come back to that. It only means that I think that right now the atmosphere is such that it requires me to use softer tools. But my opinions and my messages haven’t changed.”

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.