The New Barbizon Group was founded in 2010 by five painters, born in the former USSR, who live and work in Israel. The group’s name refers to the Barbizon School of painters who were active in 19th-century France and championed landscape painting from direct observation, outside of the studio, linking painterly realism with a blunt view of social reality. When, in the early 21st century, the members of the New Barbizon Group adopt the name and the declarative character of the historical Barbizon School and celebrate painting by observation, their act has a confusing effect: is this a tribute per se, or a critical stance that makes sophisticated use of the tribute? Are they being conservative or subversive?
The African context creates further circles of reference around their artistic work: not only a return to traditional European painting, not only defiance against contemporary conceptual Israeli art, but also an affinity with contemporary non-Western painting, which brings forth a new discourse and elucidates, from a different direction, the collapse of old power systems. The former margins of the world of art (Israel, Africa, USSR) can converse without the liaison of any center. Alongside Chéri Samba’s paintings, for example, the works of the New Barbizon Group illustrate the metamorphoses of Western painting in the colonial space, and the way it accumulates local influence, absorbs various sources of inspirations and takes on new characterizations. The group’s politicism is explicated in the very way the artists set out together to paint in the Nave Shaanan and Old Central Bus Station areas of Tel Aviv, known as the heart of the city’s “little Africa,” as well as the southern Holot Detention Center, where Israel detains Africans whose legal status is unclear. The members of the New Barbizon have all experienced emigration, identity crises and a sense of otherness and alienation, and thus observe the African community through a painterly prism of a direct gaze, which allows for an empathy that is devoid of superiority or smugness.
In their works, Africa-in-Israel is presented as a complex essence with different, unequivocal faces. The gaze moves from a long-distance observation of faceless figures to a close up of a figure with a name and an identity. Such a figure is Lucy, who has often been painted by the group members. In Natalia Zourabova’s Lucy in Love (2013) she is reclining on a sofa; only her upper torso is seen, but the eye easily imagines its continuation like all the figures of Venus, Olympia, Naked Maja and other women reclining on sofas in the history of painting. Nevertheless, Lucy is wholly who she is: a colorful, radiant African woman in Tel Aviv. The title evokes an intimacy of female friendship. Yet in the background behind her head three men are beating up another man to a bloody pulp. This is a paraphrase by Zourabova of a section from a painting by Cherkassky-Nnadi, Friday in the Projects (2015) which was hanging on her studio wall when the group members gathered there to paint Lucy. Cherkassky-Nnadi’s painting depicts a depressing scene of a racist, violent Israeli street, in which three white men attack two black men with a knife and a club.
A more repressed, yet no less meaningless violence seeps into another painting by Zourabova, again indirectly, through the figure of an African man in the Social Security office (At the Social Security Office, 2015–2016): the very terror of bureaucracy is upon his shoulders, his back is a dark, heavy lump of color burdening the painting’s whole surface. In contrast with Lucy, he is anonymous, and the anonymity is enhanced by the multiplicity of numbers in the painting: the numbered counters, or the number on the raised screen (941), which indicates the person’s place in the queue and thus becomes an alienated name. Every person’s being seems to wither in the Social Security offices, certainly that of a black immigrant from Africa, despite the size of his body.
Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi paints Rothschild Boulevard (2014) and Levinsky Park (2014) as two opposing poles of Tel Aviv, not geographically distant from each other, but representing the metaphoric distance between the white and the black city. In Levinsky Park, which symbolizes the center of the African community’s life in Tel Aviv, a black man and woman step between palm trees and lawns, youths are playing in a playground and in the background are buildings representing the city’s architectural and socio-economical layers. The city seems to embrace them, their routine seems bound up with urban routine. In the Rothschild Boulevard, however, the atmosphere is different. An African man walks alone in the middle of the avenue, wearing a cleaner’s yellow vest and carrying a blue trash bag. The boulevard’s stunning purple blooms accentuate his loneliness and inconsequence.
A cleaner also appears in a painting by Anna Lukashevsky (Cleaner, 2015): she is depicted from behind, standing against a wall of white-and-yellow tiles, holding a red rag. The square grid that is the wall, with the recurrent red patches of rag, bucket and hosepipe, almost expropriate the painting of its narrativity, until it becomes a surface of forms and colors that invites us to view it as some abstract composition. When the painterly values again become an African cleaning woman against a background of a tiled wall with a faded modernist esthetics, the figure’s loneliness is enhanced.
The dichotomy in depicting Africans in Tel Aviv, on the range between alienation, belonging and acceptance, can be seen in Lukashevsky’s works. In a painting titled Neighbors (2015), two men are depicted on their balcony: one is leaning against the balustrade and speaking on the phone, the other is seated on a chair; washing is hanging on an improvised line stretched between the walls. Trees surround the balcony and the neighbors (the very title exudes warmth) are assimilated into the street as if they were a natural part of the urban being, pastoral in its own way.
Olga Kundina’s paintings mark Tel Aviv’s African territory: their titles bear the names of Tel Aviv streets (e.g. Hachmei Israel, 2015) or neighborhoods (e.g. Shapira, 2015), or portray the community’s central institutions—a hairdresser on Salameh Road (Hairdressing Salon, 2015) or The Men’s Club on Nave Shaanan, 2015). The figures are usually depicted from afar, without facial features: the women at the hairdresser’s are hidden behind the display window and red script in Amharic, the men are swallowed into the café, among television screens. Each painting has its own subject, but the emphasis on formalist values constantly redefines the power of the painting, and its dilemma: to narrate a tale or to be a painting. In Shapira, the two men carrying a red mattress against a murky white background create an odd, almost surreal scene, which extends the visible to the edge of coherence. The red forms in Hairdressing Salon have a life of their own, and they alternately cut off from and return to the representations that incarcerate them—again becoming a display window and letters in a foreign language. Thus, the more the painting is attentive to its inner issues, so the African figures take on a double role: the protagonists of the routine life of an immigrant in Tel Aviv, as well as the protagonists of the painting’s drama.
Asya Lukin’s drawings are executed with a quick, easy hand: Mother and Child (2015); men talking in the street (Nave Shaanan Street, 2015); a café scene (Red Café, 2015). They may be reminiscent of classical genre drawings of Orientalist painters in north Africa or Eretz Israel, and therefore effect more than anything the complexity of New Barbizon’s stance: who is painting and who is being painted; who holds the power to create images and who is the object of observation; can a painterly style save from a moral failure, or can biography save from moral failure; and can painting even assume moral issues. New Barbizon’s body of African paintings raises all these questions, touches upon this burning ball of fire, but without losing the vitality of the painting. It joins the discourse of power (in art, in the world of art) while asserting the role of marginality (in art, in the world of art, in the world).