The Muses of October 7

By | May 06, 2024
Arts & Culture, Israel, Latest

Walk the streets of Israel post-October 7 and one experiences a country transformed. This transformation manifests in many aspects of our lives: our political allegiances, our sense of certainty and security, and our attitudes toward one another. But our streets have also literally, physically, been transformed. Cars are bedecked in Israeli flags and bumper stickers that commemorate fallen loved ones and friends. The now iconic red-and-black hostage posters line storefronts and traffic poles (in Israel they don’t get ripped down). Army green is everywhere—at times every fifth person walking down the street seems to be in uniform and carrying a large weapon. And street art and graffiti that focuses on the hostages or the ongoing military campaign is ubiquitous. Grassroots memorials take various forms—from yizkor candles to red poppies (the classic symbol of military loss is also a common wildflower in the south of Israel) to countless other manifestations. This spontaneous public art is intense and concentrated in certain places, such as Hostage Square in Tel Aviv and the Nova massacre memorial in Re’im. But it also can be found on random street corners and benches, in malls or in doctor’s offices. Art is everywhere, a direct outcome of a nation that is actively grieving horrific events and continuing crises. 

A new exhibit, recently opened at the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, seeks to explore this creative phenomenon in real time. The exhibit is simply titled “October 7.” It begins by considering the notion that art is irrelevant at the height of wartime, as expressed by the proverb “When the cannons are heard, the muses are silent.” Orit Shaham Gover, the chief curator of ANU, proposes this alternative: “As the cannons are heard, the voices of the muses are emerging all the more clearly from deep down in the throat.”

Ziva Jelin, Panorama: Pavement and Mud, 2018, acrylic and tar on canvas. Photo credit: Ron Plitnitzki.

The exhibit is the product of three months of labor, a blink of an eye compared to what goes into most serious museum exhibitions, by curators Michal Huminour and Carmit Blumensohn. It emerged from a video installation, still on display, that was erected only days after October 7 in partnership with the Hostages and Missing Families Forum. ANU, formerly the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, is an expansive museum devoted to Jewish history and Jewish identity that recently underwent a thorough renovation. In a conversation I had with Huminour, she explained that the museum’s leadership understood quite quickly that the events of October 7 were of a historic nature which would shape the Jewish experience, and they felt it was incumbent upon them to respond in turn.

The exhibit begins in the lobby of the museum and continues to a medium-sized exhibition hall on its first floor. Popular radio hits play in the background, including Yagel Oshri’s megahit “Overcoming Depression,” Fauda star and injured combat engineer Idan Amedi’s “The Fighter’s Pain,” and “Black Dawn,” a joint recording by Israeli rock musician Aviv Geffen and Mia Leimberg, who was freed from Hamas captivity. A large screen projects a loop of 300 striking news photographs from October 7 and the Swords of Iron military campaign in Gaza. Images of soldiers praying and singing also project a more hopeful vision of strength and solidarity in the wake of great suffering. 

“It is as if I don’t paint, there will be no documentation—and then I might, God forbid, be able to forget.”

The exhibit approaches the phenomenon of art after October 7 from three general angles. First, it presents direct responses to the national trauma in various visual art mediums. Second, it also includes works that were created before October 7 but nevertheless speak to our current moment. Third, and perhaps most startlingly, the show features pieces by several talented artists who were killed or kidnapped on October 7 and whose artwork obtains a haunting resonance when considering what befell them. 

In the first category, it’s quite staggering to consider how much was written, painted and created even in the immediate days following October 7. The ANU exhibit, which opened on February 23, was not even the first or even third such exhibit in Israel to showcase the art of October 7, but it manages to provide a bit of context and perspective that a pristine museum setting can facilitate. Included are colorful acrylic paintings by twin artists Nil and Karen Romano entitled Rage and From the Ashes, a Fire Shall Be Woken. The latter features demons of destruction coalescing into the image of a lion. There is a heartbreaking gouache depiction of the sexual abuse of female captives entitled The Girls from Be’eri by Karen Spilsher, which was modelled on Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Also by Spilsher is an interesting series called Anxiety Bulimia: A War Journal Drawn Over Time, which features dozens of felt-tipped marker drawings of popular images from the war in Gaza, such as an IDF soldier making himself at home in a bombed-out Gaza living room, or a soldier from Tel Aviv tenderly clutching his child’s drawing only days before he was killed in combat. Spilsher’s drawings add a personal and emotional gloss to these now well-known images here in Israel, and also provide real-time insight into how Israeli collective memory is being shaped by pictures shared on news websites and on WhatsApp groups. At a recent charity boutique I purchased a challah cover by Israeli-South African artist Taryn Treisman that features a painting of a Merkava tank on which Israeli soldiers have plastered drawings by Israeli schoolchildren. There’s a tentative quality to all of these artworks. Rather than viewing masterpieces, we are viewing a nation in the process of trying to figure out the right way to approach what we are collectively experiencing. Spilsher writes, “The most important thing is documenting in real time, like remembering a dream and not forgetting. It is as if I don’t paint, there will be no documentation—and then I might, God forbid, be able to forget.” 

Keren Shpilsher, Otef Israel. We Won’t Forget and We Won’t Forgive, 2023, acrylic on paper. Photo credit: Ron Plotnitsky.


Not everyone shares this sensibility exactly. Two powerful 2020 paintings about grieving entitled Storm and Sea of Tears by southern artist Shai Azoulay are included, along with his own more recent qualifier: “I can’t paint now. All thoughts and imagination are absent.” Be’eri resident and artist Ziva Jelin survived the massacre hiding in her safe room. Hanging in the exhibit is a blood-red painting of her beloved kibbutz painted in 2018. The crimson color of the painting was chosen in a different time, meant to evoke the warmth of home, but it now displays bullet holes and damage from when Hamas terrorists shot up her home studio with machine guns. Also on display is a series of paintings created in 2018 by Avichai Platek titled “Night at the Kibbutz,” each featuring street lamps that illuminate a different nighttime scene from a different Gaza border community. These images are rich with potent symbolism, but it’s as if they symbolize events that had not taken place at the time of their creation. In this way they recall many of the songs written for a different reality, such as “Coming Home” by pop band HaTikva 6, which nevertheless became significant in recent months. The process of making artistic sense of the October 7 calamity is only beginning, yet art from our previous reality sometimes seems to contain prophetic hints of what was to come. 

Prophecy is what comes to mind when viewing some of the most striking pieces in the exhibit, among them a video installation called “Dance of the Starlings.” The installation depicts breathtaking bird migration formations filmed in the Northern Negev by Ynet photographer and Kfar Aza resident Roee Idan, who was murdered along with his wife on October 7 (two of his young children survived by hiding in a cupboard; his three-year-old daughter Avigail was kidnapped to Gaza and later released). 

We not only lost fighters and fellow citizens, but also artists, intellectuals, thinkers and dreamers.

The exhibit also includes a number of mixed-media sketches by Jonathan Chazor, a member of an elite air force unit who was killed in the first few weeks of the incursion into Gaza. Chazor’s chimeral drawings explore the dividing lines between humans, animals, monsters and machines. His final drawing went viral after his death: a vivid sketch of his beloved dog drawn from memory on a blackboard in an abandoned Gaza school building. Chazor’s artwork made me think of the brilliant and intricately detailed drawings of the yeshiva student and Givati soldier Eitan Dov Rosezweig who was also killed fighting in Gaza. The art of all of these individuals, remarkable in its own right, also gives us a sense of the scope of all the life and potential lost as a result of October 7 and the ensuing war. We not only lost fighters and fellow citizens, but also artists, intellectuals, thinkers and dreamers. The exhibit both depicts specific works of art generated by October 7, but also alludes to creative worlds that were obliterated by that same event. 

Down in the lobby, the wall is plastered with images by the graffiti artist and Haifa University art student Inbar Heiman,  also known by the pseudonym, or “tag,” Pink. For weeks after October 7, when driving around central Israel, my kids noted the graffiti “Free Pink.” “Who is Pink?” they demanded to know, “And why does she need to be freed?” Heiman volunteered at the Nova festival on October 7 and was captured—she was later murdered in captivity. 

Irit Regev, Blood Covenant, 2023, oil on canvas. Photo credit: Ron Plotnitsky.

Jonathan Chazor, No title, undated, mixed media on paper. Photo Credit: Jerusalem Fine Art Print.














Israeli graffiti artists were among the first to seriously engage with the events of October 7 in public spaces. The iconic “Kidnapped” hostage posters are themselves the creation of two prominent Tel Aviv graffiti artists who now live in Brooklyn—Nitzan Mintz and Dede Bandaid. The latter’s  imprint is recognizable all over the Florentine neighborhood of Tel Aviv through his “bandaid” tag, which suggests an effort to heal the wounds of Israeli society. Heimann was part of this same artistic community. One can also see her work in Florentine alongside the #FreePink graffiti that appeared after October 7 demanding her release—another reminder of the small and interconnected nature of life in Israel. The exhibit’s works range in quality from amateur to masterful—but the strength of the exhibit lies not in the objective quality of its artwork. Rather, its power lies in the way in which the art, the individual artists and the catastrophic collective situation are all inextricably woven together.  

Some may find art galleries irrelevant amidst the geopolitical challenges Israel now faces, the profound physical and emotional injuries faced by its citizens, our ongoing fear for the hostages and for the soldiers fighting in Gaza and the north. But the art of October 7, like the phenomenal music that has emerged in its wake, is urgent and searing. It provides a visual prism through which we can try to understand our times, to memorialize those who were murdered and to scream over its injustice. Right now, the muses may not be fully audible due to the blaring of the cannons, but they are not silent. Artworks such as those on view in this exhibit form the beginning of a cultural soundtrack that may provide a vehicle for healing and rebuilding in the years to come. 


Opening Image: Lobby of the ANU Museum of Jewish Peoplehood, with wall dedicated to Inbar Heimann on the left. Photo credit: Leonid Padrul

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