עברית English

Façade, Guise, and Disguise - Avishay Ayal

In August 2006, Avishay Ayal set out on a four-months journey to India. In December 2006, towards the end of his journey, he arrived in the city of Thrissur (Trichur), which is situated north of Kochi (Cochin) in the Indian Union state of Kerala. A longtime cultural capital of Kerala, Thrissur is renowned for its various festivals, art schools and cultural institutions. Thrissur is also known for its Vadakkunathan Kshetram, the large temple located in the heart of the city, and for its traditional Kathakali dance-drama shows.


During his stay there, Thrissur went on a two-days general strike called to protest the killing of a demonstrator in another part of Kerala. The otherwise lively city teeming with people day and night turned into a ghost town. Colorful shop façades, hand-painted street signs and official and random graffiti metamorphosed into sort of a huge street museum. Avishay Ayal took this rare opportunity to record those sights with his camera in an attempt to decipher the local cultural history; the local visual codes; the multi-cultural discourse and the impact of globalization on India; the migration of images and the manner in which they are applied onto another culture.


In Israeli art field, Avishay Ayal is known as a draftsman, a painter and a master printer, who has been examining Israeli society and identities over the past three decades or so. With his complex and fascinating body of works, Ayal presents his visual, critical as well as nostalgic commentaries. This is the first exhibition, in which Ayal is displaying color photographs he took intentionally for that purpose.


However, Ayal’s dialogue with the photographed image and with the camera did not begin in India, in 2006. Since his studies in London (1968-1971), he has been using photography as a significant tool for transferring images unto silk-screens, lithographs and photo-etchings and as a prolific source for his drawings and paintings.


The major exhibition held at Hayward Gallery, London, under the title Pop Art Redefined, in 1969, confesses Ayal, has had a tremendous influence on him. It opened him to diverse possibilities of combining, contrasting and merging painting, graphic arts, photography and text, inspired by the practices of American and British pop-artists.  He was also drawn to the gigantic ads – mostly reproduced by offset and silk-screen low-resolution printing techniques – he saw in London. A closer look at the ads revealed the colorful dots of the photographed image, the colors of which were separated into different plates, in a way somewhat similar to the Divisionism or Pointillism of French artist Georges Seurat or American pop-artist Roy Lichtenstein.


Since then and until the mid-1980s, Avishay Ayal had been photographing raw materials for his paintings and making drawings, paintings and collages with processed photographs and photographs borrowed from newspapers as well as other sources. A combination of graphics, photography, prints, texts, “grid,” fabrics, arabesques, and popular street images was often present in many of his works, as evinced by his comprehensive exhibition, Land of Oil: Nine Series on Paper, held at the Ein Harod Museum of Art in summer 2004.


All along his excursion in India, Ayal was fascinated by the huge wall paintings and ads painted on house walls, shop shutters and doors, roadsides, in villages and cities. These advertising images, decontextualized and integrated with life, mesmerized Ayal. “An amazing contrast is created between consumer product painted with extreme realism and the crumbling wall of a ramshackle house on which it is painted; consumption images of spectacular and affluent society are transplanted into impoverished Indian reality.”[1]


The paintings and street signs in Thrissur evoked in Ayal nostalgic memories of the simple and naive signs and ads, designed and executed by hand, he saw in Israel in the 1940s and 1950s; e.g. placards on cinema billboards, or detergent and cigarette ads on the pages of Dvar Hashavua newspaer. This subjective time travel had, as Ayal relates, another aspect: “Indian sign painters demonstrate high level of technical ability (copying, blowing up, transferring, mastery of color) and a kind of naïveté that manifests itself in the image’s directness, lack of advertising-marketing sophistication, and in their use of imported western images without any attempt to naturalize them or make them ‘original’ or ‘local.’ Thus, for example, the figures on the signs are those of blue or green eyed western Caucasians...”


Ayal noticed a link between 1930-1940s design styles and the British rule in India, a link visually echoed in some of the signs. “A British designer designed a sign in the 1930s or 1940s and Indian sign painters continue to reproduce the image. They don’t invent anything new but rather appropriate ready-made images. This can be discerned, for example, in an ad for ‘Mr. Butler’s Soda Maker’ featuring a British manservant, or in realistic images of men and women wearing eyeglasses taken from European eyeglasses catalogue and blown up. In Israel too, one may discern the great influence of graphics imported from Europe (from Britain and Germany), an influence that sifted into local visual culture during the 1940s and 1950s.”


In recent years, Ayal has been photographing images he sees in the Israeli street culture scene as well as on his excursions in Turkey and Egypt. Dubbed by the artist “Third World Views,” this body of photographs never shown in public constitutes a conceptual project of its kind, These photographs show hybrid splicing of different languages: crossbreeding between Hebrew and Latin characters (“נטוםMIM,” “קלZפי”), English idioms in Hebrew transliteration, Hebrew text written according to foreign pronunciation, “poetic” collocations resulting from grammatical errors, and combinations of verbal and visual texts. In this project, Ayal is interested in fusion, in the manner in which a “’cultureless’ society adopts parts of other cultures, melts them down and creates unpredictable combinations. This was what I found also in Thrissur, the way a certain culture (an Indian culture) ‘thinks’ and ‘defines’ western culture.”

Willy-nilly (Inevitably?), in India or Turkey, Ayal’s view is that of a tourist carrying in his knapsack his past and cultural baggage. “In a Turkish bazaar, the fassoulia [beans] and stuffed pepper have a familiar taste. The caravanserai buildings or bazaar carts reminded me of buildings and carts in the old city of Jerusalem, functional remnants of the Ottoman Empire. In India too, beside strange and curious things, I had seen things I recognized as ‘British.’ I felt like a British tourist in search of the Lost Empire. I realized that it had to do with my identification with Britain, having studied there for years, and with my being an Anglophile. Still, I was aware of the fact that English is India’s language of communication with the world and that English-speaking Indians are affluent and had been brought up on British education. So my dealings in India were after all with Indians of a very certain kind...”


Portrayed in Ayal’s photographs with their closed shutters and role-up doors, Thrissur’s shop façades have a metaphoric dimension of a (theater) curtain or a (cinema) screen. They are a façade, a guise and a disguise. Like a theater curtain, they block the viewer’s view until the show begins, and only then the shutter or doors are opened. Like a cinema screen, they only display what is projected onto (painted on) them – a kind of seductive Indian ornament, intensely and glowingly colorful, with a practical purpose: to sell!


However, Ayal’s camera and quizzical, sober and critical gaze also unveil other messages contained in these signs. They unveil (or hide) a frontline conveying a discourse (or battle) between the local and the universal-global; between the intellectual-textual and the emotional-colorful-material; between quotation and appropriation and the local-original; between (British) “high” culture and street “low” culture; between order and chaos; between Reality and an illusive painted-reality; between revealing and concealing. The signs betray the various cultural pressures put on their anonymous creators, pressures that come with a price tag – a masquerade or, in the words of Achad Ha’am, “imitation and assimilation.


As a concept and an object, the screen itself is present in the photographs. It produces interference, but in doing so also wins its presence, due to the traces it leaves on the signs. According to Ayal, signs painted on shutters, tin doors and house walls are “subject to interferences” – created by the strips, coarse textures, dust and grime – or distortions deriving from the surface’s three-dimensionality. “The Indian artists didn’t mind it, but I found it fascinating, because of the effort involved in watching them, because of the need to see a (complete) image made of fragmented units. You have to ignore the ‘interference’ and complete the missing visual information, in a similar manner to a situation in which you watch your computer screen or TV while ignoring the pixels, or look at a newspaper photo and ignore its printing mesh.”


Examining Ayal’s body of paintings and drawings of the past three decades reveals that these “interferences” also exist in his works. The images painted on the striated shutters in Thrissur call to mind his Tiberias ’53 series (1975-1976), which was based on landscape postcards, or his paintings inspired by revolving billboards (Amerikna'an, 1998; Intentional Deviation, 1992-94), or by mosaics (Separation, 1995; Deportation, 1995). One can recognize in all of them an element of screening, of which I wrote in Ayal’s Word Landscapes exhibition catalogue:


“Ayal’s works present a formula, a painting method, which depends on and evolves from various visual formulae [...]. The meanings of his works are hidden behind a screen of images, words, symbols, deviations, and things taken out of context. In some of the works there is an actual screening, as a result of the use of multi-layered stripes, evoking a kind of optical rippling, similar to that exhibited by a constantly changing computerized street advertisement.

For a split second, two images are superimposed and become an androgyne Hybrid entity that may appear meaningless. This split second – the unifying hybridization (or the chimerical hybridization) – is the essence of Ayal’s work.”[2]


Several years later, in front of the images in Thrissur, Ayal clicks the camera button and once again freezes that “split second, – [that] unifying hybridization (or chimerical hybridization).” This time, however, these mutations are engineered by the industry of Globalization and Multiculturalism.


Over the past two decades, many scholars have “labelized” both these terms and interpreted them in various ways. I particularly like the things Yossi Yonah and Yehouda Shenhav had to say about the “multicultural situation” in their book, What is Multiculturalism?  Speaking of identity politics in Israel, which correspond to a certain degree to the situation in India, they say, “multicultural situation” consists of “the objective reality of multiple cultures and identities in a society; an intensification of globalizing processes and market forces; a changed consciousness regarding otherness and cultural differences.”[3]


Among other things, globalization, according to Yonah and Shenhav, is premised on “multinational corporations, a world bank, different identities and citizenships of ‘local players,’ multiracialism and multiethnicity [that lead to] the erosion of state power as a mechanism of political and cultural domination in a global age.”[4]


Furthermore, Yonah and Shenhav assert that “as a way of contemplating reality, Postmodernism employs distinct methodologies to cultural interpretation”[5] whereas “Post-Colonialism deals with first and third world relations [...] East-West relations [...] and opressed-opressor relations as symbiotic relations.”[6]


Ayal’s photographs also lend themselves to a reading within a complex cultural interpretation that acquires its meaning in different ways: through the eyes of an Israeli photographer in Thrissur looking at the objects in front of him; through the eyes of an Indian sign painter from Thrissur considering the various raw materials introduced into his life and into the things he produces; through the eyes of various visitors to an exhibition held in contemporary Israel, the monolithic identity of which has been transformed.


Against this background, one may understand Ayal when he says: “I started working out a tentative definition of what I saw in Thrissur. I shot [the images] for the purpose of documentation because they were an echo or a feedback of the things I’m looking for in my art. [...] It was also a gaze on Israel – a small island in the Middle East whose inhabitants are confident in their connection to an industrialized, modern world and simultaneously turn a blind eye to the local, to the oriental, and to the ‘shtettle’ transplanted into the Arab East.”


In Ayal’s Thrissur photographs, one can discern a method, a meaningful selection process of the things he saw there: signs with Western labels’ “grid” painted in vivid colors; signs containing signifiers of modernization: marketing tools, appliances and machines (electric appliances, electrical equipment and computers, pumps, steam boilers and turbines, detergents, furniture, means of transportation, plumbing gear, ornamented cream cakes, kitchen appliances, kitchen utensils, jewelry); signs dealing with eyesight and blindness (one eye, a pair of eyes in a “pillory,” or a peeping hole, eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, identical and nonidentical eyes, with clearly non-Indian iris colors such as green or blue). As far as Ayal is concerned, these signs stimulate thoughts and associations ranging from the large, misleading eyes in René Magritte’s paintings to Michal Na’aman’s The Eyes of the State (a 1974 artwork regarding the Yom Kipur War). Photographs of whitewashed walls, concealing the sign that was previously painted on them, also join the images of blindness and screening.


Ayal shot another series of twenty photographs in Chennai (Madras). There, he focused on educational-moral-philosophical-theological slogans or mantras painted on the walls surrounding a campus of municipal school for the rich. From the plethora of photographed slogans, I wish to mention but a few: “Truth Alone Triumphs,” “Consciousness is God’s Presence in Man,” “Never Pay Back Evil for Evil,” “Like Fire, Words Can Either Burn or Warm,” “Freedom Means Responsibility.”


All slogans were painted in an identical way: a slender green or light blue frame surrounding a yellow rectangle containing English or Tamil text in black. They reminded Ayal of placards used in national history or Bible classes (“Crabgrass – Zionism’s Enemy,” “It is Good to Die for Our Country,” “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”), or signs in IDF bases (“Soldier, Improve Your Appearance,” “The Base is Your Home – Take Care of It”). Shown as a systematic cluster in the exhibition, these photographs allow a contemporary (western?) viewer to link them to the aesthetics characteristic of Jenny Holzer’s works. Should we refer to them as naive slogans offering “operating instructions,” or “a recipe for good life” that are meant to influence the tender souls of Indian schoolchildren? Or should we perceive them as total-totalitarian dictates of a “Big Brother,” or as empty clichés in the spirit of cynical marketing and advertising industry, or as mantras of sects offering “instant spirituality”? “Work is Worship,” declares one of the slogans. In an age of “language game” and words that readily dispose of their meaning, does this slogan actually asserts that “work is worship,” or rather that “work is an idol-worship,” “adoration,” or “bondage”? Who says that any interpretation is possible and valid? Who says that power mechanisms “manipulate” people making “model citizens” out of them?


Ayal’s photographs in the Eyes of Thrissur exhibition have an innocent outlook – Israeli tourist photographing in India – but the more we venture penetrating beyond the façades of the empty shops and their alluringly masquerading curtains, the more we expose ourselves to the fascinating insights they ultimately offer us into ourselves and the reality in which we live.


[1] Ayal’s observations are drawn from conversations I held with the artist in summer 2008.

[2] Haim Maor, “A Glossary of the Mosaic of Words,” in: Haim Finkelstein and Haim Maor (curators), Avishay Ayal: Word Landscapes (Exhibition Catalogue), Avraham Baron Art Gallery, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, 1999 (without page numbers).

[3] Yossi Yonah and Yehouda Shenhav, What is Multiculturalism?: The Politics of Difference in Israel, Tel Aviv: Bavel, 2005, p. 57 (Hebrew).

[4] ibid., pp. 66-67.

[5] ibid., pp. 88-89.

[6] ibid., pp. 99-100.