'I Think That Photography Very Much Loves Identity Politics'

In his nearly quarter-century-long career, David Adika has gone from one of few non-Ashkenazi men at Bezalel to the head of its photography department. His art, and Israel's art world, has undergone quite a few changes along the way

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David Adika at Magasin III Jaffa.Credit: Michael Liani
Ofir Hovav
Ofir Hovav

Photographer David Adika’s one-man show, “Of David. A Psalm,” opened last week at the Magasin III gallery in Jaffa. A diverse crowd milled between the large windows that wrap around the prestigious space. Artists, photographers, gallerists, journalists, and figures from the worlds of fashion and academia came to congratulate Adika and marvel at his works. They filled the street in a testament to Adika’s status – but also symbolizing the expansion of the artistic field in Israel, which is trying to break through its narrow boundaries, peek into adjacent fields, collaborate with them and mingle with them – and allow them to mingle with it.

It seems that Adika, who took his first steps as a photographer in the early 2000s, has been present for the profound revolutions the medium has experienced in the past decades. He can also testify to the transformation of the elitism that had previously prevailed in photography into its current and more variegated image.

In 2002, at the beginning of his career, Adika participated in the group show “Mother Tongue,” curated by Dr. Tal Ben Zvi at the Mishkan Museum of Art at Kibbutz Ein Harod. The exhibition centered on the Mizrahi experience, and in addition to the group showing, Adika showed a series of portraits he photographed of most of the artists who participated in "Mother Tongue." These included Khen Shish, Eli Petel, Rami Maymon, Tal Shochat, Adi Nes, himself and others. The portraits “corresponded” with the group exhibition, but provided a separate body of knowledge that gave space to the artists’ biography and likeness – something that had not been common in the Israeli art field, and particularly when it comes to Mizrahi representation.

Photographer and head of the photography department at Bezalel, David Adika, at his exhibition at Magasin III Jaffa.Credit: Michael Liani

Between the exhibition of Adika's portraits and his most recent exhibition stretches the chasm of the Mizrahi awakening. Alongside it came a developing academic discourse, the penetration of pop culture, identity politics and photography's elevation to the status of a legitimate artistic medium. By estimating the depth of that chasm, one can learn quite a bit about the way the art field changed in the past decades – and about Adika himself.

Adika has moved from the margins to the center. He has integrated Mizrahi identity issues into a broader collection of subjects – in the latest exhibition, the subjects of the photographs were captured in their living spaces, rather than a studio. They are presented in a large format, expensively printed with saturated color that goes beyond the limits of the frame and expansively takes over the space. Adika makes use of “the beautiful” – and of his decision to commit to defining a sort of ethnic lexicon.

“Adika has never denied his identity, but rather has worked with it very directly and has led this whole process of identity forward,” says Raz Samira, a scholar of modern art and photography and photography curator at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. “When he began working, he brought the Middle Eastern, Mizrahi space into his photographs and negated social and cultural hierarchies. Instead of taking a stance and asking what is highbrow and what is lowbrow, he left the decision to the viewer. The person is standing before an everyday object like watermelon seeds or eggs or a pineapple and must make their own associations, create cultural hierarchies and grapple with them.”

A portrait from Adika's exhibition.Credit: David Adika

And indeed, it was important to Adika from the outset of his career to present this voice – Mizrachi, gay, Jerusalemite. “I wanted to anchor it in ideas of Western art history, which at that time were new to me. I wanted to move away from places I knew, from photographs of the Black Panthers or some tendency towards ethnic photography. I wanted to take my mother’s kitchen and the watermelon seed she would dry on a towel in the sun and make a Mark Rothko out of them,” he says, referring to the American-Jewish artist, a founder of abstract expressionism, “and do photography that both is hyper-realist and asks questions about abstraction.

"I think that photography very much loves identity politics. It has always served or used disadvantaged groups to create an image. And, in my case, it seems to me that this characteristic of the medium contributed something to me. In a certain sense, it has worked to my benefit, because it powered my creative work. It pushed me forward in the sense of the desire to stand out and develop a language. Perhaps back then, I even wanted a bit to be the person I am today. "

David Adika's exhibition 'Of David. A Psalm,' at Magasin III Jaffa.Credit: Noam Praisman

In an interview on the eve of the opening of the new exhibition that consists of portraits of photographers and colleagues, Adika says: “This exhibition is happening after 25 years of photography, so it has a certain dimension of duration. The place where I am today is different from the place I was back then. Twenty-five years ago I felt that the lace I came from was not documented, that it had no representation in Israeli art. That is more or less how my project began.”

At that time you were a photography student, and today you're the head of the photography department at Bezalel. How has that changed from this perspective?

“Mizrahi awareness has changed in the past decades, and this has also influenced the field and academia. Bezalel has changed considerably from the place it was when I was a student there. At that time, it was more of an Ashkenazi space and there weren’t many Mizrahim or Palestinians, and my social status as someone who had come to study at Bezalel was different.

"Now we're in a completely different place. Palestinians, secular people, religious people, women –many disadvantaged populations now understand that the way to obtain a real and egalitarian place in the world is education. I want to believe that I have a hand in this phenomenon. It used to be that it was almost exclusively male lecturers here; today there is more or less gender parity. As the head of the department, a position that has influence, it is important to me to bring in more voices, to make a change and bring young artists to talk about their place, their political, ethnic and gender identity.”

A portrait of photographer Michael Liani.Credit: David Adika

Photographer Michael Liani, a portrait of whom is in the exhibition, agrees. “When I finished at Bezalel a few years ago, David was the only lecturer who didn’t shake me off,” he says. “At a time when everyone was making promises but were more or less waving you off and disappearing, he really has kept in touch with me and he was the only one who really talked to me. It’s something very Mizrahi in this approach of 'tirbahu watis’adu'” – greeting people to join in the traditional North African Mimouna celebration after the end of Passover – “that recognizes the other, makes a space for him and is generously kind and hospitable towards him."

Liani defines the process he experienced with Adika for the exhibition as "open, democratic and very relaxed." There is no patriarchalism or masculinity involved, he says, "It’s always kind and smart and fun. I felt there was an understanding between us about the expectations from the photograph. Mainly I let myself give myself over entirely to his lens, give myself over to someone else controlling the gaze at me now, and I'm not used to doing this, ever.”

According to Adika, this is his most revealing exhibition thus far. “When a photographer photographs another photographer, the whole act becomes much more self-aware. It creates a sort of dance between me and the others, which revolves around this matter of control, of giving oneself over. The small manipulations of the camera are familiar and known to both sides and it produces something interesting. Each of them is a moment in and of himself. With each of them I have a different relationship that also enabled me to bring different sides of myself.

Do you feel that there is a certain condescension towards photography in the Israeli art field?

David Adika. 'The kind of photography that interests me touches upon aesthetics, some kind of lyricism.'Credit: Michael Liani

“The place of photography is changing, like other media. It's always another medium's turn to be excluded or pelted with tomatoes. I think that in Israel, there is a lot of respect for photography. Photography has a relatively worthy place in museums compared to performance and installations. I assume there are political matters or internal politics in those places, and I am unfamiliar with those things. It could be that a certain curator is interested in photography and another is more interested in sculpture, but overall, a prize is awarded for photography at the Tel Aviv Museum and the photography collection at the Israel Museum is world-class. Photographers like Efrat Hakimi, Tomer Kep, Shai Ignatz, Miki Kratsman, Rona Yefman and Yael Bartana show exhibitions. Ilit Azoulay represented Israel at the Venice Biennale, and that was one of the most beautiful pavilions there. The more I think about this, the more I realize that there are many more good photographers who are exhibiting.”

What is passion?

In the winter of 2004, the local art field was abuzz. For the cover of "Studio" magazine, Adika had photographed model and actress Miri Bohadana, who constituted the absolute antithesis of everything that “Studio” was at that time, and the picture became iconic.

In an interview with the magazine, Adika defined Bohadana's face as “the beauty of the whole nation.” Her face thrust at the readers the accusations of snobbish, academic and stern-faced elitism. Her face reinforced "Studio" editor Sarah Breitberg-Semel’s status and deepened even further Adika’s hold on the local art scene.

David Adika's portraits at his 'Of David. A Psalm' exhibition.Credit: Noam Praisman
A portrait from David Adika's 'Of David. A Psalm' exhibition.Credit: David Adika

"It’s clear that Miri Bohadana’s beauty isn’t the norm of beauty in the art world or in modernism,” Adika said in the interview at the time. “In contrast to the perception of the art world, I go to the shelves where symbols of beauty are arranged and I "rearrange" the beauty of the art world."

“At the time, that was huge," says Raz Samira. “Adika put an entirely different identity on the cover of ‘Studio,’ and in doing so set new boundaries for conceptions in art history, and with them awakened a new aesthetic language. He completely scrambled the accepted conventions of what beauty is. And highbrow and lowbrow, what passion is and what is considered the object of passion. It all gets mixed together and becomes part of the same system. In essence, he opened a discussion that brought in entire publics.”

Adika was recently chosen as the second Israeli artist to mount an exhibition at the Jaffa branch of the contemporary art Museum Magasin III in Stockholm. According to the curator of the current exhibition, Karmit Galili, this is a long relationship of many years that began before this exhibition and will continue after it. “More than Adika is an excellent photographer, his artistic style constitutes an innovation in the field in Israel. He uses the camera, and the medium of photography in general, to form questions of identity that have not been dealt with before. He takes a very personal photograph that is also a political and social story, one that goes beyond the public or documentary space that was customary until he started to settle into it.” The key change that has occurred in recent years, of which to a large extent Adika is an agent, is that Israeli and Zionist identity are no longer the only permissible subjects: ethnic identity, Mizrahiness and aesthetics also come into play.

Credit: David Adika

According to Dalit Matatyahu, curator of the Israeli art department at the Tel Aviv Museum, “Adika’s significant contribution is rooted in the concept of ‘the beautiful’ – and the tension or the deep observation relative to it. He relates to the questions that arise in a context of Mizrahi or homoerotic identity while dealing with the beautiful. This is more complex than the use of them to taunt the hegemonic tastes alone.”

The issue of “the beautiful,” which in the past was perceived by artists as superficial, has expanded in recent years, in large part thanks to social media and to Instagram in particular, which has created massive amounts of “beautiful” photography. According to Adika, who inter alia maintains a gorgeous Instagram account, “Too much photography is liable to cause blindness, in the sense that there is so much you don’t see anything anymore. I despise Instagram and I am attracted to it to the same extent, but I think it has an important function in establishing contemplative photography,” he says. “In practice, it brings the exact opposite. It’s a bit like fast food joints or street food stands as compared to slow cooking or elite cuisine. There is a place for everything, and one thing does not come at the expense of the other. They are simply very different from each other.”

All your images could work on an Instagram feed. What distinguishes them from or elevates them to the rank of art?

“The kind of photography that interests me, the kind of photography that I hope characterizes me, touches upon aesthetics, some kind of lyricism. They could very well work there, and Instagram knows how to market them well, but my choice to take pictures with an analog camera, in a large format, with long and complicated processing, in areas that require some delay – distinguish them from the social media feed. I offer a slower platform that in the end is shown in galleries and receives its place as a photographic product that requires a lingering gaze. The exhibition also talks about the material and size. On Instagram it becomes just another photograph. Maybe there are surpluses of images, and it is hard to make the distinction, but photography is reflexive. It is always also made up of the reflection of the creator and of the person who is looking at it.”

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