Entering Zoya Cherkassky’s studio was like stepping into my childhood dream; an abundance of half-emptied color tubes, stained palettes and cloth shreds, unfinished canvases, inspirational pieces hanging on walls or scattered around shelves, and the smell of turpentine wafting through the air.
Cherkassky was sweet, welcoming, and warmed up to me quickly. We started talking about her art and fast enough drifted to her personal life, family, politics and obsessions. Cherkassky immigrated from Ukraine to Israel with her parents in 1991; “I was 15 and ready to start my own path, an anarchist in a way, so I never went to the army, nor to the university” she admits. When I inquire how she intelligently addresses current affairs that resonate with her, she continues “in the USSR I learned how to make art, while in Israel I learned how to make my art speak for itself”; “An artist’s role today expands way beyond creating art. We cannot sit in the studio and just paint anymore, as we are expected to take a stand and speak up.” And so, even though she does not have a professional website, Cherkassky is constantly active on social networks, sharing her political views and opinions with thousands of friends and followers. However, she distinguishes the political stands in her personal life from those in her art; “In art, there must be a certain perspective, a context, of what happened before and after the artwork was created. So I usually don’t comment on current affairs in the midst of the storm. I need my time to contemplate, maybe in twenty years I’ll create something regarding today’s situation.”
Five years ago, when Cherkassky went back home for the first time in fifteen years, she encountered a country for which the future is unknown, in contrast to the strong and stable empire she remembered it to be. This visit inspired her recent solo exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, “Pravda”, which was popular among various groups within Israeli society
“because the topics are very easy to relate to”.
She now visits Ukraine once a year, rediscovering corners and places that were somehow carved in her memory. She also owns a house in Nigeria, her husband’s homeland, and a flat in Berlin from the few years she used to live there. When I inevitably ask her where home is she hesitates for a moment and says “My sense of home is somewhat problematic, as I lose hope in places pretty fast. I need to be able to escape and refresh myself – Germany, Nigeria, Israel – I guess I will continue to spend some time in each.”
“And in these various homes, what inspires you? How do you come up with new themes for your series’?” – “It is usually some scene that I witness in my wanderings. I go out to the streets with a sketchbook and when I notice something that catches my eye, I stay there and sketch it. While I am usually unable to convey feelings and aesthetics through a camera lens, I effectively manage to do so by drawing. This is how we create with The Barbizon as well.”
The New Barbizon is a group of five former USSR female artists which Cherkassky is a prominent member of. It is one of her many collaborations and I can’t help wondering how her unique and distinguished style allows her to work in harmony with so many diverse artists. “I actually love to collaborate, as it allows me to resign my own style and give in to another artist’s style and ideas. I always wanted to be twenty different artists at the same time, and when I realized I can’t, I turned to collaborations. They allow me to be someone that I cannot be on my own, to get out of my comfort zone and speak another language, to fulfil all my inner selves. My partners and I share freely without any censorship, ego or ownership rights. The Barbizon allowed me to discover the city and country I live in, something I would have never done on my own.”
There is something very naive and pure in Cherkassky’s character, but her career choices have always been very mature and responsible. She became very successful in Israel at a young age and as she felt unprepared to deal with the fame, she left it all for the anonymity of Berlin. “In my career path, unlike other areas of my life, I made mature and smart decisions, which I am very proud of. In other parts of my life I feel like my childhood lasted until I was thirty-five years old.” And so, with recent solo exhibitions at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem; a new book; and a project for Zumu, a new museum that travels throughout Israel; Cherkassky is busy, in demand and warmly embraced by the art world.
So what now? “I am currently in love with my latest series and book, an independent production of visual storytelling. These are my drawings accompanied by personal stories of people who were teenagers at the time of USSR dissolution.” And what’s next? “The past few months were hectic, it has been an exhausting period that left me drained. I think I will never exhibit again in my life!”