Visual arts | Defeating the forces of Babylon through love and soccer

Ido Shemi’s art and fandom

Tel Aviv | A rooftop apartment on a dusty Tel Aviv street filled with small manufacturing plants and building-supply stores is as good a place as any from which to launch a self-styled cultural and social revolution. The setting lacks the romance of the Cuban Sierra Maestra mountains and China’s Jinggangshan region, birthplaces to two revolutions, but Israeli artist Ido Shemi’s project is less devouring of its heroes. Given the primacy he grants humor, creativity and soccer (kadooregel in Hebrew), the art, concerts and radio show that form part of Shemi’s mission stand better chances of success.

“Loser” reads one of the Hapoel Tel Aviv player’s jerseys in this familiar tableau of supporter angst. (© Ido Shemi. Used by permission.)

During a recent visit, Shemi, an autodidact, described his path to art as developing through his lifelong love for Hapoel Tel Aviv and the whimsical banners he created for games. He grew up on Kibbutz Rosh Hanikra, on Israel’s northern coastal border with Lebanon, a community whose main sources of livelihood were until recently the banana and avocado orchards. A “punk” and individualist in a communal society, he moved to Tel Aviv, Israel’s cultural and artistic center.

For more than a decade he has been a mainstay of the music and club scene through playing in a rock band, artistic collaborations and the erstwhile Dynamo Dvash (“Dynamo Honey”) nightclub. Shemi turned to art-making in the past five years and within a short time succeeded in showing his work in some of Israel’s leading galleries and museums, as well as in Italy and China.

The artist’s home page features a figure in the red shirt of Hapoel Tel Aviv struggling to pull a stubborn donkey laden with boxes. Printed on the boxes are the words “Fragile. Artist’s Career. Handle with Care.”

Art and soccer are at the heart of Shemi’s vision. (See the gallery at for additional images.)

The works in painting, photo collage, mosaic, poster, video and sculpture critique Israeli society but do so playfully and with a desire to improve conditions. This is evident in the installations “Guards of Israel” and “Here Come the Messayha Sound Systems” (Alon Segev Gallery, 2004) and in the sculptures “Colonel Greedy” and “Golem Becomes Boss.”

Shemi has created a group of figures he describes as “Promised Land Adventures (or the Quest for the Sacred Trophy).” Unlike dispatches from their predecessors in the Book of Numbers, reports from Shemi’s “spy club”—an imaginary football team sent to bring back impressions beyond the Jordan River—concern not the strength of the Canaanite fortifications but the worlds of Israeli popular culture and soccer (see Shemi’s statement of philosophy).

Shemi’s preferred colors are primary colors—yellow, green and mostly the red of his beloved team. While some works evoke the creations of American artist Red Grooms, who also exhibited a playful and populist bent and created sports-related works, they are unpretentious and carefree. The perspective in many of the creations is that of a fan, or, as Shemi prefers, “the fantasist,” the events of whose life, big and small, are tied to the game.

Hapoel backers make supplication before “Madonna of the Underdogs.” (© Ido Shemi. Used by permission.)

Some pieces reference international events such as the 1958 Munich air disaster involving Manchester United, but most celebrate Hapoel Tel Aviv. The club has been one of Israel’s premier sides since its founding in 1927, having won 13 championships and reached the quarterfinals of the 2001 UEFA Cup, beating Chelsea and AC Milan along the way. Many of the country’s greatest stars played for the Red Devils and displayed the club’s logo, a figure with one arm stretched forward, encircled by a hammer and sickle, reflecting the team’s proletariat origins. These days the word “Keter,” the name of the owner’s plastics factory, is prominently displayed as well.

Issues of class, race and nationalism play out within soccer arenas worldwide, and, in Israel, heated rivalries between the political right and left have long been a defining characteristic. Hapoel teams traditionally have represented the labor unions and the political left, Beitar the nationalistic right, Elitzur the Zionist-religious camp, and Maccabi the liberal middle class. Tremendous changes in Israeli society in past decades have been reflected in altered team ownerships and loyalties, including control by oligarchs, and in players now able to move freely between teams.

Some of the old animosities have weakened but they still exist, reappearing as calls from xenophobic fans to “kill the Arabs,” boos in Nov 07 by some right-wing Beitar Jerusalem fans during a ceremony marking Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination (see Jan 5), and in the refusal of some Arab fans of Bnei Sakhnin to honor Jewish students murdered in Mar 08 at the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva in Jerusalem. The game has served, in the words of Israeli sociologist Tamir Sorek, as “an integrative enclave” but verbal and physical violence against referees, other fans, players and owners remain commonplace.

Shemi is an ohed saruf, which means “burning fan,” but out of concern for the increasing violence and hatred he has, with fellow supporters and artists, been addressing these issues through music and art. He has been encouraged by Hapoel’s community involvements. These include 350 projects combining soccer and education, reaching 25,000 children, including many Palestinian citizens of Israel. While increasing the team’s popularity and helping spot talented youngsters, the project’s originators, owners of the team, appear to view this work as an important way to address inequalities and rifts in Israeli society.

In addition to his art-making, Shemi organizes cultural events and soccer-related projects through Israbilly—“a new, refreshing, positive, diverse, independent and multi-cultural movement, envisioned and created by the Fantasist, in order to spotlight the unique cultural creations of dear folks operating in society’s margins.” The organization’s manifesto continues, “[A] critical mass will defeat Babylon and will demonstrate that when Judaism’s central value of ‘love your brother and sister as you love yourself’ is the true engine powering this project, every dream can be achieved.”

Among the projects are spotlighting forgotten and emerging artists, a proposal for a duck-shaped memorial atop City Hall to honor the late satirist and cartoonist Dudu Geva, a weekly radio broadcast, plastering the metropolis with positive and humorous posters and an “art bus” that travels the land teaching children animation and graffiti techniques.

Shemi’s “Olympic Games” was included as part of a recent international exhibit in Beijing.

About the author

Alon Raab has also written for the Global Game on Bnei Sakhnin, the film Futbol Palestina 2006 (later titled Tiro libre) and the 2005 international women’s friendly between the United States and Ukraine.

About the Author

Alon Raab has written for The Global Game since 2005. He is coeditor of The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and lectures in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Davis.

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