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

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.”

Page 2 of 3 | Previous page | Next page