Sunday, December 08, 2013

Gay Israeli artist Adi Nes humanizes Bible stories

“Untitled (David and Jonathan)” by Adi Nes

Gay Israeli artist Adi Nes gives shocking clarity to Biblical stories by using images of homoeroticism and homelessness to subvert stereotypes about people in the Bible.

His method brings alive same-sex pairs David-and-Jonathan and Ruth-and-Naomi as well as other Biblical figures. Based in Tel Aviv, Nes counteracts the usual heroic portrayals of Bible characters by photographing them as marginalized outcasts struggling to survive on the harsh streets of contemporary Israel.

Nes was born in 1966 in the Israeli town of Kiryat Gat to immigrant Jewish parents from Iran and Kurdistan. His work has been exhibited around the world and is in museum collections in Jerusalem, New York, San Francisco, Washington, Montreal and other cities.

The triumph of David over Goliath is often used to symbolize Israel’s military victories over its enemies, but Nes chooses to depict David as a vulnerable youth with a crutch, leaning on another young man for love and support. Dirty and unkempt, they embrace beneath an industrial overpass covered by graffiti. They look battered, perhaps from a gay bashing. The tender moment suggests the Biblical scenes when “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David” or when “they kissed each other and wept together.” (For their full story, see my previous post David and Jonathan: Love between men in the Bible.)

“Untitled (Ruth and Naomi)” by Adi Nes

The hardships experienced by Ruth and Naomi are often overshadowed by their famous vow of love and their association with the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. Ruth is revered as a Jewish convert and an ancestor of Jesus. But Ruth and her Israelite mother-in-law were so poor that Ruth had to survive by picking up leftover grains of barley in the fields after harvest. Nes brings home the reality of their poverty by showing the pair scavenging onions from a contemporary street littered with trash after an open-air market. They are posed like the peasants in Millet’s “The Gleaners,” a painting well known for showing the dignity of society’s poorest members.

“Untitled (Ruth and Naomi)” by Adi Nes

The careworn faces of Ruth and her beloved Naomi become visible in a second portrait by Nes. Ruth’s vow to Naomi, which begins “Whither thou goest, I will go,” is often used in weddings. Nes shows that their love for each other is all they have as they sit together among discarded crates. For their full story, see my previous post (Ruth and Naomi: Love between women in the Bible.)

“Untitled (Christ)” by Adi Nes

In a similar way his close-up of the face of Jesus deflates any glorification of Christ and reclaims his humanity. The rest of the photos in Nes’ “Biblical Stories” series also reveal both the plight and the resilience of today’s homeless by casting them as figures from the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament). Other scenes include Abraham pushing his son Isaac in a shopping cart loaded with plastic bottles for recycling and an elderly Noah passed out naked near video vending machines. All appear to be homeless in the Jewish homeland, a promised land that failed to fulfill its promise.

Nes has explored issues of masculinity, homoeroticism and Israeli identity in his other work. Starting in the 1990s he re-envisioned male experience with his photo series on “Soldiers,” “Young Boys” and “Prisoners.” Pictures from these series and the Biblical Stories images are collected his comprehensive exhibition catalog.

“Untitled (The Last Supper)” by Adi Nes

Nes’ most famous image is “The Last Supper,” which is part of his Soldiers series. Young male soldiers are arranged like Jesus and his disciples Da Vinci’s Last Supper, sharing a meal with ominous awareness that some will die soon. In 2007 this photo sold at auction for $264,000.

“I think the main purpose of my exhibition -- of my work at all -- is issues of identity,” Nes told the Gay and Lesbian Times. “As a gay man in Israel, the issues of identity are the male identity and the Israel identity. That’s why I chose to first work with soldiers and then work with teenagers, because both soldiers and teenagers are [at] the age where their identity is being questioned.”
Special thanks to Adi Nes for permission to use his photos on the Jesus in Love Blog and to Deryn Guest for the news tip.
Related links:

Myth, militarism and gay identity: The photographs of Adi Nes” by Pat Sherman (Gay and Lesbian Times)

The Biblical Stories series is online at
This post is part of the Artists series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series profiles artists who use lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and queer spiritual and religious imagery.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts


Nancy31 said...

Seeing these photo's reading about them and the artist fed me. Your work, your blog enriches my life. Thank you.

Kittredge Cherry said...

With so much to prepare for Christmas, I've gotten woefully behind in replying to these comments... but I am reading and enjoying them all as they come in.
Thank YOU, Nancy31, for taking time to express your gratitude here.

Ori Golan said...

What a great collection of photos. Very thought provoking and artistically put together. A joy to behold. And what's more, on Christmas day itself.