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Stark Contrast

Culture Watch
'Cut it Out,' an exhibition of Noma Bar’s work in London.

by Amanda Eberstein

Imagery has always been the preferred form of communication for Avinoam “Noma” Bar. “My first memories are drawings,” says the 43-year-old artist, who grew up in Israel during the first Gulf War, fascinated by pictograms and icons found in newspapers (one of his earliest sketches was of Saddam Hussein, with his eyebrows and mustache formed by the fan-like symbol for radioactivity). After graduating from Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art & Design, Bar moved to London, and with English as his second language, the native Hebrew speaker turned to pictures once again.

His big break came in 2003, when he was commissioned by Time Out London to create a portrait of William Shakespeare. “I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but as I hesitated, the famous line ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question,’ echoed in my mind,” he recalls. “I finished the call with the agreement ‘to be.’ I sent in my illustration after a few hours; they loved it, and the next day it was on the shelves, exposed to millions of people.”

That image—a deceptively simple black-and-white depiction of Shakespeare’s signature wig and ruff collar, with a cleverly positioned question mark shaping the profile of his eye and nose—set the tone for all of Bar’s work moving forward. Upon first glance, his bold, colorful images—which begin as sketches before being transferred onto the computer screen and completed digitally—may appear straightforward, but a deeper look reveals something much more complex. The empty space between two upside down boxing gloves creates the shape of a man standing with his biceps curled, for example, or the curvaceous figure of a woman is in fact a thumb tack, delivering a fresh, tongue-in-cheek take on the term “pin-up girl.”

This is what makes Bar’s work so unique—he takes familiar symbols and shapes and manipulates them to form new meaning. Although a lot of his work is humorous, he often uses his art as a form of stark social commentary or pop-culture reflection, such as his well-known portraits of celebrities, merged with icons that encapsulate their fame.

“Illustration has the ability to tell a story in a way that other media can’t,” says Bar of the appeal of his work, which has graced the covers of more than 100 magazines and served as the subject of two books, with a third, “Bitter Sweet,” out this spring from Thames & Hudson. “The accessibility of cameras has somewhat damaged photography. People want things that are done with human hands, because we are surrounded by machines.”

 

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