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Sumer: Enki
Photography Guy Nahum Levy, courtesy of Sumer

The Israeli artists giving Middle Eastern mythology a powerful new edge

Turning gods into feather-vomiting aliens and immortalising goddesses as figures of power

Enki is the ancient Sumerian god of water, knowledge and mischief. Hailing from the ancient city of Sumer (now modern day Iraq and Kuwait) in the third millennium B.C, the Sumerians worshipped Enki as god of the earth, but the many ancient myths surrounding Enki include overtly sexual portrayals of virile masculinity and refer to him as god of semen and fertility. Reappropriating the prejudice of ancient mythology is emerging Israeli art collective, Sumer, who, alongside the ancient city, uses the experience of growing up in the incubation of Israeli religion and law to reimagine mythology through a queer lens.

Made up of artists Anna Sharon and Jonathan Trichter, Sumer uses the art of parody to playfully address the paradox of religion and conceptions of Israel as the holy land. “Both of us were born and raised in Israel, where law and religion frequently unite, and this has shaped us as observers of reality’s ridicule,” they explain. The duo explore this paradox alongside themes of existentialism, sexuality, and the human form, which are all subtly referenced in their photo series Enki: The Creation of Life and Sickness.

For their first published project, Sumer employed a drag-esque hyperbolic use of materials, such as silicone body parts and diamonds, and a playful composition to exaggerate their characters and progress them into modernity. Rather than Enki as a figure of stealth and masculinity, the ancient god pushes the boundaries of the human form as an ethereal, nippleless, hairless alien that vomits feathers as eggs explode from his head. Ninḫursaĝ, Enki’s ‘wife’, appears as a symbol of ravaged strength, recreated with phallic shaped bones protruding from her toes and fingers and blood oozing from her chest. Inanna, ancient Sumerian goddess of sex, desire, and political power is immersed in a sea of red velvet with her face made up as a queen-of-hearts style caricature, reclaiming her from the sexualised nudity of ancient statues.

In the tense political reality of the Middle East, Sumer’s fresh take on its ancient past reminds us of the life that persists under the tension. Below, we talk with Sharon and Trichter about the importance of using the holy past to comment on the present and progress humanity into the future.

Why did you decide to start Sumer?

Sumer: A bit less than a year ago we were at home having a long conversation about the meaning of the number zero. After we talked about it for a couple of hours, we wondered who invented it, and went to check online. That’s how we found out about the Sumerians, who developed the counting system, and from there it was like a rolling snowball. We were already close friends by then but it was around that time when Sumer was born.

What else drew you to Sumer as a place?

Sumer: When we started Sumer together we really liked the concept of ‘going back to the place where it all started’. We found out about many other Sumerian inventions, like the wheel, writing and irrigation, but it was also because we never learned about Sumer. For us, there is a mythical aura encircling Sumer. Not only does this place symbolise, like many others, a forgotten past from which we rose – it was also hardly discussed during our time in Israeli high school, where Bible studies are compulsory by law. While many Biblical events are considered to occur on the land of Sumer (presented in the Hebrew Bible as Shinar), we never learned about their massive contribution to civilisation’s evolution. For us, this created a ‘peeping tom’ effect, and we became more and more fascinated with our mystical ancestors from Arabian countries.

And Sumer now forms the core of your work, right?

Sumer: Yes. Eventually, we chose to name our collaboration after the place considered to be “the cradle of civilisation”, but it’s not just about its physical location or specific past. What attracted us more was the symbolic meaning of a time before society. It positioned us in the middle of an empty desert and allowed us to reimagine our own ideal future – kind of like with the construction of Vegas.

“What attracted us to Sumer was the symbolic meaning of a time before society. It positioned us in the middle of an empty desert and allowed us to reimagine our own ideal future – kind of like with the construction of Vegas” – Sumer

What about growing up in Israel informs Sumer’s work?

Sumer: Both of us were born and raised in Israel, where law and religion frequently unite, and this has shaped us as observers of reality’s ridicule. On the one hand, there is the human aspiration towards the gods, the divine and immortal, while on the other lies the actual physical practice which seems to be more and more limiting, insisting on categorisation and separation instead of connection. In our work, we try to examine the concept of idealisation as well as the general relationship between the infinite and the finite, between the mortal and the immortal. We use organic materials (which we collect from our travels around Israel) and combine them with synthetic ones, so we can witness the relationship between the two developing – while one keeps on growing and rotting, the other remains frozen and bright.

We have a strong attraction towards mythologies and ancient fairy tales (like the Arabian Nights or The Epic of Gilgamesh) so growing up in Israel, where Bible studies are compulsory by law, definitely influenced us. Not just Sumer, but the way in which we grew up and saw the world in general, each one individually. Religion and myths are themes which kind of always played a part in our work.

Your first photo series re-envisions the ancient story of Enki and the Creation of Life and Sickness. Why did you choose this particular tale?

Sumer: We initially wanted to use Inanna as the main character, but it was only after the shoot that we finally decided on Enki. He is played by our friend Erez, and Erez’s appearance in itself represents a certain timelessness to us. It’s difficult to position him under any familiar term, so we liked that.

How did you reimagine characters from the story?

Sumer: It wasn’t about pitting them one against the other, but more about basing the new characters on our own interpretation of the story. Because we tried to think about the characters as gods, we looked after those basic characteristics which you could almost think of as eternal – the most common, shared human experiences, like love or pain. So it was much more general and allowed us more space for interpretation. For example “the goddess of fertility’’ or “the god of water” are such shared universal ideas, existing in many other religions and cultures, so we tried to think about those in relation to our own time and westernised lives.

You use a very interesting combination of materials.

Sumer: Yes, we travel together a lot within Israel so some of the materials we use we collect in our trips. For example, the shells on Ninsar’s top we collected at the beach, the eggs on Enki’s head are from the supermarket in Tel Aviv, etc. We also use “synthetic” materials, like silicone or fake feathers.

Why is it important to cast a modern lens on ancient history?

Sumer: It’s interesting because these stories and the concepts in them could easily be seen as very relevant. Although their meanings might change across time and history, it seems like an eternal core remains which enables their reexamination, even thousands of years later. This is the magic that we see in bringing the past back to life again and again, like an eternal resurrection of time.

What can Sumer’s work bring to modern life in Israel?

Sumer: Hopefully a different way to look at the Bible, but we really don't know, it could also bring absolutely nothing. But in any case, we’re really excited to wait and find out.

You can find out more about Sumer here