Artist-cum-activist Benny Zable, turned 75 on October 1, 2020.
The last time I celebrated Benny Zable’s birthday was at the now-defunct Yippie Museum in NYC, in the West Village. It was 2009 and the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock festival. A crew of us were in town touring an exhibition from the rainbow region of New South Wales, a mosaic of the area’s cultural history. We would set up this exhibit – called Rainbow Dreaming – at Ecofest, Central Park, NYC; New York’s Harvest Fest & Freedom Rally, Hancock, New York State; Woodstock Museum, Saugerties; and Harvestfest, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Benny Zable had engineered the invitation.
When the annals of Australian radicalism are written, the name of Benny Zable will figure prominently in bright lights. Despite Benny’s protestations. (Indeed, Benny was not happy to know I was writing this piece on him. ‘Nimbin Good Times is doing one. One is enough.’)
Benny was at the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin in 1973, in his incarnation as a mime artist – Zany Bubbles. He stayed back to paint Nimbin’s iconic shop-front murals and has called Nimbin home over the years, but his work as an environmental artist and passion as an environmental defender have taken him everywhere.
From his first arrest, at the Middle Head sand mining protest in New South Wales in 1980, to his latest brush with the police for participating in an Extinction Rebellion action in Brisbane in October 2019 (the prosecutor withdrew the case), this quiet, unassuming man has been at almost every protest called by environmental activists in defence of the planet.
From Save the Nightcape Rainforest at Mount Nardi, Nimbin,1982, to the Franklin Blockade, Tasmania, 1982-83; from the Roxby Downs Uranium mine protests in the Australian desert in 1983, to Occupy Wall Street in New York City in 2011, to the historic fight against CSG at Bentley near Lismore in 2014 – Benny Zable has been there, marking the site of the peoples’ protest against the predatory actions of corporations and governments. As a silent witness, speaking loudly via his very presence, his trademark gas mask and his fossil fool costume, often atop his Toxic Tower installation, consisting of a pyramid of nine 44 gallon recycled oil barrels.
The image Benny presents is provocative, even profoundly disturbing. Is he Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, made doubly famous via Walter Benjamin’s description of him as ‘the angel of history’? Here is Benjamin: ‘His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.’ Is he like Jesus, crucified on the cross of our collective apathy, with the Toxic Tower his Golgotha?
Suffice to say Benny is like a graphic wake up call, a costumed canary in the mine of our environmental dystopia. But he’s also a pointer to the fact that ‘another world is possible’ (Arundhati Roy). His rainbow flags painted with peace symbols and dancing dolphins are a testament to that possibility.
Indeed, articulating this role, Benny, a son of Polish Jews, taps into the rich vein of radical Jewish thought that stretches back to the prophet Isaiah, 8th century BC, who famously said:’…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’
Benny’s parents were refugees from Nazism who lost most of their family in the Holocaust. They emigrated to Melbourne, via New Zealand. His father was a Yiddish poet and his mother a singer of Yiddish songs. They were working class and active in the BUND, the Jewish democratic socialist movement which offered an alternative to Zionism. It’s no wonder Benny is the person he is; the winds of history blow through him.
Those winds carried him across to the US on many visits, as a cultural ambassador for the region, culminating in the sister village link between Nimbin and Woodstock in 1996. This was another project that Benny engineered, with the help of his friends Nathan Koenig and Shelli Lipton from the Woodstock Museum. Benny was also artist in residence at West Side Cultural Centre in NYC for over 10 years. The center, headed by the redoubtable Nanci Callahan, produced Ecofest, New York’s signature environmental festival, then held in Central Park.
Those same winds took him to Israel-Palestine in 2009, to the West Bank, where he painted a mural on the Palestinian side of the separation wall, Israel’s Wall of Shame, depicting one possible flag for a future state where all people would be equal under the same laws. He was prevented from painting anything on the Israeli side of the separation wall. Pope Benedict XVI was due to visit the region and the Israeli government was busy whitewashing art and graffiti off the separation wall. Picture the multiple ironies at play in this scenario: Benny, a child of Holocaust refugees, prevented from painting a mural championship human rights for all, including Palestinians, because the Pope, who was a member of the Hitler Youth, is in town.
Benny’s art installations, banners and costumes are part of the collection of major galleries, including the National Museum, Canberra, and the Australian Museum, Sydney, and in the archives at the National Library, Canberra, the Macquarie Library, Sydney (and, possibly, the Justice and Police Museum). His murals in Nimbin are part of a living streetscape. And his peace flags adorn the Rainbow Chai Tent at the Channon Market in north eastern NSW every month.
But this is about the man too: his cheeky, toothy grin, his kindness, his tireless devotion to his craft, his tenacity, his grit.
And his willingness to put himself on the line to be the silent witness to our troubled times.
Unlike Klee’s angel in Benjamin’s description, Benny Zable’s face is firmly turned to the future – including the next environmental protest action.
PS: I would like to end with a very Benny story – The evening after he married Marsha Silvestri in NYC, at IMAGINE, the homage to John Lennon at Strawberry Fields in Central Park, on 1st Oct 2017, the ever-meticulous Benny is busy putting all the rubbish from the reception into the right bins. I’ll let Marsha finish the tale:
‘He was outside…sitting on the ground sorting and separating the trash to recycle when a nosey neighbour called the police reporting that a “homeless man was rummaging through the trash outside”. The police came to arrest him, and when he told them he just got married and was just sorting the recycling from the reception, they didn’t believe him. Who does that right after their wedding? Don had to come out and vouch that he had permission to be there. I had a good laugh, but you might need to know Benny to truly appreciate that. ~ Marsha Silvestri (Zable)’
By Harsha Prabhu, Arambol, Goa
(The writer would like to acknowledge the help of Benny’s brother, Arnold Zable, himself a writer, storyteller and human rights activist, in providing some of the information for this piece).