Shani Louk. Photo by Uri Lidor/Courtesy of the family.
Shani Louk. Photo by Uri Lidor/Courtesy of the family.
featureOctober 7

‘She left something for the world’: Exhibition of Shani Louk drawings

Footage of the young woman being paraded in the back of a truck around Gaza was one of the first to emerge on Oct. 7. Shani's mother, Rikki, talks about the exhibition, launched on would have been her 23rd birthday.

Shani Louk was supposed to celebrate her 23rd birthday last week. But instead of throwing a party for a young woman who loved life, art and music, her family organized an exhibition in her memory four months after Louk was brutally killed on Oct. 7—and her body displayed by Hamas terrorists who infiltrated the southern Israel border that morning and committed atrocity after atrocity.

Louk was murdered near the Supernova music festival; her boyfriend was taken hostage and remains held captive in Gaza; and their friend, Keshet Casarotti, 21, was also killed.

The Louk family decided to show the world Shani’s poetic side—the drawing talent of the tattoo artist whose entire life lay ahead of her—in an exhibition called “Forever Young Forever Art.” It launched at the Nahum Gutman Museum of Art in Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv, and was curated, among others, by Shani’s aunt Rinat Louk-Elchaik. 

Footage of Louk being paraded around Gaza at the back of a van filled with Hamas terrorists, unclear if dead or alive, was one of the first to emerge on that dark morning on Oct. 7. After three long weeks, the family was informed that she had indeed been killed.

Through the exhibition, the family chose to commemorate Louk, who loved art from a young age; taught herself how to sew and design her own clothes; and enjoyed painting, sculpting and poetry. In recent years, she opened a studio for artistic tattoos in her singular style, drawing inspiration from geometry and Japanese art, whose symbols she used in tattooing.

Rikki Louk with a drawing of Shani’s at her right. Photo by Avishag Shaar-Yashuv.

Shani’s mother, Ricarda (Rikki), 53, a German citizen, moved to Israel after falling in love with Nissim, Shani’s father. The two had four children: Adi, 25; Shani; Amit, 20; and Or, 14. The two met in Thailand, Rikki converted to Judaism, and they built a home in Srigim, a small community 25 miles west of Jerusalem. Rikki works at Intel and Nissim in real estate.

Shortly before the launch of the exhibition, we meet at the museum whose halls are filled with Shani’s drawings. With a smile, Rikki speaks about her daughter, who never dreamed of exhibiting in a gallery or museum but would surely be happy if she saw an exhibition of her art.

“Shani always loved to draw, she was a very creative child, already at a young age she went to a sewing and design course and loved to sew her clothes,” Rikki said. “She went to fashion exhibitions, and in her youth was drawn to tattoos. She always wanted to get a tattoo, but for a tattooist, she had few, because we in the family are not big fans, and my husband is traditional, so it was postponed until Shani turned 18.

“In the end, she tattooed herself a little on her legs and hands, in the places she could do it herself, small things. She planned to get a big tattoo on her back. I have a picture of what she planned to get, also something geometric because she was very attracted to geometric shapes.

“She loved Tel Aviv and moved into an apartment with roommates. Then she started learning to tattoo with a professional tattooist, took a few lessons, started to develop it, and opened a studio in her apartment. She realized that it was difficult to make a living from art, so she went in the direction of tattoos. That way she could design and paint while also earning a living.”

Q: The entire world came to know Shani, under tragic circumstances. Do you feel that perhaps through the exhibition you are leaving Shani’s mark on the world? Showcasing her talent?

A: “Yes, it’s about showing the world what she left us. Not every 22-year-old girl leaves behind many things that can be shown, and she left behind so much, her beautiful paintings are full of depth, and I wanted to show the world what beautiful things she did.”

Most of the work Shani left behind was discovered by her mother when she came to clear out her belongings from the apartment in Tel Aviv, a painful and difficult moment in which Rikki was exposed to another part of her daughter’s life.

“There were a lot of drawings, small and large. I collected them all in one binder and saw that they accumulated into an impressive number of beautiful things. So, I came up with the idea of making an exhibition because I felt it was so beautiful that it would be a shame not to show it to the world.”

Some of Shani Louk’s drawings at the exhibition. Photo by Avishag Shaar-Yashuv.

“About a month ago we talked about the fact that Feb. 7 is Shani’s birthday. I didn’t want to have a sad celebration at home with family and friends, and I thought that maybe we could do something with these paintings, and showcase them somewhere. My sister-in-law Rinat, who is an artist, got excited about the idea, she started to inquire and found the Nahum Gutman Museum.”

Q: Feb. 7 was, in essence, not just Shani’s birthday but the four-month anniversary of that dark day. Can you share with us what you went through on Oct. 7?

A: “Attending the Nova festival was not planned by Shani. It was a spontaneous decision. At 6:30 in the morning, when we had a rocket siren, I realized that something was wrong. All the other children were with us and I said to my eldest daughter, ‘Call Shani, ask if she’s going to a [bomb] shelter.’ Shani answered the phone and said that they were leaving the party, taking the car, and going to a safe place. That was the last thing we heard from her.

“A little after 10 o’clock, we came across the horrible video of her in the back of a van in the streets of Gaza. We immediately recognized her because of the tattoos and dreadlocks. It was unclear from the video whether she was dead or injured, she was lying face down, half-naked, surrounded by Hamas terrorists.

“The terrible video had been sent to my son, who immediately burst into tears and shouted, ‘It’s Shani.’ I immediately cried and we all screamed. We realized that they were driving through the streets of Gaza and everyone around was rejoicing and celebrating. We didn’t know if she was alive or not, we hoped she was alive.

“There was chaos all over the country, the police didn’t answer us. More videos started appearing, and because Shani has German citizenship, and she has a German passport like me, we called the German embassy and showed them the video.

“In the afternoon we saw that someone tried to withdraw money using her credit card in Gaza. I received a message on my phone and I sent a video to Germany asking them to help us, that our daughter had been kidnapped. It was one of the first videos distributed that Saturday and was published not only in Germany but throughout Europe.

“At one point we received a sign of life, which we didn’t know whether it was true, from someone who went to look for her in hospitals. He told us that she was in a Hamas hospital, seriously injured in the head. We hoped it was true, that it was some sign of life.

“This hope lasted for three weeks, during which we continued to be interviewed. I went to Berlin, I met with politicians, with the chancellor, the foreign minister, the heads of all parties, and a lot of journalists.

“They were very emotional and showed solidarity towards Israel and towards us. They said that negotiation processes were starting; they went to Qatar, Egypt, Turkey, but it didn’t change much, and after three weeks they came to us from the IDF and told us that they found a piece of her skull without which it is impossible to live. They found it in Israel, which means that when they transported her, she was already dead.”

Q: Heartbreaking. How did you cope? 

A: “I admit that after the three weeks that we had, there was some relief because those were three terrible weeks, in which I was constantly thinking about what could be done to help her. On the other hand, I was constantly imagining what she must be going through. What condition is she in? I’m constantly worrying about her, and suddenly when they told us—the nightmare is over, and we were comforted by the fact that she died in the beginning, that she didn’t suffer much.”

Q: There were also reports of sexual abuse of women. Surely you must have thought of that too.

A: “Sure, I kept thinking about it, and I keep thinking about the young women who are still there, for so long, that I don’t know how they will come back, in what condition. It’s hard to imagine. I hope they didn’t hurt Shani because she died early, her video went up really early.

“We know they left the party early, she was driving with Orion [Hernandez Radoux, her boyfriend] and another friend, Keshet, who sat in the back. There was probably an accident because a few minutes before 7 a.m. they called Magen David Adom. That call was recorded, in it Keshet asks them to come, says that his friend Shani is injured but conscious, and that there are a lot of damaged cars.”

Q: You learned that your daughter was killed, but her body is still in Gaza. You said in earlier interviews not to endanger the lives of soldiers to return Shani’s body. Do you still feel that way?

A: “Yes. We said we would wait a year. If there is no body by Oct. 7 of this year, we will build a grave with the findings that are here, because as far as we are concerned, she is gone, and the body will not bring her back. Shani is in heaven. The body is something that is meaningless to us, and I don’t want to risk the life of any soldier for a body.”

Q: Does your husband, who you said is traditional, feel the same? How does he reconcile this with the religious importance of burial?

A: “He is of the same opinion. Even in religion, life takes precedence, and if it endangers life, it is not justified. We are doing our best to return the body, I know we are, but we are not ready for it to be at the expense of someone else’s life.”

Rikki Louk in the gallery exhibiting Shani’s drawings. Photo by Avishag Shaar-Yashuv.

Q: You moved to Israel, converted and built a life in this complicated country. Do you ever regret your decision?

A: “I don’t regret it. I didn’t grow up Jewish, I came from a Christian family and converted. I feel completely Israeli, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I love being here.

“When I was now in Germany, my family told me, ‘Why are you returning to a place where there is war, stay here.’ I told them that I feel the safest in Israel, that everyone understands everyone here, and that there is solidarity here due to the situation. There is strong antisemitism abroad. When we were in Berlin, they just set fire to a synagogue and closed the embassy that day.”

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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