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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Rocking the Boat: Anne Sassoon at Artspace Gallery

“Exiles” oil on canvas 50cm x 50 cm 2012 © by Anne Sassoon

Little did she realize when creating these works how her new exhibit would segue perfectly with current events.   “Exiles,” Anne Sassoon’s exhibit at Artspace Gallery in Jerusalem’s Germany Colony coincided with initial attempts to return some of the thousands of foreign border runners that have poured into Israel of late, and corresponding demonstrations in Tel Aviv’s Lewinsky Park.

This is an issue that is emotionally-charged for many Israelis, triggering memories of statelessness without shelter from the storms of war and certain death. While most of the recent arrivals seem to be seeking economic improvement and are not refugees from genocide, it has become a cause célèbre taken up by the radical chic and others, while becoming a flash point for daily social tensions rankling nerves in south Tel Aviv.  (Fellow blogger, Mollie Gerver, has recently addressed the latest in this issue here).
 
Best known for her expressive paintings focusing on the often unknown individuals caught in the whirlpool of larger events, Sassoon touches on the human element inside the larger political conundrum.   Amongst the twenty-one works of paintings and drawings in this exhibit completed  within the last couple of years,  inspiration came from several directions, as she states:
It was seeing the homeless in Cape Town coupled with my own experience of foreignness that started it. … Drawings of Vietnamese boat people and of people in South Africa who live on the streets are the source of these paintings – I draw from the internet as well as life.  Also memories of Derek Jarman’s painterly film The Last of England, where the dispossessed are herded onto a raft by masked police and dogs – not far from the images in today’s newspaper. …

Politics underlies everything. I never deal with it directly but it leads me, like subliminal steppingstones, towards my subject matter.

Welsh-born Anne Sassoon was raised in South Africa where she became known as a figurative artist despite prevailing tastes monopolizing the art world advocating abstraction. She received her art training in London, studying at the Byam Shaw School of Art, Hornsey College of Art and completed her BA in Fine Arts at Middlesex University.

Finding herself living amidst the apartheid regime,  her forays into political art included drawings of black defendants at their trials during the 80′s. Her influences were not drawn from the current vogue abroad but from the protest art deriving from the Weimar Republic,  where she found that the wider political conditions had parallels to apartheid South Africa. In her pantheon of admired artists, I sense that Sassoon reserves a spot for German artist, Kathe Kollwitz, who was specifically known for her depictions of the poor and down-trodden, as well as her innovative drawings.

She exhibited alongside artists associated with the South African Resistance Art Movement in the 80′s, including Robert Hodgins, Deborah Bell, and William Kentridge.  At the time, Kentridge,  an animator,  was only known in South Africa,  but in the 90′s catapulted to international recognition.  Sassoon notes that while the art  became more interesting, the political situation became quite bleak,  causing her and her husband, journalist Benjamin Pogrund, to bid farewell to their jailed friend Nelson Mandela and re-locate first to London and later to Jerusalem.

Amongst the works, we see paintings showing lone souls afloat in obscure settings.  The forlorn and hopeful individuals sit adrift within small crafts, some set in eerie night-scapes. These rowboats are exactly counter to the nursery rhyme, they are not rowing gently down the stream, but sit amidst oddly –shaped rocks which loom to threaten their immediate passage as they continue to a dubious New World  of intimidating urban structures- in search for what they hope will be a better life.

“Boat People” oil on canvas 80cm x 80cm 2012 © by Anne Sassoon

Sassoon conveys the sense of displacement by sometimes using masks for the drifters.   Is this a mask for their emotions, a costume to “pass” through into a new life, a barrier of culture and experience between themselves and those around them?  Many questions are raised that speak to the immigrant or refugee experience – experiences that are always very near the surface in Israel with its diverse populations.  These questions are part of a universal question common to all humanity. Because Sassoon’s sources for these paintings are from beyond the local conflict, they invite contemplative extrapolation that is subtly directed.

In some of the works, a cold and unwelcoming shoreline greets the hapless boats in private and lonely meetings with the dry land, the new home to the meager crews. Two associations begged to be grouped with these paintings, in my mind:  the similar arrivals of so many Ma’apilim who came to Israel’s shores during the British Mandate’s strict (alright: cruel) enforcement of the White Paper, who similarly arrived under cover of night from the sea, and, in marked contrast, the arrival of new immigrants to Israel today who arrive at Ben Gurion airport with a joyous public reception. Despite the warm welcome, when the dancing stops, the immigrants are likely to face a struggle adjusting in a strange new land, at once familiar and foreign.


“Video Link” oil on canvas 100cm x 100cm 2012 © by Anne Sassoon

Another device to describe the sense of detached isolation is shown in paintings displaying Palestinian participants in a video link, apparently made because their presence at a press conference could not be arranged due to political red-tape.  Here, too, without concrete political declarations, she describes the outsider on the fringes of the mainstream,  painted in the cast of greenish and reddish artificial light much like that of a recording studio,  evoking a sense of limbo.


Please continue reading the this post on Times of Israel here   


Monday, July 9, 2012

Last Word on the President's Conference 2012: Israeli Arts

“DeadSee” by Sigalit Landau, 2005, DVD projection, 11:39 minutes
Purchase, Dov and Rachel Gottesman Fund, Tel Aviv and Geneva
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem (Photo © Sigalit Landau, courtesy of the artist)

A gust of wind slammed shut the outer door to my studio and jammed the tongue in the locking mechanism to stick out into its chamber in a way that seemed rather aggressively directed to me, personally.  “So there – now what are you going to do?”  asked my upstart of a door.

With a visitor due to arrive, I realized I could arrange entrance through the neighbor’s space who shares a common bathroom with my space, as unceremonious a welcome if ever one there was.  Short on time till the meeting and with a repairman on the way, actually getting down and dirty did not seem particularly enticing.  I realized not too much was going to happen at the easel today.  Purposely unplugged in my work space, I turned to an actual pen and real notebook paper to address the long-brewing impressions I had of the President’s Conference. 

No doubt this will be the last blog post you are likely to come across assessing the events of the conference for 2012 (the organizers are probably already sitting down to thrash out the one for 2013).  The conference, which took place a good two weeks ago, started off at the top of my “must write about this” list only to slither down ever lower in the competition with real life challenges, which conspired to bump it off altogether.  Having been handed the lemons, I was now going to take advantage of unexpected down time and get busy making blogpost- lemonade.

The events which ran over a three day period included an impressive roster of speakers across a host of fields, predictably with a strong emphasis on politics, economics, and Jewish community, but with more picanti items thrown into the mix, like the “Future of Sex,” with Dr. Ruth drawing in a young crowd.  This year, apparently for the first time since the conference started 4 years ago, a panel discussion on Israeli culture was included, in the final session of discussions.   Lucky for me, my esteemed colleague- bloggers managed to give this panel a miss, leading me to ponder: Where does culture rank as a subject of popular interest?

James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum, moderated the panel with great flair. Starting with the sartorial, he has created a brand look that certainly sets him apart in dowdy, post-fashion Jerusalem – he is known for his impeccable suits and “no hair out of place”  silver pompadour cut.  Here, as a “suit” amongst the “talent,” in response to to ribbing from Joseph Cedar, he referred to his jarring lavender socks as a stroke of the unpredictable, an indulgence to his own creative side. Better known, though, for his accomplishments at the helm of the museum, he has achieved high visibility in fundraising and stewarding the museum’s recent three-year renovation and expansion.  

The idea, according to Snyder, was to anchor the museum in the ancient world, but simultaneously focus on the contemporary in a “universal” museum, with an intentionally “wide net” cast.  No small feat to achieve and people voted with their feet – Snyder noting that over a million visitors came within the first twelve months after the doors re-opened (OK, let’s be crass and call them what they are: ticket buyers; they didn’t pop in for beer and pitzuchim [nut or seed snacks]). Snyder attributes this success to being able to convey a distinct culture, while at the same time, “going global.”

Acknowledging that Israeli artists are enjoying high success internationally, he credits this with being part of the “perfect storm of the moment” – interest in new media intersecting with a natural local talent open to experimenting in technology, video, and the like.  With a certain amazement, Snyder remarked that art from Israel has done very well as it has been absorbed in the rest of the world.

The participants were some of the cream of the Israeli arts scene, with international recognition under their belts at fairly young ages, all now in their forties.  Joseph Cedar, film director of two Oscar- nominated movies for Best Foreign Language Film (“Beaufort” and “Footnote”); Etgar Keret , author, playwright and screenwriter, whose books include “Suddenly a Knock at the Door” (2010); sculptor, video and installation artist,  Sigalit Landau,  who represented Israel in the Venice Art Biennale 2011 and has works in MOMA and other high profile venues;  and composer,  popular concert and recording artist, Achinoam Nini –all of whom shared private observations and their personal takes on cultural issues.  Representing the side of the movers and shakers in the art scene was Rivka Saker, Director of Sotheby’s Israel, who is active in cultural diplomacy, sending Israeli artists out into the world, as well as bringing prominent curators from abroad to Israel. The auditorium was filled beyond capacity, with many standing and sitting in the aisles. (A podcast of the panel may be viewed here.)

If there was a common thread running through their introductory remarks discussing the formative events that led to their current life’s work, it was the part difficult circumstances played in their youth. None of the creators had golden childhoods, each traversing challenges that seemed to set them apart from their peers, and, perhaps, pushing them to introspection, creating a rich inner world....

This blogpost was originally published on Times of Israel here or

 here:  http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/last-word-on-the-presidents-conference-israeli-arts/