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.
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.
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.
Portraits are stand-outs. Her Baghdadi grandmother is well brought off in an oil painting called “Massouda,” which leads off the exhibit. Three drawings show off the power of her skills, each describing its subject in strikingly different ways. In one, the abstract forms of the face seem to have formed an organic amoeba-like mass, totally liberated from classic depiction, yet observation-based and conveying the sense of the person with candid freshness.
Pairs of people are a recurring theme in Sassoon’s work. This is her second solo at this venue, with her exhibit “Isaac/Ishmael” shown in 2001, where pairings were a focus. In the present exhibit, couples are placed for consideration together, such as one of film director Fassbinder alongside his blue-bespectacled mother.
It is Sassoon’s custom to celebrate her birthday by creating a new self-portrait, as a documentation of her changing self, as well as a kind of creative amulet to invoke painterly blessings for the coming year. The latest example is a spirited drawing with other heads competing for space. Their enigmatic presence is unexplained: past or present, real or imagined?
If one blinks but for a moment, the crisis du jour changes in Israel. Though the thorny underlying problems of an influx of border- broachers continues, the topic has dropped, for the time being, from the leading topics of the day. There has been much, too much, competition for anxious headlines recently.
We are now in the Nine Days of the Hebrew month of Av. Traditionally, this is a period when Jews reflect and become highly conscious of the sad compilation of events which have fallen during this time period throughout our long history, a time when we are more aware than ever of the reduced divine presence in the everyday lives of the Jewish People. Last year, on my private blog I explored this period showing a day by day accounting in archaeology, art and photography, ending with the Fast of the Ninth of Av – Tisha B’Av (for those who would like to explore those posts, click here.) Those events, now seemingly so distant in our collective memory, were once the nightly news of their day, just as these events, however they are resolved, will become tomorrow’s history.
How will time judge this country’s treatment of the strangers amongst us? Anne Sassoon’s exhibit, with her intuitive and gutsy works, is a great trigger for considered thought.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.
The exhibition is open at Artspace Gallery (Tu, Th, 5-7p.m.) through July 31, and continues in August and September by appointment (02-5662423).
All images courtesy of Artspace Gallery.