Interview with Ya’akov Boussidan about Jewish Art

Mabu’a, a journal of Jewish Arts no. 43, summer 2005

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Do you see your art as being universal with Jewish aspects, or as Jewish art?

I see it as a universal art that stems from the Jewish spirit.  Today, the desire to be universal, to transcend all boundaries, brings with it a certain shallowness, that discourages deeper contemplation and fails to convey a message beyond the viewers’ momentary interpretation.  In my opinion, the more rooted and complex the art is – the more universal its content.  It is enough to look at the works of Velasquez, Goya, Hokusai and Rembrandt, or at the ashtarot, the ancient miniature sculptures found in our region, or indeed anywhere else to understand this.  When art develops from the artist’s roots, it is bound to be both richer and more elaborate.

And what are your roots?

I was born in Port Said, in Egypt.  It was a traditional home, and one of my early memories is the cholera outbreak in the town that caused the deaths of thousands of our Moslem neighbours.  The Jews, who were saved from the plague, sacrificed a calf in the synagogue’s courtyard as a thanksgiving, and so I experienced at first hand the connection between sacrifice, blood and life.  The stories that we grew up with from the Haggadah – the Passover sacrifice and the Exodus from Egypt – became real.  [Thus, for instance, when one wanted to describe someone as being mean, they would call him “Pharaoh”. I was very drawn towards a stronger connection to Judaism, and reached it through a process of self-research.  I first became aware of my Jewish identity through the Jewish isolationism in Egyptian society.  When I came to Israel in 1948 I was educated in the secular socialist spirit in the Aliyat HaNo’ar framework, an immigrant youth programme at Kibbutz Givat-Chayim, but on the Sabbath I would run to the synagogue in a nearby Yemenite agricultural settlement.

The Aliyat Hano’ar granted Boussidan a scholarship to study art with Prof. Schwartzmann.  This was when he started researching the world, or as he puts it, “to ask questions through the means of sketching”. Schwartzmann insisted that his students have a profession and not make their living from their art and he sent Boussidan to study photographic retouching.  Simultaneously, when he felt it was time for him to advance academically, he introduced him to Prof. Zandberg (one of the founders of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, founder of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and head of the Stijdelijk Museum there).  Although Paris was the centre of the art world at the time, Prof. Sandberg recommended studying in London, where Boussidan was accepted to Goldsmiths College.  There he graduated with distinction, taught printmaking and created in a studio put at his disposal.  This period was a transition between the Victorian Era and its professional demands and the trend towards abstraction, and he was fortunate to benefit from exposure to both worlds.

The last century was characterized by movement from realistic to abstract art.  Your art is more realistic, if I may define it as such.  How did you survive?

My thinking is abstract, and I create abstraction.  Standards of realism, beauty and observation change.  It seems to me that art develops alongside industry.  Every time a new material was invented, artists adopted it as a creative medium it became one of art’s means.  It is the same with Jewish art.  The power of Judaism lies in its acceptance of the environment, and its ability to extract from it the elements that that suit it.

You brought up the topic/subject of Jewish art.  What, in your eyes, is Jewish art?

Jewish art deals with a family identity that has familiar notes and symbols, but its voice changes with every creator.  The standard prayer, for instance, is repeated every day, but the shelves are full of books of commentary, thought and enrichment.  In the description of the giving of the Torah it is written: “And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet” – it wasn’t enough to read out the words; they had to be written down.  Jewish culture is mainly a culture of the letter and the written word.  In my eyes, it is due to writing that it was possible to go beyond the basic, dry laws and create a body of interpretation and commentary that add layers of life and meaning.  This is how the Aggadata (stories and legends interwoven around the text) was created.  It was born thanks to this asset, thanks to writing.  This realization led to my interest in the letter, and works such as the book “Jerusalem – Names in Praise”.

Talking about the written letter and its significance in Hebrew culture, this book is essentially a masterpiece of unique calligraphy.  What style of letters do you use?

I use a letter form that I began creating over thirty years ago, and am still searching for better and more precise ways to express it.  It is a fusion of the Ashkenazi (European) and Sephardi (Oriental) temperament.

… Which really encapsulates this whole conversation, discussing what unites and distinguishes us.

We discuss that which unites us, while seeing the clear danger of splitting that may occur in these days, even though we all hope and pray for peace.  When there are disputes amongst us, we need to pray for peace between ourselves, between ”Myself” and “My people”.

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