Anne Sassoon

A double life in art – an analysis.

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Sassoon’s life has been spent in England, Wales, South Africa, the United States and Israel. The sense of isolation, exile and displacement of those living on the margins is a thread that runs through her highly theatrical and expressive style. But it is the politics of apartheid South Africa which formed her methodology and critique.

Anne Sassoon sat in the court room when Steve Biko, Breyten Breytenbach and protesting Soweto students were prosecuted by apartheid judges. She witnessed the prosecution of her husband, Benjamin Pogrund, who was tried for exposing cruel prison conditions. During these notorious trials, Anne sketched surreptitiously.

Politics and theatre in apartheid times were linked. Names such as Athol Fugard and Barney Simon are recognized as the drivers of anti-apartheid theatre. Sassoon notes that ‘My first job was painting sets in a theatre, and later, when director Barney Simon opened the Market Theatre, I would often do drawings at rehearsals, and made the set for his production of ‘Volpone’. 

Together with Barney Simon and the photographer David Goldblatt, she curated an exhibition of portraits from small photographic studios in Diagonal Street, Johannesburg. Photos that were not collected by the clients were thrown away.  She remembers that the three of them discovered that they were each collecting discarded prints. 

Sassoon says ‘This collection has accompanied me around the world and remains alive and precious to me. People – black migrants, young tsotsis (the word for young hooligans in SA),  women stripped to their underwear and lying on a rug as if on a glamorous beach, pose and act out imaginary roles with props – a dummy telephone or vase of plastic flowers, in front of a makeshift curtain, creating their own theatre.

It is hardly surprising that the politics and aesthetic of theatre infuse her canvases. Her post-apartheid paintings often explore the concept of The Twin and The Doppelgänger.  She says ‘these doubles frequently appear in my work: they animate each other and I think of the characters as if they are acting something out onstage.’ Her art is theatrical and has elements of Brechtian theatre and Weimar cabaret.

Sassoon and Pogrund were forced to leave South Africa in 1986. Sassoon became a Londoner. This was a loss. She missed the support she had enjoyed sharing process with South African artists. Now, assessing her London period, she sees that ‘the story went indoors and became grey. Instead of pink-skinned sunbathers gaping into the glare and black servants with white gloves, I had couples bumping up against each other yet somehow unconnected, with armchairs and unruly pot plants adding to the claustrophobia – domestic dramas. I did drawings on the Tube and fashioned my interiors from Ikea catalogues.’ 

In Jerusalem, Sassoon collected images of the stencil graffiti that appeared on backstreet walls about ten years ago. She says, ‘They were very small and people hardly noticed them, but the characters had an emotive quality that I responded to without really understanding, and I sometimes bring them into my paintings.’ 

Sassoon writes ‘The double narrative intensified and became more specifically male. I referred to the two boy Panchen Lamas: the Tibetan who was kidnapped by the Chinese and the Chinese boy who replaced him. The narrative merged into the Biblical brothers, Isaac and Ishmael, whose roles were switched in the Koran. Whether they echo or confront each other, two characters set up a visual dynamic, and I like to keep the composition moving like a kind of vaudeville dance.’ 

Her work has been seen at The Barbican, London, in Berlin, South Africa and Jerusalem. On this site, a gallery of her paintings celebrates the vast output of an original Sephardi artist whose images hints at the elements we unearth in Discovering and Documenting Englands Lost Jews –  loss, marginalisation, secrecy, duality, performance, protest, joie de vivre and survival. We are delighted to host Anne Sassoon as a major contemporary artist of Sephardi heritage whose brilliant and disturbing paintings are a major contribution to the arts.