Anne Sassoon was born in Llandudno and grew up in Johannesburg, where she became known as a figurative artist, exhibiting at Gallery 101 and the Market Gallery. She studied at the Byam Shaw School of Art and Hornsey College of Art in London and, in 1992, received BA (Hons) Fine Art at Middlesex University, London.
During the apartheid years in South Africa, she made drawings at political trials for publication; covers for previously banned books and wrote art reviews for the Rand Daily Mail. She lived in London from 1986. There she exhibited at the Thumb Gallery and Boundary Gallery. Her solo exhibition was at Gallery Westland Place in 2001. In 1996, Anne Sassoon’s painting were featured in the major exhibition Rebels and Rubies at the Barbican Gallery. During her London life she also wrote art reviews for Dialogue Magazine.
She has lived in Jerusalem since 1997, when she became artist-in-residence and curator of exhibitions at Yakar Gallery. She wrote about Israeli art for The Jerusalem Report and now writes about local and international art for Artcritical, New York.
Julia Pascal interviews Sephardi artist Anne Sassoon
What does being a Sephardi mean to you?
I like being part of the Sephardi world. It is warmer and more easy-going than the sterner, rule-ridden Ashkenazi world, and I have always felt welcomed into it. My father was born in Baghdad when it belonged to the Ottoman Empire, so we are Babylonian, which is part of the Sephardim. Other people’s memories and photographs of old Baghdad inspire painting ideas in me. I heard Arabic as a child and now, living in Israel, sometimes words come back to me when I need them. I enjoy Sephardi Middle Eastern ways.
Where were you born and where have you lived?
I was born in North Wales and have lived in Johannesburg, London and Jerusalem. I have spent long times in Cape Town and in Boston and Maine, USA. After the war, my parents left England and went to South Africa. My father re-established the Sephardic synagogue, which had disbanded years before because of infighting. The community would meet in our sitting room, sometimes with barely enough men for a minyan. Several beautiful Torah scrolls from Baghdad encased in silver and gold, which had been at the Lauderdale Road Synagogue, were sent to the new community and kept in our house until they found proper premises.
Most SA Jews came from Lithuania or Germany and Sephardim were in the minority. I’m not sure how many Ashkenazi Jews even knew about them. The small community was a mixture of all kinds of people from Baghdad, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco. They were friendly and there was a lot of laughing when they came around but they’d have terrible disagreements about the tunes of the prayers, each insisting on their own. Just as the Ashkenazim didn’t seem to speak about the Holocaust in those days, the Sephardim never mentioned the Farhud, although it had been so recent.
During the religious holidays our house became a busy centre. At Succot, a big succah was built in our garden for the whole community to come for meals. And once there was an evening of gambling at our house, to raise money for a rabbi. At these occasions our kitchen would be filled with vivacious women, and the delicious aroma of Sephardic cooking: stuffed vine leaves, meat boreikas – and never a query about kashrut.
How would you describe your own experience of Sephardi culture?
Just being Sephardi can be enough to be made welcome. When my Sephardi friend and neighbour in Jerusalem introduced me to her brother, she said: Anne is Sephardi! She even likes barmia! (Barmia is okra, or lady’s fingers.)
Whether visiting family or friends or the Baghdad Club in London, there was always a generous welcome. As a child, I was introduced as sibh Salem, Salem’s daughter, although his English name was Sidney. He had six brothers and they would all pinch our cheeks, more or less painfully, each in his own style. They’d say: ‘Who’s your favourite uncle?’ And you might say: ‘Norman.’
‘He gave me a pound.’
‘Here’s two pounds. Now who’s your favourite uncle?’
‘You, Uncle Albert!’
Favouritism was accepted as normal and, once established, as the favourite, or least favourite, that was your unavoidable role. The less fortunate had more difficult lives. And with all the smiles and bonhomie, you knew you had to walk on eggshells and make sure not to unwittingly offend anyone. If you did, it would not be forgotten.
Your images are profoundly un-English but your first language is English. Can you say something about this?
English is everybody’s language now, but I’m not entrenched in an English point of view. Having changed countries in early childhood, I usually feel at home almost anywhere and, at the same time, something of an outsider. In the studio I give myself the licence to take characters and narratives from anywhere I like, as long as it feels authentic to me and I bring these together in the same painting.
Which artists or people are your influences?
I’ve learnt from so many artists, from Picasso, Piero della Francesca, Bacon, Hokusai, Goya, Beckmann – the list is too long. But I will mention Gracia, a sad and beautiful Sephardic woman who was an artist in her own way and like a godmother to me as a child. She, and her much older husband, were from Baghdad but had lived for years in Japan. Sometimes I would spend the night or study for exams in a room known as Gracia’s boudoir, filled with Japanese woodcuts and ivory carvings. She had a grand piano and played with great feeling – Chopin and Schumann were her favourites, and something about her and the music would almost make me cry. Her husband was small, prune-faced, bald as an egg, and always on the verge of irritation. How could this romantic, life-loving woman be his wife? Much later I heard she had been born to a poor family with many children, and that her marriage as a very young girl to a rich man had saved them from penury.
How did you become an artist?
It is all I have ever been. My mother was an artist, it was a language we shared. I was born during the war while my father was abroad, and only met him when I was two, so my mother and I had a closely bonded relationship. We used to have art competitions, both trying our best to beat the other. When I painted my first mural on the bedroom wall as a kid, instead of getting me into trouble, it was admired. I’m grateful for her belief in me, which sustains me in the studio. When I was 21 I won a prize in a national competition that led to my being taken on by the best gallery in Johannesburg, which was a great help.
You paint yourself on your birthday every year. Why do you do this?
I celebrate the day with self-scrutiny, to check up on myself: what has happened to me and how does it show? If it’s a good work, it’s a good prognosis for the year to come. The rule is that I have to complete the portrait on the birthday and sometimes I do more than one. The only time I broke that rule, and went on working over the next days, I lost my clear sense of purpose and it showed. It was interesting to push the painting further, and it did become more nuanced but it lost its clout and its purpose.
Can you describe the journey from an idea for a painting and its realisation?
Painting is an ongoing journey: one canvas leads to the next, or several are worked on at once. It can be like feeling your way around a dark room looking for a warm fluffy cat that you know is somewhere there, trusting that eventually you will find it. Or like an underground miner, pushing back boundaries and opening up new space. Sometimes work flows as if the knowledge comes from somewhere else – that’s what I hope for. But sometimes it’s like scraping a dry bowl; there is nothing there at all, and I believe there never will be.
It’s a narrow path between a tiny bit of hope and huge despair. There is an aura of satisfaction, even hubris, after completing some paintings which may last a few days, even weeks, but I am bound to turn against my work unless I sell it and nothing stops me changing – and losing – it. I have painted over and lost many paintings.
What would you say to your younger self?
Respect your own work. Don’t destroy it. Get on with it and don’t be held back.
If you were to write a few lines to describe the paintings of Anne Sassoon -imagine yourself as AN Other curating her art- what would you say about her individual vision?
Her best work is original and personal. It can be lyrical, quirky and suggest a narrative – but what is actually going on? The artist would have to say that she doesn’t really know herself, and doesn’t feel the need to know, at which point the curator would be entitled to call it obscure…
Why do you write about art?
Not for the money. And not for the pleasure, as I find it very hard. But I always write for publication. Writing about art is part of my ongoing self-education, to force myself to interrogate and analyse my response to other people’s art. It’s an exercise which clarifies my thinking. Often I write about artists or curators because I feel they deserve the attention and that I can say something useful. I never write negatively because it wouldn’t help anyone and I would find it boring and a waste of time. I started writing critiques in my early twenties and have written for newspapers, magazines, catalogues and books ever since.
Who are the people you paint?
My studio is full of sketchbooks, photographs and drawings, with characters that I refer to, depending on what I’m doing. Sometimes I work straight from YouTube, a bit like life drawing. Sketches of homeless people in Cape Town and drawings from Derek Jarman’s Last of England created the characters I used in my series called Exiles, people in boats. Old romance comics, photos from today’s newspaper – I have a collection of references.
What will you be painting in the future?
I’ve been reading Shakespeare’s plays during corona and bringing some of the characters and relationships into my new work. I often feel that even though I have been painting all my life, it is as if I have just started.
Tell me about meeting Nelson Mandela.
South Africa is blessed with amazing people and I have been very lucky to meet many of them; every ex-prisoner that I have met from Robben Island is exceptional. I knew Robert Sobukwe best. He was a close friend of my husband, the journalist, Benjamin Pogrund. Sobukwe is a huge inspiration to young South Africans today. Benjamin was Mandela’s old friend and Benjy was the first non-family visitor allowed to visit Mandela in jail. Mandela insisted that I come on the next visit, just before we left for London – apparently he had a photograph of me on his cell wall, given by his wife Winnie – and that was when I met him for the first memorable time.