Interviewed by Yaron Lapid
11 May 2020
My name is Nadia Cavaliero Arditti. I was born in Istanbul on 8 November 1948. My parents were quite wealthy: I had a Swiss nurse taking care of me and I had ballet and piano lessons. I was talking French at home and Greek, because my grandmother came from Crete. There was a lot of parties at home, so it was a nice life.
Both of my parents were born in Crete, in an Italian community from Venice. My father’s name was Isacco Cavaliero. He was born in Crete [b 1907; died in Geneva, 1982]. The family came from Spain. The Cavaliero name in Hebrew is Benabir. They were the people riding horses and collecting taxes for the King of Spain. They went from Spain to Venice and then to Hanya in Crete as Italians.
My mother’s family, too, came from Spain. My mother’s name was Lydia Franco [born 1907; died in Geneva, 2011]. Her mother was Victoria Sidi and my grandfather was Marco Franco. I have a cousin in Israel who has researched about the Sidis: he found an astronomer in the 1250s in Toledo whose name was Isaac Ibn Sid. He observed moon eclipses and drew a map of the stars. On each Bar Mitzvah, the boys of the family were given a watch on which there was a chart of the stars, so they suppose it was the chart drawn by Isaac Ibn Sid.
As for my father’s side, another cousin in New York who made researches on the Cavaliero family went to Portugal. In the archives in Lisbon, he found a story of a woman called Sebastiana Cavaliero who was deported at the time of the Inquisition to South America with her mother. During the Inquisition, Isabella and Ferdinand chased the Jews from Spain and Portugal. The Sultan in the Ottoman Empire said, ‘Who are these people? They are educated, they have money, they are lawyers, they are doctors. Why does this King not want them there? I want them in the Ottoman Empire as they will enrich my Empire.’ So, in fact, he did the same thing as Cromwell in England.
There is a Portuguese village where most of the people are called Cavaliero: some of them know they’re Jewish, and some of them don’t. Some of them converted at the time of the Inquisition and so they called them Marranos. Then they came to Crete, both of the families, and from Crete they went to Israel, because there was a lot of antisemitism from the Greeks to the Jews.
Both my parents were living in Izmir and they were connected as a family. My mother came in 1913. She said that when Ataturk came to Izmir in 1922, all the Jews there were very happy because they felt liberated. My mother was a great Republican and pro-Ataturk woman. She was quite modern at the time – she worked and this is how she met my father. My father had an insurance business with my mother’s brother. My mother was their secretary and they met like that. They got married in 1936.
Moving to Switzerland
I was brought up in the family until I was nine years old. Then we went to Switzerland and I was in a Catholic boarding school until I was 19. So, my tradition was to come back home for holidays like Pesach or Yom Kippur, and we would cook Sephardic food. But I was not educated in a real Jewish tradition. I think I was lucky to be brought up in Switzerland in that school. When I came back to Turkey, I knew all about Christianity and when I got married I then saw the Muslim world, so I know about different religions quite well. But I’m not a religious person. I feel Jewish, but not especially Sephardi.
I lived for a long time in Switzerland. My parents left Turkey in 1959 – after the problems in 1956, they weren’t so comfortable. There was a pogrom on 6 September 1956. The Turks were very angry against non-Muslim people, especially the Greeks, so they started breaking the shops of the Greek people and the Jews, of course, because they were all mixed. After that, my parents left. But my father continued working with Turkey: he was a good friend of some people from the government who came to Geneva. He was Italian not Turkish, but always a friend of Turkey.
My parents lived in Geneva, I was in boarding school in Lausanne. When I finished, I didn’t know who I was: Swiss or Turkish or Jewish? And I still don’t know who I am, because I am now in England. I like this country too, and I also like France. It’s quite complicated. But it’s a big advantage when you are an artist to be someone universal, because you don’t have to be somewhere. You are yourself; what you create is yourself, so you just go together with yourself here and there and you are this personality. That’s it.
Living in England
The best thing about England is that you can express yourself and nobody censors you. I lived in Turkey for 40 years but, because of the government of Erdogan, we had a problem with saying what we want to do. I had a stomach pain all the time and I said to Ralf, ‘We have to go.’ We came here because our children were in London though our daughter has since moved to Paris.
I think English people are very accepting – they accept people of different countries and you can say what you think. No one is telling you what to do, you are free to do what you want. The culture is very important, the museums, you have something happening every minute in London. You wake up and you feel you want to go to an exhibition, so you go and study things and come back. This is exciting!
Becoming an artist
When I came out of school, I wanted to go to Beaux-Arts in Paris. But it was 1968, a difficult year, so my parents were overprotective and thought art school would be a bad place for a young Jewish girl. So, because of that, there was a clash between us. In the end, I became an artist quite late. I was always painting and doing things, but I couldn’t go to art school so I had to teach myself and go to private schools. My father had a financial business in Switzerland, so art was not important to him. One day he saw an exhibition of my paintings in the windows of a bank in Geneva, and suddenly I became a painter for him, because exhibiting in a bank was a good thing. Fortunately, my husband was always supportive when I travelled alone for exhibitions. He was always relaxed about these things.
I was brought up in a strict environment, in a convent school in Switzerland, and my family was also overprotective, so everything felt closed to me. Then I went to Turkey, where the political situation was so oppressive, which I felt very much. So, all these oppressing situations influenced my art. This changed because I felt I should do a revolution in myself.
I was about 40 when I finally became a sculptor. At first, I did a lot of sculptures representing women who were tied and not liberated. Because I felt squeezed. Then slowly it was changing: I represent women with some parts of the body hidden and some parts open. I worked on different concepts, I went more on nature and birds and freedom. I think I opened myself slowly and my sculptures became more free. Also, we moved: I have my workshop by the North Aegean Sea, in a village called Kozlu, a wonderfully windy place surrounded by olive trees. The winds and trees became forms, and the first sculptures I made there became more airy.
Then, 20 years ago I had a brain tumour. I had two surgeries in Switzerland, which went well, and after this my life changed. I thought I didn’t have much time to live so I have to do what I should do. So, I started doing monuments. I opened myself. It was a bad experience for some people, but for me it was a very positive experience and I think I am happy to have lived this experience. A lot of things are not so important in life anymore. I had a series of exhibitions in the USA where I presented Turkey at that time. I also have a monument here in London. So, that opened my life. Everything changed.
My Jewish identity is connected with my art because I was a Turkish Jew who was representing Turkey abroad. When I did the monument here, in the Cass Business School, the Turkish ambassador came for the opening, I was introduced to the Queen. It doesn’t happen so often to a Jewish artist in Turkey – a woman especially – to have so many exhibitions and monuments abroad, and honours here and there.
I have done things for the Jewish community in Turkey. With Ralf, we came back to Istanbul in 1978 after we got married in Switzerland. I made a monument called Soaring Flame for the Jewish Museum in Istanbul. It memorialises 10 Jewish soldiers who died in the Turkish Army in the First World War. I made another monument for the Jewish hospital [Balat Hospital]. It’s called Solidarity; it’s about being together and helping people, Jews and non-Jews also.
I did a Hanukia, a very big one. I started it after the bombings at a synagogue in Turkey. The base is like a leaf, like a tree with roots, because after many years being there, I felt Turkish, but now I don’t know. I want people to feel this Hanukia was my light which has to be lit everyday to live in this country that bombed the synagogue and had all these problems. I felt that I belonged there, I needed this light. This didn’t happen and so I left two years later. I also did another Hanukia with a bird, which represented the freedom.
My husband goes to the synagogue, but I don’t go. I have a different idea of praying which is not religion, which is more in nature. I feel Jewish in my own way.
About Sephardi, yes. My parents spoke Ladino and they spoke Greek at home because my grandmother spoke only Greek. I didn’t really learn Ladino, but I can understand Spanish very well, and, if I go to Spain, I can speak it. But I never spoke Ladino.
I feel close to Spain. I feel also close with Spanish people because when we go to Spain, we see people who look like us. Our mothers, they look like Spanish women, and the food is very similar so that’s a good connection. We went to Andalusia and Toledo and Seville, so it was a good time and we felt close to Spain, I felt a connection with Spain.