I had to go to Ashkelon, Israel, just over ten kilometers from the Gaza Strip, to find out whether my intuition had been correct about an exceptional artist, with whom I had been in contact for many years. I wanted tomeether,tofinallysee whether the complex, almost mysterious image Ihadofherinmymind was, in fact, representative of the woman herself.
Ilana was born in 1924 in Sarajevo to a bourgeois family of Czech origin – Jewish, but not particularly orthodox. Years earlier, her grandfather, a railway engineer, had been traveling from Bulgaria to Vienna, where he planned to settle down with his inheritance and the strong pension he had earned with the construction of the country’s railway network. During a brief stop in Sarajevo, he was approached by the Austro-Hungarian authorities, then occupying Bosnia-Herzegovina, who were having significant problems in realizing the Sarajevo-Belgrade railway line. Having heard of his successful professional life, they asked him to become their project manager. His stay, initially planned for two years, soon turned into a permanent residence for the entire family, as inflation eroded their wealth and National Socialism gained traction.
Ilana grew up happily in Sarajevo, de- scribing the city as a place of dialogue – at that time, a peaceful one – between different cultures and religions. Surprisingly, the diverse ethnic groups in the region managed to distinguish themselves while living together in great harmony: Slavs and Muslims, Jews and Catholics. «I cannot explain why I always wanted to be an artist but, even without a teacher who could advise me and correct my mistakes, I started drawing portraits and painting what I saw…» Ilana’s determination to become an artist was a matter of surprise and some scandal within the family. With the arrival of the Nazi occupation of Bosnia (1941) and the imposition of the yellow star to be worn on the clothes of all Jews, Ilana’s father, also a railway engineer, decided to seek refuge with his loved ones. They boarded a train towards Konjic, in the direction of Metkovic and the Adriatic Sea, an area occupied by the Italian army. Of the various branches of the family, her father’s was the only one to save itself from deportation and death in the concentration camps. In 1942, Ilana’s family consisted of her parents; their two daughters, Ilana and her sister; and two nephews, children of her mother’s brother who, by a legal loophole, had been literally plucked from the death camp where they had been interned. Together, the family stopped in a small village, Kula, located near the mouth of the river Neretva.
In this village of five hundred inhabitants, the otherness of the refugee fam- ily was apparent to everyone. They were housed in the building of the Italian com- mand, where the colonel of the garrison let their presence go unremarked. No one in the village turned them in – not the inhabitants, not the Italians, not even the German soldiers. In this way, the family was saved. Keeping the family a secret was very dangerous for everyone, and the help and trustworthiness of these villagers was tremendously important to Ilana, not only in enabling her to live, but in profoundly influencing her attitude towards friends, students, and, most importantly, her art. Throughout this time, she continued drawing and painting landscapes, as well as portraits of people on the street. This series of works is listed under the name «Kula» in the recently-ordered archive of Ilana’s work that can be found online. After the war, the family moved to Sarajevo, then to Pula in Istria. Ilana, who had been with the partisans for several months, resumed her studies, going first to Split to finish the general education she had interrupted in Sarajevo, where she adventurously living alone for the first time, then joining the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb, which she attended from 1945 to 1949. There, finally, she found instructors well-prepared to recognize and shape her innate talent. Her name then was still Jelena Stark; a series of beautiful drawings, kept in a large drawer in her office in Ashkelon, are signed with this name. In 1949, the family decided to move to Israel and live within the new state. They settled on the Mediterranean coast, in the town of Ashkelon, a place with a millennium of history among different Middle Eastern populations, yet at that time relatively deserted. Her name, Jelena, was adapted to the Hebrew language and thus became Ilana. When she later married, she assumed her husband’s surname, Shafir. To this day, Ilana lives in the house that her husband built for the family – the couple and their two children, Giora and Leah – many years ago.
In order to become an art teacher, she had to learn Hebrew. While doing so, she never stopped portraying the various types of Jews from all over the world who came to live in Israel; it was a very exciting period of her life. She developed a «monotype» technique that allowed for the quick and gestural recording of a subject, and produced hundreds of images of children, women and the elderly, in their many different styles of clothing. Understanding Ilana’s life is necessary to gain insight into the development of her creative process, the trials and tribulations that have shaped the strong personality and unwavering will that sustain her to this day.
Ilana has always believed herself to be made for the technique of mosaic, saying, «I think that making mosaics was my destiny.» After the war, Teodoro Orselli, the director of the Academy of Fine Arts in Ravenna, arrived in Ashkelon on an international mission for the protection of works of historical and archaeological interest. Ilana showed him her drawings and talked with him about her attraction to mosaic. «I’ve always remembered how he told me that, with my particular skills, I would probably be gifted at mosaic. This was an important statement for me. Some years later, I visited him in his office at the Accademia in Ravenna, and he was very pleased to see photographs of my mosaics. . .» In the early 1960s, Ilana started making her first mosaics in accordance with the traditional methods and techniques of handling tesserae, but she soon sensed that none of that was really a part of her – that she could not put technique before her own natural style and expression as an artist. The old rules of making mosaic with well-cut, neatly-arranged tesserae could not express what this artist wanted to say: to her, those tesserae seemed to be simply inert materials. She was not – is not – interested in making a beautiful surface and achieving a pleasant decorative result: her idea of mosaic is completely different. Ilana Shafir is convinced that mosaic is not merely a beautiful skin that covers a form, but must be a creative act, a force that summons the finest inert materials and puts them each in place to become a work of original art. Entering her paradise-like garden on 2 July, 2010 and seeing the sequence of her mosaics lining the walls, I immediately felt myself to be in the presence of a complete and independent artistic thought. It seemed also evident that Ilana has a special predisposition for the three-dimensional form, and is therefore, ultimately, a sculptor. In fact, in the garden, as well as in the house, there are a large number of sculptures and original pottery she had made in the Seventies. They are mysterious characters whose form and style are evocative of humans or animals, yet always remain just beyond any clear identification. For Ilana, her works are good and otherworldly beings, so thoroughly understanding and available to her that she will often break them into pieces and insert the fragments into her mosaics, each one a kind of artistic «stem cell» used to revive certain expressive passages.
I realized immediately the function of those protruding elements in Ilana’s work, those forceful lines that create deep fur- rows and determine the placement of her spurious materials, pieces of pottery and ceramics that give rest to the observer’s eye and structurally reply to the requirements of color, rhythm and meaning in the theme proposed. The union of all elements – shape, line, color – allows the artist to find the connective thread of the artwork and determine its creation. Each mosaic assumes a poetic value, repre- senting a hymn to life, but the course of its realization is like a catharsis for the artist, a release of tension and anxiety that can be seen to find its original expressive flow in the artwork.
I realized immediately the function of those protruding elements in Ilana’s work, those forceful lines that create deep furrows and determine the placement of her spurious materials, pieces of pottery and ceramics that give rest to the observer’s eye and structurally reply to the requirements of color, rhythm and meaning in the theme proposed.
During the hours we spent in her studio, Ilana, seated before a work in process, told me about her process and the underlying motivations for the development of spontaneous mosaic, as she defines this particular way of working, her definitive artistic language. And it was there in her studio that I saw how the oldest works on the walls mark not only the various stages of Ilana’s artistic development, but also the diverse spiritual, social, and political circumstances of her life story, a story that is also irrevocably that of her people and their daily fight for survival. It was there in her study, in front of those artworks, that I understood the depth of this artist, the religion of her lifestyle, saved by good fortune and thus ready each day to give thanks to the miracle of life.
Today, the material Ilana uses corresponds to her request, participating in the creative act not as simple stone, marble or gold, but as a significant part of the artwork itself, able to adapt to the artist’s sensations and to aid in the ever-present search for spirituality that characterizes her artistic process. This spirituality – this profound religiosity of hers – unconsciously accompanies her every act, involving her materials and activating their own inertia to make them respond, participate in the artwork as it seeks to offer a representation of vitality. They are often recycled materials that have already had another life: pieces of dishes, vases or tiles or even sculptures, fragments of another existence. After finding its definitive way of expression, the mosaic of Ilana expands, seeking new forms and dimensions. The Ripples of Creation emerged in 1996, and the first large-format mosaic, Nature, in 1997 (250x155cm): an image with forms that evoke earth, water, plants and animals, all elements that will recur in the various themes that develop in her later work, such as Blessing (1998); Tree of Life and Shrine (1998); Primordial Waters (2004); the great tribute to peace, Peaceful Garden (2005, 252x204cm); Creation of the Plants (2006); Birdhouses and Peacocks (2007); and even her most recent works, such as Flow (2010). I visited the public places of the city where some of her works are displayed: the one inside the hospital, beside an archaeological area, entitled The Story of Ashkelon (1999), which depicts two Corinthian columns and a large Corinthian capital in the midst of the sand dunes of the Mediterranean coast, recalling four thousand years of history; the beautiful installation Worlds (2004), located at the entrance of the theater designed by her architect son Giora, in all its complexity; and the mosaic displayed in the Netzach-Israel Synagogue of Ashkelon.