עברית English

שרה נסים: הקולות האחרים: צבע וחומרים רכים

Other Voices: The Works of Sara Nissim

גלריית האוניברסיטה הפתוחה, רעננה. 2010 [קטלוג]

Open University Gallery, Raanana. [catalog] 2010

Other Voices

On the works of Sara Nissim[1]


“Reality cannot be deprived of the ‘other echoes [that] inhabit the garden’”

 - Edward Said after T.S. Eliot*


As she was coming into the world and was handed to her father Zion, a well-to-do textile merchant, Suham could not have known that her mother’s cries drowned the cries of horror that pierced the streets of her hometown. A few minutes later, while the newborn beautiful girl was being cleaned of the placental blood, her father noticed the flash of a bloodied blade held in the hand of his neighbor. Blood and blood, cry versus cry. Unknowingly and unremembered, this moment, her first formative event was burned on Sara Nissim’s life-CD, and buried within her.

Years later, in her Ramat Gan home, Sara Nissim told me about the 1941 fahroud (pogrom in Arabic) against the Jews of Baghdad, which changed her life and that of her family. The choice of her name, Suham, was meaningful for both herself and her family: sounding like the word saham, or blade, her given name alluded to the knife that had punctured their cozy life of luxury in Iraq and marked the transformation it was about to undergo.

Following the pogrom, the family lost its fortune and was persecuted. As a child, her father used to take her for walks along the bank of the Tigris up to the river’s mouth, telling her stories about days of happiness and bliss and those of destruction and exile: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

Emigrating to Israel “on eagles’ wings” in Operation Ezra and Nechemia, in 1951, the family was thrown into the “melting pot”: maabarah, life of austerity and want, and an Israeli childhood. In the shadow of the past, this childhood was accompanied by attraction/rejection and anxiety/yearning feelings towards the East that was left behind along with the family home and its myriad of sights, aromas, flavors, and tactile exotic fabrics and jewelry. In Israel, her father opened a haberdashery store. His daughter collected the ribbons and buttons he sold there and played with them, while listening to her father’s nostalgic “river stories.”

Her early childhood experiences settled, layer upon layer, at the bottom of her soul, hidden behind her new identity (Sara), her new language (Hebrew), and her new place of residence (Ramat Gan).

A well-traveled person, Sara Nissim was exposed to various civilizations, in Burma, India, Nepal, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Bulgaria, Greece, Czechoslovakia, France, Spain, and Great Britain. Thus she became acquainted with the sights of Indian temples, Gothic cathedrals, mosques and Islamic palaces. Unconsciously, she was attracted to and yearned for the bazaars and markets of Asia, Europe and the Far East, for the touch and colorfulness of exotic fabrics, and for peculiar haberdashery paraphernalia.

The fabrics, beads and objects she had collected during her travels joined the leftovers and souvenirs from her father’s shop and were piling up in a storeroom at home, waiting for a hand that would revive and send them aloft like magic carpets.

Her desire to make art was realized when she studied painting with Israeli artist Yehezkel Streichman at the Avni Institute of Art in Tel Aviv. Consequently, Israeli, European and American modern art was interwoven, layer upon layer, with her childhood strata.

During her first decade as an artist, Sara Nissim developed her personal handwriting in the tradition of abstract-expressionist drawing and painting. Initially, Yehezkel Streichman’s fingerprints were clearly discernible in her works as well as the inspiration she had drawn from the work of Aviva Uri. As time went by, these influences subsided and were slowly replaced in her works by characteristic wide gestures, multi-layered and lush brush strokes, and allusive images representing internal and external landscapes. The material aspect of her works was increasing gradually and constantly: by attaching pieces of fabric and objects to her works, she had transformed them into dynamic and colorful collages.

During the 1991 Gulf War, Sara Nissim’s Ramat Gan neighborhood was hit by Scud missiles launched by the Iraqi army. Triggered by this trauma of the present, her fears of Iraqi Arabs and her childhood memories resurfaced. However, these memories also brought with them the Arab fragrance of an oriental identity – spices, colors, oriental fabrics, her childhood home...

For the first time in her artistic career, she decided to set free her memories and souvenirs from their hiding place deep in the closet, and to weave them into carpets of comfort and solace combining layers of the East and the West.


The Other Voices exhibition presents a selection of works Sara Nissim has created over the past twenty years: carpets and mixed-media works with playing dolls, mannequins, display dolls, lighting fixtures, second-hand objects, and other ready-mades.

Her mixed-media works do not conform to any laborious stamp of approval. Sara Nissim does not sanctify pure traditional techniques, nor does she glorify the means as a sacred and abiding end in itself. According to her self-definition as an artist, after starting out as a painter, she expanded her scope to include collages and assemblages and eventually moved into carpet-based installations and soft sculpture. Rather than associating her with “arts and crafts,” “fashion design,” or “fiberarts,” it seems to me far more appropriate and pertinent to contextualize her work alongside that of artists such as Yinka Shonibare, or Annette Messager. Moreover, crossing or blurring borders, between media and cultures, between “good” and “bad” test and between fatherlands, is a more meaningful and helpful key for “reading“ her works. Drawing her materials from mnemonic sources (familial, historical, cultural, and religious), Sara Nissim pushes and carries them toward new horizons. Her works resound with echoes of these sources, refusing to drown in the “sea of oblivion,” or to succumb to self-disparagement that erases and destroys unique identities and memories.

Movement and migration mark both her biography and her artistic creation. As mentioned before, emigrating from Iraq to Israel played a great role in her early life, whereas extensive traveling greatly enriched her adult life. Her images and materials also bespeak of movement, of a dialogue that blends or confronts Oriental and Western images and materials: traditional-folksy and modern images and materials, images and materials associated or identified with applied arts (garments, playing dolls, architectural elements), as well as natural, processed and recycled images and materials. Hers is an imagery fluid, resilient, “rounded,” and mobile enough to allow the coexistence of all these variegated and opulent techniques and materials on one and the same substrate.

Alongside their common purposeful usages, garments or carpets also serve as means of communication, as a sign, a guidepost, or a bulletin board. They indicate, signify and attest to the identity of their wearer, or bearer. The type, quality and color of fabrics, the structure and complexity of the patterns as well as their location and size and other aspects do not add up to mere abstract and decorative images and configurations. Rather, they constitute complex and unique, meaningful and multi-layered, open and concealed signs that impart visual, formal, chromatic and material information. They signify and announce one’s presence, identity, social standing, family status, economic situation, faith and religious affiliation, family/tribal kinship, and sometimes even one’s place of residence.

Sara Nissim often employs “low-culture”/popular references, art history citations, Oriental and Western ornamental fragments, and pieces of various fabrics. The resulting colorful and imaginative texture has an aura of something made of precious materials. From a distance, her materials seem glamorous, luxuriant and costly. On closer and stricter inspection, the viewer finds out that the precious materials she incorporates in her works constitute only a small part of her materials as a whole. Most of her materials are inexpensive, simple or recycled. This is a low-tec jigsaw puzzle of recycled objects, remnants of handicrafts, run of the mill textiles, and plastic, cloth and knitted dolls. When viewed closely, the entire and complete configuration reveals itself as less than complete or perfect, but rather as a masterful patchwork.

In her Family Reunion installation (2006-09), Sara Nissim created a group portrait of respectable women, elegant ladies dressed in their best, as they stand beside tall palm-tree-like lighting posts strewn with children’s dolls. Is this a scene from a wedding or other party amongst palm trees by the TigrisRiver? Do these women watch their children hang by a thread from a Ferris wheel in an amusement park? Or, perhaps, it is an encoded reference to the 1941 pogrom against the Jews of Baghdad. Sara Nissim does not volunteer any information about her experiences and memories, but rather keeps them hidden and covered under the carpet. There, they can live happily ever after and have a fairy tale’s happy end like that of The Book of The Thousand Nights and a Night.

In the film Amadeus, on the opening night of an opera by Mozart, Emperor Joseph II of Austria complains that the opera has “too many notes.” The Emperor suggests that Mozart should cut a few notes, and the composer answers defiantly: “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”

Indeed, Sara Nissim’s works may also create a feeling of overburden, excessive ornamentation and preening. But on closer inspection, the ornamentation reveals itself as a painful rupture. One person’s ornament is another person’s covert and camouflaged story that reveals/conceals a pain and hides the wrinkles of suffering beneath a thick layer of make-up. One person’s excess can be construed by another person as “exactly the right (or even implied) dosage.”

Sara Nissim is fully aware of the multidimesionality of her works, of their encodedness and camouflage, of the tricks they play on our eye and mind. Her images are perceived as abstract formal elements, devoid of any narrative. But, as a matter of fact, all her carpets and doll installations are based on themes associated with memories (e.g., of a marketplace experience, a blue mosque, a visit to Prague, the Rivers of Babylon, etc.), or with traumas (e.g., of terrorism, the Gulf War, a deceased brother). Her works present a long, well-edited tractate that relates a perfect narrative, echoing its very own characteristic fragmentation, or deconstruction. The narrative is that of a complex identity, of a memory fighting for its life, for its registration and perpetuation, of a (feminine and artistic) position that seeks recognition of its right to equality and respect, of an individual (woman/artist) wishing to bear witness to her belonging to a whole (a family, a tribe, a community). All of these “other” voices move along the “HangingGardens,” or hide in “Aladdin’s cave,” like concealed treasures waiting for a seeing eye and a coveting hand. Sara Nissim reuses familiar images, signs and ready-mades as a means for levering personal miracles. These images and objects play a somewhat subversive role: through them, she transforms the pleasurable into the threatening, and the concealed and latent into a discovery of the repressed, which returns as something else. The beautiful reveals itself as a web of pain and sorrow: one can sometimes wear one’s agony like a jewel in order to reinforce and magnify one’s self. In this way, bearing the despair becomes easier, as a popular Hebrew song has it.


Sara Nissim’s art should, therefore, be examined within the context of present-day art discourse about ornamentation, decorativeness, fiberarts, soft sculpture, and multicultural installations replete with materials and techniques. The presence of this cyclical discourse is felt ever since the second half of the 1970s. The Pattern and Decoration movement that was founded in the USA in 1975 acted against the racist, stereotypical and sexist rhetoric of Western modern culture, which contrasts “decorative art” with its antonym – “high-art.” According to this rhetoric, “decorative art” is “primitive,” “inferior” and “secondary,” a “low-art” made by the “others” of this world (women, Third World’s artists, etc.). We can probably trace back the origins of this argument to the Austrian modern architect Adolf Loos, who equated ornament with crime in his 1908 essay “Ornament und Verbrechen.”

Postmodernism has blurred and eradicated these dichotomies and expanded the circle of “legitimate” artists. Decoration and ornamentation, fabrics, garments, fashion accessories, knitwear, and soft sculpture serve some of these newly “legitimized” artists, who come from the ever-widening margins of “others,” as a means for making subversive and critical statements. Artists such as the American Mike Kelley, the French Annette Messager, the Nigerian El Anatsui, and the Australian Nick Cave are but a few examples of this global phenomenon. The contemporary wave of artists promoting postcolonial agendas and practicing a new kind of abstraction, which has departed from that of the 20th century’s modern canon, also include the British Yinka Shonibare as well as the American duo Guerra de la Paz.[2]

Born in London in 1962 to Nigerian parents, Yinka Shonibare was raised and educated in Lagos and London. In some of his installations, he dressed up his headless mannequins with Victorian-like crinolines and corsets sewn of ready-made “African” batik fabrics. The installations included, among other things, references to European paintings by artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and Jean Honoré Fragonard. In his works, Shonibare challenges the spectator’s preconceptions by using visual-cultural signs and symbols (“African fabrics”), the cultural and economic mobility of which has long since divested them of any assumed “authenticity.” The association of African fabric with the “Victorian body” (represented by a mannequin) deflects the works towards critical, satirical, witty and mischievous messages: the alien, the Other, the outsider, “enwraps” a representation of the hegemonic, colonial culture. Moreover, this “alien” has already become a part of that culture; he is the Other within it.

“It is [...] normal for me to switch between cultures. [...] I am a post colonial hybrid,” says Shonibare.[3] This state of hybridity, or the choice to enjoy the best of both (or all) worlds, to enrich them and be enriched by them, characterizes also the works of Sara Nissim. Like Shonibare, she is at peace with her double heritage, in her case: the Iraqi and the Israeli, the Oriental-Occidental, the traditional and the modern. Like him, she is a typical species of cosmopolitan-refugee (a hybrid of cultural cosmopolitanism and experiences of refugees and immigrants from “other” cultures).

Cuban born Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz collaborate as a duo under the name Guerra de la Paz. In their sculptures and installations, these Miami, Florida-based artists combine the exuberant and sweeping Cuban colorful materiality with its jaunty counterpart of Miami’s American culture, while enjoying and reflecting the best of both worlds.

As has been evidenced by a number of recent exhibitions (such as Overcraft: Obsession, Decoration and Biting Beauty [2003] and Boys Craft [2007-2008], curator: Tami Katz Freiman, or Fasateen/Salmot [2006] and Embroidery and Calligraphy in Contemporary Art in Israel [2007], curator: Haim Maor), contemporary Israeli art has indeed embraced this trend and the accompanying “multiculturalism” discourse. These developments empowered Sara Nissim in her artistic path: “You are necessarily multi-cultural, if you were born in Iraq, grew up in Israel, traveled throughout the world, and drew inspiration from both the history of Western and Eastern art and from wandering in markets and stores. For me, the works of the Spanish Antonio Tàpies, the later relief-paintings of the American Frank Stella, medieval European manuscript illuminations and illustrations, patterns of Bukhara fabrics, Yemenite jewels, or Persian rugs – are all legitimate raw materials and sources of inspiration drawn from the art library in my living room or from memory compartments in my head.”[4]

Technically speaking, her works are executed in various methods of applique and patchwork: a single layer, or several superimposed layers, and various coiled or stitched up ready-made objects. Her works have the undeniable collagist quality of putting together different parts, of preparing a jigsaw puzzle or a mosaic, or of patching up elements into a quilt. However, unlike these techniques that are essentially methods of construction, conjunction and completion aiming at creating a single, unified whole, Sara Nissim’s artistic practice involves an act of deconstruction, of disassembling and reassembling the old canonical whole into a new disruptive whole.

Her choice to employ methods of patching and undoing and to work with carpets, dresses and dolls as her artistic medium reflects an existential necessity rather than a mere inclination for labor-intensive art techniques. In a way, the medium is the message: an elaborate means with which Sara Nissim expresses her artistic swaying between the cultures of East and West. The patching and undoing techniques accurately convey the way this jigsaw puzzle that is her identity has come together.


Prof. Haim Maor, Exhibition Curator

[1] This article is an elaboration and extension of my earlier essay “Patching Hebrew in Iraqi: On Sara Nissim’s works in the exhibition From the Mouth of the River Tigris,” Sara Nissim: From the Mouth of the Tigris River (exhibition catalogue), curator: Haim Maor, Ben-GurionUniversity of the Negev, October 2004 – January 2005.

*  Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, London: Vintage, 1994, p. 336.

[2] In a recent exhibition, Abstract America: New Painting and Sculpture (Saatchi Gallery, London, May 2009-January 2010), for example, most, if not all, of the works on display combined kitsch and elegant minimalism, large decorative paper cutouts, etc. within contemporary abstract. The duo Guerra de la Paz participated in that exhibition.

[3] See: “Fabric and the Irony of Authenticity,” 1996, in: http://www.iniva.org/library/archive/people/s/shonibare_mbe_yinka/fabric_and_the_irony_of_authenticity.

[4] See Sara Nissim: From the Mouth of the Tigris River (exhibition catalogue), Ben-GurionUniversity of the Negev, 2004-2005, p. 3.