A portrait of two artists

At a recent Open House weekend in Kfar Saba, participants exhibited in their homes or studios rather than at a central venue Zinky Agulnik's and Barbara Issahary's art have little in common beyond their creators' journey from their native South Africa to the Sharon.

barbarart 8 8298 (photo credit: )
barbarart 8 8298
(photo credit: )
At a recent Open House weekend in Kfar Saba, participants exhibited in their homes or studios rather than at a central venue Zinky Agulnik's and Barbara Issahary's art have little in common beyond their creators' journey from their native South Africa to the Sharon. The works of two South African-born artists caught the eye during Kfar Saba's recent Open House weekend, where participants exhibited in their homes or studios rather than at a central venue. Yet Zinky Agulnik's and Barbara Issahary's art have little in common beyond their creators' journey from their native land to the Sharon. Open house events are becoming increasingly popular throughout the country as more municipalities and local councils adopt the idea. They are relatively inexpensive and easy to organize, as artists are responsible for their own exhibits. In Kfar Saba, the municipality kicked in by sponsoring a four-piece orchestra that played once at each venue, and it published a brochure (mailed to all the city's residents) with details about the artists and a map so art lovers could combine culture with exercise by walking one end of the city to the other. "It broadens the mind as well as stretches the legs," remarked Kfar Saba resident Janine Gelley, who took one look at Zinky Agulnik's oil painting of four flowers and bought it. "It caught my eye; there was something about it, and I knew I had to have it," she said. Gelley, who was active with the South African Zionist Federation (Israel) during the recent Lebanon war raising money for essential items for the soldiers in the North, did a double take when the artist revealed the meaning behind the painting she had just bought. "The first flower was a tribute to a soldier killed in Lebanon," explained Agulnik, "while the others symbolize the new life given to three patients who received organs from the dead soldier." As in much of Agulnik's work, the message is life, hope and continuity. The flowers' exuberant colors portray the eternal spirit of the dead soldier, "who lives on in those whose lives he saved," says Agulnik. She describes herself as an "emotive artist, expressing feelings and mood rather than realistic form." A mixed media artist, she has developed a highly decorative and colorful effect that includes motifs drawn from African culture. Agulnik is a rebel with a cause. "I've always been a rebel. At art school I learned the rules. Since then, I've been breaking them. With each work I feel like I am starting afresh, breaking new boundaries." Always experimenting with new media and materials, she enjoys "the adventure of creating. The end result is less important to me than the journey itself." She puts so much of herself into each creation that it took some time before she was prepared to part with any of her works. At her first exhibition in Haifa in 1967, four of her paintings were sold on the first day. Most aspiring artists would be elated, but not Agulnik. "It was like a child leaving home," so the next day, the distraught artist canceled the sales. "The money meant nothing; I could not part with so much of myself," she recalls. It took almost three decades for her to let go of her "progeny." That rite of passage was celebrated at a solo exhibition in Johannesburg some 10 years ago. "The event was a commemoration of 3,000 years of Jerusalem. I sold eight paintings; the one that fetched the most was my impression of the Garden of Eden," she recalls. The proceeds from the sale of the painting - a colorful whirlwind of the whimsical and untamed that envelops the tranquility of Jerusalem - went toward funding the travel costs of two hulking new immigrants: Amora and Yedida, two rhinoceroses from South Africa on their trek to their new home at the Jerusalem Zoo. "They nearly did not arrive," recounts Agulnik. "The ship was attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia, and the ship had to make a dash for it." She thrives on the influence of other artists. One can see traces of Chagall, Modigliani, Matisse and Dubuffet in her work. "A lot of my work is inspired by the current artist I am in love with. I am influenced by their styles, but everything comes out my way. At school I was in awe of my professors," she says, citing renowned South African sculptor Lippy Lipshitz, who is buried at Kibbutz Barkai near Hadera. Agulnik's art is not for the intellectually lazy. The viewer has to work at each painting and discover its hidden secrets. Much of her art she describes as "autobiographical" and has political, social or personal overtones, often an amalgam of all three. During the second intifada, when suicide bombers were a plague on Israeli streets, Agulnik was invited by the Jewish community in Sweden for the launch of its annual fundraising campaign for Israel. She had produced a series of paintings, each recording a devastating suicide bombing. "I felt it important that these personal cataclysmic events should not be forgotten and become mundane, relegated to mere statistics," she explains. One of her paintings from this emotionally charged series was auctioned at the Stockholm launch, and the money raised was used to alleviate the pain and suffering that had inspired the painting. While firmly entrenched in Israel and its culture - Agulnik's husband Eli first arrived in Palestine at age three on the immigration ship Exodus in 1947 and still has the boarding ticket - her South African roots are nevertheless pervasive in much of her art. The convergence of past and present resonates in her large painting on the disengagement from Gaza. The motifs of Israeli families leaving their homes in Gush Katif are fused with African motifs from the era of forced removals during South Africa's dark past during the Apartheid era. "The message," says Agulnik, "is that when it come to tragedy, history transcends geography." How many talented painters are churning out canvases that might never see the light of day outside their studios? A lucky break helps - and that is what happened to Barbara Issahary when she heard that rock star David Bowie was touring Israel in 1996. While most people were familiar with Bowie the musician, she also knew that he was a renowned art critic and a serious collector of the works of Lucian Freud, an artist that "has the most influence on my style of figurative painting." Fortuitously, she had a friend working backstage for Bowie's open-air Hayarkon Park concert, and "she gave me the green light to sneak into his dressing quarters and hang up some of my paintings. I left a letter and hoped for the best. I figured there wasn't much chance he would even notice because he was arriving at 6 p.m., performing at 8:00, and then flying out after the concert." Failing to notice was hardly likely, so large were Issahary's paintings. It was more a question of whether he would like them. After the concert, she was summoned. "I couldn't believe it. I felt like a groupie! We chatted for over half an hour about art - nothing about his concert or music - and then he came out with it: He loved my work and purchased one of my large nudes." The Bowie purchase was pivotal in Issahary's career. "It was an affirmation that I was on track." Until then, Issahary had felt unsettled about her art, that it was not properly understood. "My semi-realistic style was hardly fashionable at the time - conceptual art was 'in.' I felt like an outsider undermined by questions like 'Why are you doing this? Your style isn't 'now' - it's the past.' Bowie made me feel I had arrived." And arrived she had. Prior to the recent exhibition in her penthouse studio in the Rom Ha'ir neighborhood, Issahary joined a 28-strong delegation including local artists to Wiesbaden, Germany. "What impressed me about our mayor Yehuda Ben-Hamo, who led the delegation, was his admission that he knew so little about art before the trip and how he came to appreciate not only its beauty but its power, its amazing pull in drawing crowds and how it can be used as a tool to promote. Kfar Saba is a twin city of Wiesbaden, and the exhibition drew crowds to the exhibition in the beautiful old city hall," recounts Issahary. Like Lucien Freud, "who uses models and steers close to reality," Issahary frequently paints nudes. But unlike her mentor, her work is not erotic "because painting as a woman, I possibly approach the subject from a different perspective." Introducing everyday objects such as laundry baskets, electric fans and slippers randomly lying on the floor, Issahary provides a sense of time and place. "For me, they are metaphors. If the model is feminine and soft, I look for objects that are hard and cold. My work is full of contrasts - light and dark, color and grey, stillness and movement." Although she has recently tended toward landscapes and still life, it is the human form that emblematically characterizes her work. She remains fascinated by its sheer physicality. "What's important to me is the visual, as opposed to the analytical. It's painting in its purest form," says Issahary. Were it not for a twist of fate, Issahary could have been gracing canvases today in her native South Africa or possibly England, where she attended high school. An unexpected outbreak of anti-Semitism put an end to those options. It was 1973, and Issahary was studying French in Aix-en-Provence when the Yom Kippur War broke out. "It changed my life. I was shocked by the attitudes and behavior of my fellow students. One minute I knew them, the next I felt I was in the enemy camp." Issahary, who had no Jewish education and had few Jewish friends until then, suddenly felt very Jewish. "I found myself thinking about a country that I had never given a thought to" and within a few months found herself immersed in that country as a volunteer on Kibbutz Ma'abarot. "The only Hebrew word I knew when I arrived was 'shalom,'" says Issahary, who 23 years later is married to an Israeli she met while studying at the University of Haifa. She is highly disciplined in her work ethic. "I clock into my studio every morning six days a week, and leave between 3:30 and 4 p.m. It is never a case of 'I don't feel like it today' or 'I am not feeling inspired.' All those words are rubbish. Doing inspires, not thinking about doing. For me, painting is both a work and a passion, and I would spend even more time at it if I was not distracted," she adds.