Persona March, 2nd 2023 by

World Fine Art Professionals and their Key-Pieces, 404 - Joseph Sassoon Semah

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World Fine Art Professionals and their Key-Pieces, 404 – Joseph Sassoon Semah
in 2020, during the corona period, I visited the Kunstmuseum Den Haag for the exhibition ‘About Friendship…’ with the work of Joseph Sassoon Semah. In the exhibition, he brought together 36 architectural models of houses, a synagogue, school and cultural buildings that refer to the Jewish-liberal culture of his Babylonian ancestors, a culture that, according to him, barely exists beyond memory.

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Recently I visited the artist in Amsterdam. Linda Bouws, his wife, who is also director of Metropool International Art Projects and curator of the multi-year project ‘OnFriendship / (Collateral Damage)’, is also there. I was handed a recently published book ‘Joseph Sassoon Semah, On Friendship / (Collateral Dammage) III, The Third Galut: Baghdad, Jerusalem, Amsterdam’. It contains several essays on Joseph’s work, with many illustrations. It is very beautifully designed.

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Exile, hospitality and friendship
Exile, hospitality and friendship are central themes in the work of Joseph Sassoon Semah (1948, Baghdad). In 1950 he and his parents are forced to leave Iraq for Israel and in 1981 he ends up in Amsterdam via London, Berlin and Paris.
On the wall in the Kunstmuseum Den Haag hung 86 drawings and objects that refer to ancient culture and exile. These works are part of his research project On Friendship / (Collateral Damage) III – The Third GaLUT: Baghdad, Jerusalem, Amsterdam. Referring to his own GaLUT (Hebrew for exile) it is these three tolerant cities where Sassoon Semah experienced hospitality.

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From guest to host
Joseph has always felt like a guest, but in The Hague he acted as a host to share his original culture. By way of welcome, at one of the entrances to the exhibition was the triptych Joseph / YOSeF / Yusuf, a kind of self-portrait with the name of the artist in Dutch, Hebrew and Arabic, accompanied by a Black-tailed Godwit (the national bird of the Netherlands), a Hoopoe (Israel’s national bird) and a Partridge (Chukar, Iraq’s national bird).

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Sassoon Semah’s work leaves plenty of room for critical reflection on identity, history and tradition, and is part of the artist’s long-term investigation into the relationship between Judaism and Christianity as sources of Western art and cultural history and politics. Everything resonates with the aspiration of his grandfather, Hacham Sassoon Kadoori, the chief rabbi of Baghdad, to promote dialogue between different religions and worldviews.
One of the display cases showed the prayer rug (Talit) of his grandfather, who refused to leave Baghdad during the first forced deportation, probably because Baghdad was already his first exile, but mainly because Iraq was his homeland. One of the wooden architectural models, also shown in a bronze version with ram horns, is based on his synagogue, the Meir Tweig synagogue in Baghdad, which still exists but is now disused.

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The Lost Paradise
Eighty-six drawings of human skulls and the fauna of Iraq—86 was the age of Sassoon Semah’s grandfather when he died—symbolize paradise lost: the straight lines for the map of the destroyed Jewish quarter, the yarn for size and territory, sewing itself for textiles as a carrier of information. A typewriter with Hebrew letters refers to the second exile, that of Sassoon Semah’s father, an important lawyer in Israel, here accompanied by sand from Jerusalem.
The book in the showcase, the Talmud Bavli Tractate Pesachiem YaKNeHa’Z, has been edited: Sassoon Semah’s additions to the typography refer to his concept of architecture in exile. The abstract forms refer to Mondrian, De Stijl and other abstract art in the West, the third exile. In a metaphorical sense, About Friendship… is an ode to a lost culture, and at the same time an invitation to dialogue about the different cultures.

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Joseph Beuys
Joseph is now in the process of publishing On Friendship / (Collateral Damage) IV, part of the project On Friendship / (Collateral Damage) IV – How to Explain Hare Hunting to a Dead German Artist [The usefulness of continuous measurement of the distance between Nostalgia and Melancholia], which has just been completed. It will appear in February 2023 and is about the art of Joseph Beuys and the symbols in his work. Joseph: “It is not only about art history, but also about the social embedding of Beuys’ work in post-war Germany.”

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In 1965 Beuys held a performance in a small gallery, Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf. “In his hand he held a dead hare, with whom he conversed in incomprehensible language. 21 years later, on January 31, 1986, Joseph Beuys dies, three weeks before my birthday (February 24). As a result, I am making a hare cast in bronze with the title ‘Beuys changed?’ In the Nazi era, the sentence ‘We are going to hunt hares’ was a formula for ‘We are going to shoot Jews’. Beuys was a radio operator in the Luftwaffe during the Second World War and therefore fully participated in the war. How come Beuys can become one of the most important artists in Germany after the war? Perhaps because he plays the role of the victim. But that is a secret strategy of the artist that is not hindered by the art world and German society as a whole, on the contrary.”

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Jewish diversity
Part V of On Friendship / (Collateral Damage) will be about Jewish diversity. “There is no unity in Judaism. In the West and in Israel, Jewish art is that of the Ashkenazim (Western Jews). Diversity in Judaism does not fit the narrative, neither in Western Europe nor in Israel. There is an overriding theme: the Shoah. But you also have to include history and the art of the Middle East.” There will also be a book and debates.
Joseph: “In total five beautiful parts, in which art history is supplemented with a different view.”
How long has Joseph been an artist?
Since 1976. He studied electronic engineering at Tel Aviv University. He then studied philosophy at the same university. As a ground soldier of the Israeli Air Force, he fought in Egypt in the Yom Kippur War. That was such a depressing experience that as soon as the war was over he left for a short holiday in London. But that holiday turned into a longer stay, and after London came Berlin and then Amsterdam and he has been there for 40 years now.

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Finally, what is his artistic philosophy?
Joseph: “What is art? Art is the misunderstanding between Judaism and Christianity about the problem of representation.”
1 – 3) On Friendship / (Collateral Dammage) IV – How to Explain the Hare Hunt to a Dead German Artist, 4) Joseph Sassoon Semah, Installation Photo of Architectural Model Based on Ezekiel’s Tomb, Iraq, Location: Fatih Mosque, Amsterdam 2019 , wood, white cotton binding, two trestles, 2019. Photo: Ilya Rabinovich © On Friendship / (Collateral Damage) III – The Third GaLUT: Baghdad, Jerusalem, Amsterdam, Stichting Metropool Internationale Kunstprojecten, 5) Joseph Sassoon Semah, installation photograph of an architectural model based on a photograph from the early 1930s of a house in the Jewish quarter of Baghdad, locat ie: INIT, Amsterdam 2019, wood, white cotton binding, two trestles, 2019. Photo: Ilya Rabinovich © On Friendship / (Collateral Damage) III – The Third GaLUT: Baghdad, Jerusalem, Amsterdam, Stichting Metropool Internationale Kunstprojecten, 6 – 9) On Friendship / (Collateral Dammage) IV – How to explain the Hare hunt to a dead German artist, 10) portrait photo Joseph Sassoon Semah


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