At the opening ceremony of: British Library ‘Sacred on Location’ Exhibition at the Bruce Castle Museum London N14

By Anne Sebba

I have known Gitl for just about a year and in that time have been completely bowled over by her understanding of how to communicate without words.
She radiates an impulse, an urge, almost a passionate need to communicate. She is full of new ideas, almost in a rush to make up for lost time.

To me, the extraordinary thing is not how she is producing all these wonderful works of art now, in the second half of her life, but how she kept them within herself for so long until they burst forth and are still bursting. We may be meeting tonight in North London but there seems no doubt that she is destined for a truly international career.

She has been described in the media as ‘the Jewish grandmother from Stamford Hill” but I hope we will go far beyond that cliché today.

A few facts: Gitl was born into an orthodox family in Israel. Her parents were both Holocaust survivors, her mother of Auschwitz her father survived the Bor labour camp in Yugoslavia, and she grew up speaking only Yiddish and Hebrew in such poverty that most of her childhood was spent in an orphanage. Married at 18 she came to Britain in 1973 and is the mother of 8 surviving children.

She started work as an artist only when her children had grown up and found a natural ability as a competent painter. Producing landscapes of the Kent coast and also of Israel from memory her work was good enough to be accepted on the tough 5 year Central St Martins Fine arts course. She was always an original talent; she first mixed her paint with scent and other fabrics and then she slowly learnt to look beyond paint and soon exchanged her paintbrush for a camera and landscape for fabric. But she is constantly seeking new and original ways to express herself and I hope she will talk about some of them tonight.

By the end of her course, her creative identity had evolved so it appeared as if she had arrived on the scene a fully fledged artist but of course her childhood and 30 years of motherhood and the suffering of her parents had all been absorbed and digested if you like and were now making an appearance in her work.

As her course director revealed, Gitl was known as ‘the lady’ during her years at central st martins for her warm reserve as much as her proud bearing.

This is what she wrote at the time of her graduation show.

“Gitl appears to have found her own language for her inner thoughts certainly so when judging by those spellbound visitors who stood at her exhibit wiping a forlorn tear.”

I have one of her sumptuously gorgeous photographic sculptures and look at it constantly to find new images and thoughts in the tunnels and through the folds and the shadows.

– Can you tell the story of the pomegranate here?

Our course in Saint Martins was not about technique, it was mainly about conceptual awareness, and guiding us aspiring artists to find our own, true inner voice.

Some of my colleagues were puzzled with my frequent departures, I moved on from issues of ethnicity, to issues of motherhood, or more abstract areas of interest, but my teachers approved and encouraged me to roam about to find my true fascination. For me, the course turned into a kind of an inner expedition, into my suppressed inner world and most personal experience, for what I had to device means how to tease and challenge myself. I had a medical photograph of my dissected, removed womb. I photographed and enlarged it, wanting to see how can one deal with such a personal image.

While dealing with it, I was sitting in the Succa, as it was during the days of our Sukkot, our ancient harvest festival, my gaze fell upon a pomegranate hanging from the ceiling as a traditional decoration, symbolising plenitude.

I was intrigued as I found the pomegranate resemble the shape of the womb, I took it down begun to experiment with it.

At a point I photograph it as it was wrapped in a peace of soft cloth, to resemble the covering skin.

On analyzing the takes, it turned out that the, telling effect of the folds and creases in the cloth was overwhelming, to the point that the original images of the medical photo and womb, were of no value and a distraction, and so have I fallen on the potent language of fabric folds, textures and creases.

– When did you first pick up a paintbrush…

It was not exactly a brush, but  I remember painting once Jerusalem’s old city view from the roof of our orphanage,  I painted it wit a peace of burned wood on a found floor tile and it was adored by the  head.

It was at fairly early age.

– Then perhaps about learning English (briefly)

Naturally, the boys went to Haider where they spoke only Yidish, while the girls spoke English amongst themselves and I spoke to them Yiddish, just like my mother was speaking to me in Hungarian while my language was Yiddish.     It was about 10 years ago when I took to learn the language and reading and writing, it was a couple of years later when I begun, on my teachers advise to read the Guardian.

– What was it like at Art school with all the other young and trendy students?

I know that people find it rather unusual, that an Ultra orthodox Granny shall jell with lively, modern art students… but in reality, it was a hard, all demanding course, and we were all working very hard, just to survive the course, I have seen myself as one of the students, I was not given any allowances, and no one made feel out of place, Saint Martins is a great, serious place…

– I have read somewhere that you went to a life class with your daughter and discovered you were good at it? How is your daughter’s life as an artist different from yours?

Our Elky is a fine artist, who has graduated Hetherlys, which is a classical fine art school, where she completed a portraiture diploma.     She is following now for some time a musical genre and produces most vital, brilliant sketches of musicians in action, but of course, it is fairly ironic that I the Buba (granny) have created my own genre… while Elky is a figurative expressionist, but I guess that people will hear of Elky, she knows what she is doing, she is really good.

– You have bucked the trend that declared modern art was all about installations and dead sheep and dirty beds. You have shown that  religious art can also be modern and  fashionable. Was that important to you… or were you not conscious of deliberately setting out to make items of religious art?

Frankly, in my age is about time, one does what one feels like doing… I am lucky to work in an age where art, what is essentially the human creative impulse, is widely liberated, I can not claim any special credit for taking courage to ignore yesterday’s trends, because we live now in the post trends age.  As to what you may regard as religious art, I would rather call it; a particular religious girls art, keeping in mind Bernard Shaw’s quote saying; ‘when one is accounting honestly about the life of one person, in one given time, he is in fact writing a chapter in the great book of humans, of all times…’     – Being an Orthodox woman artist

I aspire to be true to myself in my art, that my work shall represent my particular experience, and reach out to all human’s and effect them by it’s quality and honesty, in whatever I deal with, be it the feminine issue, age, or what I would call ‘my personal luggage’.

– Are you still as orthodox as ten years ago?

I am lucky to have spent the best part of my life, with an open minded man, and naturally I have learned to differentiate between spirituality and sectarian religious dogma, However, my later education opened for me the wider world, after having to learn, maybe, in the hard way, that not all is perfect in ones community, so have I learned later that not all is decadent in the other…

– What does your religion mean to you?

Lets face it, Religion is in the essence of my only native culture, Religion does not ‘mean’ for me, it possesses me, by the way of guiding me or haunting me, but I must say, that I know by now, of extremely spiritual people, Jews and non-Jews, while being pure and pious with no religious beliefs and practices as I knew them.

– Why should orthodox women not be allowed to express themselves openly and communicate?

I do not blame any culture or community for trying to preserve itself, but I must agree that I wished that the individual, be it man or woman shall become more relevant and given some chance to develop, But, that’s how things are in this given time…

– Looking back… how do you see that your family background –  the silences,  The pain –how has that influenced your work?

Others can judge it far better than I could, I am only me, and my art is my expression I keep in mind Olitski’s saying: ’Do not expect anything-Do your work and celebrate’having mentioned Olitski, I have also at heart his motto; Give the work life…

– Both you and your husband are deeply involved in art – What have you learnt from each other?

I guess that we have agreed that life is too short to waste on mediocre stuff…

– Would you do anything differently if you started again today?    

Today is the first and most important day of our life, and one would not spoil it by gilt and remorse…  Especially when knowing that one’s past is his very much his ‘me’ of the present.

– This picture of woodblocks is very different from the soft textile pictures is one essentially female and the other hard brutal and male? How did it arise… Tell us about what else you have on display here at Bruce Castle Museum?

When I undertook to make the Sacred project, I thought to focus on the pages of a most telling prayer book of old, being aware that the Sidur, the book of our ancient, Hebrew daily prayers, was by far the most personal object to our ancestors, I wanted make it talk, by photographing it as a woman, a mother, a housewife  looks at the tell tale marks of agitation and tears though out it’s fragmenting pages, while the story with the letters is that the letters found me, not vise versa…

As to categorising the gender of the Martyred Letters, I guess that you will find this work of the Martyred letters, to have more than one expression, I hope that there are enough effects in the installation to reveal my feminine gaze and touch, mainly in the regimented chaotic order.     It is my dealing with the familiar dilemma as to how can one make honest art about what happened to our parents, while a work of art is expected to be aesthetically appealing, I hope that these ‘male’ blocks do silently pray for the suffering of men and women alike.

– What can art do that religion cannot?

I have never thought about it, I supose that you are better positioned to answer it than I am, I guess that I could not have engaged the Muslim ladies with a Shofar …

– Do you believe religion is still a force for good or is it the individuals and how they behave?

I am not an authority to speak wisely about the merit’s of religion, I lack the distance needed for objectivity, I am still, to a considerable degree religion’s subject.

– Are you surprised by your success – how do you explain it?

I am a workaholic by nature, I worked all my life, and now taken to a field where is no time left for stock taking, but I am most grateful that people enjoy what I do, I pray that it shall remain so.

– What next? You have to make up for lost time…

Next is work, and work again, and more work…

– Other peoples interpretations of your work Some say it is erotic does that bother you …

My husband reassures me that eroticism is a measure of aesthetically value since biblical times, I am not aiming to scandalise but to convey fleeting sensations as I manage to capture them into my work.

– At the moment you are in huge demand for work and interviews. Is there a danger that YOU might become the story not your work-how will you prevent that…

I gave my poor man a good ear-bashing of these worriers of mine, he laughs it off, saying that I remind him of the chap who whispered into his ears ‘I opened a grocery, and swear you to keep it secret…’

– What are your main artistic influences and are they changing?

I am captivated by the fabric effects in the works of old masters like Carvaggio, Rembrandt, now I am preoccupied with Bernini.