First published: Fall 2019

A unique symbol that appears in much of Ody Saban's work embodies themes of religion, mythology, feminism and the artist's life

A mysterious graphic symbol appears time and again in the versatile, multimedia work of Paris-based, Turkish artist Ody Saban. It peppers her drawings, paintings and lithographs; her lively, expressive performance art; her often calligraphic or serigraphic poems; and her sculptural artists’ books. Originally assuming the form of an inverted “V”, the symbol progressively mutated into a more straightforward V-shape with an additional, shorter vertical line at the intersection of the two typographic arms. The titles of some of these works, and Saban’s own writings on the topic, reveal the meaning of this recurrent sign: kus, the fictional twenty-third letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
 


Untitled (Portrait of Ody Saban), 2008, photo: Jean-Nicolas Reinert, courtesy of the artist 

Born in 1953 in Istanbul into a Jewish family, Saban was raised speaking Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) as well as Turkish, and felt increasingly at odds with the nationalist discourses of the modern Kemalist nation-state, where non-Turkish ethnic minorities were either silenced or brutally repressed. Saban moved to Israel in 1969, where she studied at an art school in Haifa. In the late 1970s, after a long detour through the US, she finally settled in Paris, where, while occasionally attending the National Fine Arts School, she mostly lived on the fringes of the French art world. In 1983, she became the co-founder and only female member of Art Cloche, an artists’ collective. After the group was evicted from the building in which the members squatted, she founded the originally all-female artists’ collective Art Cloche 2.

On the basis of her unconventional personal and aesthetic choices, Turkish-Jewish family background, and radical feminist politics, Saban invariably felt like the odd one out, relegated to the margins of society. In her vast oeuvre, playfully renegotiating symbolic markers of identity and belonging has been both a productive artistic endeavor and an indispensable survival strategy. Faced with the inadequacy of a symbolic order that did not seem to accommodate her existence, Saban took it upon herself to actively rewrite this symbolic order through artistic means, turning marginalisation into pride, and indifference into defiant, theatrical self-staging. To describe her own work, Saban occasionally refers to the kabbalistic notion of tikkun olam, literally “repairing the world” by putting back together the broken shards of divine light. In her case, this repair work takes the shape of a playful, variegated bricolage that subversively draws from an iconographic toolbox of Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious traditions, historical allusions, exuberant vegetal patterns, raw eroticism, Surrealist and Lacanian forays into the unconscious, and the political vocabulary of second-wave feminism.

The letter kus is one such syncretic symbol. It is based on a pun: in modern Hebrew, the name of the seventh letter of the Hebrew alphabet, zayin (ז), also means penis. Conversely, the fictional letter kus takes its name from the modern Hebrew word for vulva, and derives its shape from a schematic representation of a vulva, representing a symbolic counterpart to zayin aimed at re-inscribing femininity into the otherwise patriarchal order of the Hebrew alphabet. The opposition between kus and zayin is featured throughout Saban’s graphic works, for instance in the intricate, explicitly erotic drawing The Sky on Fire, 2005, where both graphic symbols are reinscribed onto the enmeshed bodies of the lovers.

The letter kus also pays homage to visual representations found in the Neolithic settlement of Çatal Hüyük in southern Turkey. Archeological investigations conducted in the early 1960s suggested that the site was associated with the matriarchal cult of a “Mother Goddess”. These archeological findings directly resonated with the preoccupations of second-wave feminist authors and artists, such as Judy Chicago, Faith Ringgold and Anne L Barstow, intent on illustrating a notion of essential womanhood as fundamentally distinct from masculinity, based on new interpretations of mythology, religion and cultural history.
 

This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #103.

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