John Hood

Raw Vision Magazine issue 27


John Hood follows Ody Saban's international route from Istanbul, to Haifa, to Paris, and to New York, but discovers that her creative world is within herself.

Ody (Ody) Saban was born in Istanbul on April 30, 1953 of Sephardic Jewish parents. Before the Second World War, Ody's parents had been fairly wealthy, but the property of all Jews in Istanbul, like that of the Greeks and Armenians, was confiscated in 1941. Her parents were divorced when she was five and her mother remarried to a Moslem who was a well-known miniature and china restorer. He was also a musician and poet and greatly influenced Ody's artistic development.

A lonely but imaginative child, Ody created a play world of her own, talking and singing to exotic objects around the house. Ody tells of this experience. 'To me it seems that in myself, the woken dreams, spontaneous imagination, and semi-controlled hallucinations have developed rather than lessened with age. I continue to practice my childhood games almost constantly, and more intensely, but in a visual and interiorized manner.'

Ody's father died when she was fifteen: 'The death of my father really shocked me... I still cannot accept it today.' Her education up to age sixteen was at a convent in Istanbul, but from then on she had to work and fend for herself. In 1969, she went to live on a kibbutz in Israel. In Haifa, she completed a course in art education but found herself unsuited to teaching art to children in an academic manner, concluding that she did not believe art could be taught.

In 1977, Ody left Israel for Paris and fell in love with the city which she has since made her home. She hung out at the University of Paris and organized children's workshops at the Centre Georges Pompidou. In Paris, with her boundless energy, she painted and wrote poetry while living a life of bohemianism and anarchy. In 1977, she organized two groups of self-taught women artists, 'Singulieres Plurielles' and 'Art et regard des femmes'.

The following year, whilst in Turkey, Ody was involved in a serious car accident and lay in a coma for several hours. She recalls, 'It happened during a Moslem religious festival. The only doctor on duty at the hospital was reluctant to operate on me as I had a non-Moslem name. During this time I was in a coma and if he had not sewn me up, I would have bled to death.' Operated on without anesthetic, Ody recalls falling in and out of consciousness, biting on her friend's arm, pulling her own hair and crying out in terrible pain as the doctor's needle entered her body. Later, doctors in Paris told her she had been sewn up by a butcher! Splinters of glass remained in her stomach and in her breasts. The following day, she was taken to the American hospital at Ankara where she underwent further operations, this time with anesthetic.

Ody tried to paint what happened to her, reliving the experience in her work. It was at this point that she began to use very strong colors, especially reds: 'before the accident, I was using chinese ink, but immediately afterwards, my lines became more aggressive, like the operation.'

The accident totally changed Ody's life: 'I became more attentive to all the little details of life, my environment, and above all, love... I feel other people's suffering very strongly'.

Ody met self-taught artist and poet Dominique Perret in 1977, and returning to Paris after her accident, stayed with her for a while. It was here that she met and fell in love with Dominique's brother, self-taught photographer and poet Gilles Perret, who had been brought up by his grand-parents at a psychiatric hospital in Toulouse, where his grandfather had been a doctor and director. 'Gilles had an unhappy childhood and I could understand him.' The pair became inseparable. Fully recovered and continuing her whirlwind life, Ody traveled to the United States in 1980. In New York, she painted 3 metre canvasses of yellow taxis and herself, her body, fleeing the cars. In September 1981, she and Gilles returned to Paris where they were married and their daughter, Eden, was born in 1982. They were subsequently divorced and Gilles died in 1990.

Having been introduced to the painter Jean Starck in 1983, Ody came to 'Art Cloche' -- a squat in an old bomb-factory, where tramps mixed with Russian, and self-taught, artists -- and found it to be a suitable place for herself and Eden. Here she constructed a room using cardboard for walls and carpet she found in the street. 'There were holes in the floor. I had to fill in the spaces so that Eden did not fall through to the floor below.' Ody was the only woman creating there.

In 1986, Ody opened 'Art Cloche II.' This 1000 square metre space in an old Citroen garage was scattered with broken glass when Ody found it. 'I slept for one week on the glass... morning and night, I collected it.' Her time spent here was very special: 'magic, talking to the dead, trance, the times when I became a shaman are very strongly connected to my accident. I have also related the accident to the soul of my dog Rexi, which I abandoned in Israel, as the dog that caused the accident looked a lot like Rexi. It was Rexi's revenge.'
Ody’s work parallels her life. Hers is an art of the Orient with intricate detail, its hallmark a lush, supercharged eroticism. Françoise Monnin wrote: ‘To the end of the Thousand and One Nights: her native Turkey, her Jewish mother, her memories of America, her love of Paris, each step gives Ody Saban a new reason to paint’.

Ody is a complex person who operates at a high level of practicality and efficiency. She speaks six languages: Turkish, Hebrew, French and some English, Italian and Spanish. She travels between Paris, Tel Aviv, Istanbul, and New York, where she stays with her long-time friend and sponsor, Peter Reynaud. While her art may have roots in hallucination, she is businesslike and organized in tirelessly and single-mindedly promoting her work. In her colorful costumes and theatrical makeup, Ody’s exuberance is a part of her art. She synthesizes with her art.

She talks to her paintings as she works on them, even curses them. Painting is an outlet for her feelings and her hostilities. A hostility, it must be noted, that is not expressed in her warm and friendly interpersonal relationships.

There is a pained and angry unconscious in her work. Her colors are sometimes harsh and discordant, her figures often birdlike and threatening, as if out of nightmares; males with aggressives phalluses proliferate. This sexual world is usually not gentle and romantic, but is hostile and violent. These are not works of peaceful tranquility. Ody is a child in her lonely room working out her emotions and frustrations, but with a mature artistic sensibility.

She has said, ‘ Even within the milieu of Art Brut my work is found to be too distressing, aggressive, erotic ‘. She has also explained, ‘ Until nearly before six years I took myself for a reincarnation of Lilith, who in the Talmud is the woman cursed by God, and I wanted to avenge Lilith (as I still do today, for that matter), and accomplish her work which, for me , is a beautiful work.’

Ody says that she has no conscious intention when she starts to paint. There is some variety in her subject matter but says that regardless of what is in her mind when she begins to paint, it results in a man and woman acting out their love. The work evolves as she puts the paint onto the surface. Starting with two blobs of paint, figures emerge and are refined. Then with black ink further elements are added. Finally, she fills her figures with a mass of compulsive detail.

The faces in her intricate and compelling ink drawings are startling. The expressive faces of shells, bodies or flowers are reminiscent of a Brueghel painting or ‘ The Picture of Dorian Grey ‘ by Ivan Albright. Her black ink-on-paper drawings are intricate and compelling. Some have said that these are her most directly powerful works, evoking a disorienting lace lexicon of their own : surreal, tattoo, arabesque, whirling dervish, intricate.

Ody has created a large number of works in oil, acrylic, and watercolor and remarkable works on mousseline, which she found in her bars of Manhattan in 1980. A very fine material, mousseline, when painted is as translucent as a stained glass window. With the light shining through, the colors are vibrant. The thin mousseline paper appears fragile but can be folded or crumpled, immediately returning to its original state like a wrapping tissue. As her mother had been a seamstress and her father traded in fabric, Ody likes to work with different materials.

The acrylic and watercolors also have a surreal effect. Michel Thévoz of the Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne, wrote in 1994 of Ody’s work: ‘ I am very impressed by this inextricable universe, this invasion of space by beings who belongs to varied reigns, scales, physical and mental registers. ‘ Bodies are made of many disparate parts somehow fitting together. Internal bodily organs are made external as in ‘ The Tree of the Live and Dead ‘. It is a world where everyone is wearing a mask.

Ody has said: ‘ I live in a state of permanent hallucination which for many others would mean madness. I simply combine these spontaneous hallucinations with an independent and creative life, with no relation to an alienatred life or that of a child ‘ (Paris, 1997).

Ody Saban’s work has been show in many group exhibitions and she has held thirty solo exhibitions since 1977. Sixteen non-profit museum and galleries have included her in their collections.

Ody is akin to the Neuve Invention of Switzerland, the Art Singulier of France and the Creation Franche of Gérard Sendrey, who writes: ‘Ody Saban gives us a change of scenery. Through an eroticism which dares to tell its name, here is a woman whose faces are multiple. Ody offers them all to us’.