Sana Farah-Bishara – A Retrospective According to the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, a woman is not born a woman – she becomes one. In today’s postfeminist age, repeated attempts have been made to define the complex experience of being a woman. In its capacity as a tool for social criticism, art, too, is at times concerned with this issue, and examines it within the framework of various mediums. Sana Farah-Bishara is one of the prominent women artists who attempts to define womanhood, and the social roles played by women, through her sculptures.
Sana Farah-Bishara’s sculptures of women depict sensual, confident, independent and proud women, whose heads are often tilted upwards in an attitude suggesting ecstasy or prayer. Her female figures bear no identifying signs whatsoever: they have no profession or particular social status; no specific national or ethnic identity; no religion, age, defined family status or even individual facial features. This principle has received special attention in Sana’s sculpture in every style she has worked in. Her work is characterized by a minimalistic representation of the figure’s face; during certain periods, this had led to the complete flattening of parts of the face, so that the figure has virtually no identifiable features.
The minimalism and abstraction of these faces are inspired by artists of the early 20th century Parisian avant-garde, such as Constantin Brancusi and Pablo Picasso. Through the abstraction of facial features, Sana creates mysterious and anonymous figures, diverting the viewers’ attention to the figure’s body and movement and inviting them to use their imagination in order to complete each sculpture’s missing parts. The use of generic, universal figures reaches its apogee in the 1999 workThe Feminine Side, a female bust whose face has been cut out and replaced with a mirror. The inclined head – the defining feature of this female figure – causes the viewer whose face is reflected in the sculpture to identify with the female figure, regardless of the viewer’s own gender. In this manner, Sana defines every viewer as a woman who carries within the secret of beauty and power, creativity, peace and optimism.
The stylistic vocabulary of Sana Farah-Bishara’s work has been deeply influenced by Auguste Rodin (1840–1917). An examination of her stylistic development reveals elements inspired by his sculptures, whose style ranges from neoclassical to expressive.
Sana’s early sculptures are characterized by a quintessentially realistic style. She creates relatively small figurative sculptures (approximately 30 cm. high), which depict the romantic world of a woman. These female figures are not alone; they are represented in situations which are sometimes merely alluded to, and which partake of a woman’s world – such as marriage, motherhood and friendship. The 1994 sculpture Infant, which refers to an important aspect of a woman’s life, is a realistic representation, and the sculpture’s surface is perfectly smooth. This sculpture, like the 1995 sculpture Three Figures, demonstrates Sana’s interest in the three-dimensional nature of sculpture, and makes evident the development of an important principle that continues to influence her most recent works; the infant is sculpted without a base, and is not represented frontally, thus inviting the viewers to walk around it and examine it from various perspectives. It is not intended to be viewed from one particular angle, and may be positioned in various ways. It is rendered dynamic through the viewers’ use of their imagination or through their active intervention.
Later on, Sana began employing incisions in the course of forming her figures, while the flattening of the material in certain areas of the work endows them with a soft Cubist dimension.
Since the mid-1990s, Sana has created figures composed of rounded areas alongside incised, geometrical surfaces. The resulting tension between flowing sculptural contours and straight, rigid lines expresses the inner conflict between a woman’s fragility and her inner power and strength.
Sana has come to rebel against the perfect textures and realistic style of her earlier works; in addition to cutting out some areas of her sculptures, she lends other areas of the clay sculpture an extremely rough texture – thus creating both smooth and rough surfaces in the same figure.
Under the influence of Rodin’s Danaid1 and Michelangelo’s Slaves2, Sana exposes the material from which the sculpture is created, using the contrast between smooth and rough areas to represent the contrast between a woman’s delicate and tough sides. This motif, which expresses the internal and external beauty of woman, consists of both perfect and imperfect elements; it constitutes one in a series of contradictions that Sana incorporates into her work in order to express the complex experience of being a contemporary woman, and the various tensions that exist within her. Women exist in a constant state of conflict in contemporary society – which to a large degree is still based on chauvinistic concepts, and in which gender-related boundaries are constantly blurred… A woman’s role is unclear, and is fraught with contradictions which she must contain and contend with. Sana uses the material itself to express these contradictions. She sculpts in clay, which she uses to construct each figure in a positive manner, adding one layer upon the other; unlike stone, clay is a warm, pliable, feminine material.
Sana, however, considers this process just one stage on the road to perfection – a perfection defined by social and art world authorities. The French sculptor Jacques Lipchitz (1891–1973) maintained that in order for a sculpture to have artistic value, it must be cast.3 Once Sana’s sculptures are endowed with feminine warmth and tenderness, they are thus cast in bronze to become strong women.
The 1996 Countess radiates feminine resilience by means of the cold bronze, the roughly textured dress created while working on the clay model, and the figure’s movement and posture. She stands upright, her gaze proudly directed straight ahead. She appears as a woman imbued with power and with a vision, her upturned head expressing the optimism that pervades most of Sana’s work.
Despite the feminine refinement imparted by the sculptural form and by the movement of the dress, the transition to the representation of intrinsically powerful feminine figures has led Sana to create rough, crudely textured areas that invade the feminine, smoothly textured areas that characterized her earlier works.
As her sculptures gradually grew larger, Sana transformed the sculptural incisions she creates into an artistic tool. As is made evident, for instance, in the 1999 Reclining Woman, she uses them to form geometric depressions that create a play of light and shade upon the bronze surface, while the reflected light plays a role in the work’s visual appearance. These depressions are a key element in Sana’s art; in contrast to earlier works, which were composed of dense material, in her more recent works, they have grown increasingly deeper, becoming actual spaces. In the 2004 sculpture Body and Soul, this spatial expansion is clearly evident.
The dents characteristic of Reclining Woman have become deep incisions; they form a real space that plays a positive role in the perception and splitting of the figure in the viewer’s imagination.
Her most recent works, which have grown larger as her artistic style has continued to evolve, increasingly invade the space in which they are situated. The relationship between concave and convex spaces has gradually become a relationship between matter and space – or matter and anti-matter – while the space itself acquires a negative value that plays a role in the composition of the sculpture. The space that penetrates the sculptures endows them with a spiritual quality, which is reminiscent of the sculptural use of space in the works of Alexander Archipenko (1887–1964).4 SanaFarah-Bishara is one of the few artists working in Israel who is manifestly concerned with the relationship between sculpture and space; like Archipenko, she maintains that the viewer’s awareness is a part of the creative process, since what does not exist in material terms is transformed into abstract forms that exist in memory.5 While matter is perceived by the viewer’s senses, space is interpreted according to his memories and sensations, thus acquiring a spiritual quality.
Since these spaces play a role in sculptures of women, it is difficult not to associate them with fertility. Space is intrinsically feminine. A woman is composed of matter and space just like Sana’s sculptures, and space plays a substantial role in a woman’s body. For this artist, it symbolizes the womb and the related processes of birth and artistic creation.
Space, for Sana, is an extension of the body. The work does not brutally invade the surrounding space but rather flows into it, using it to create a continuum between matter and anti-matter and to combine the concrete and the conceptual. This concept is powerfully expressed in the sculpture Merging (2000). Here the spaces have become actual incisions, and the female figure is fragmented in a manner that lends the sculpted figure the appearance of a puzzle. Sana’s innovation lies in the fragmentation of the sculpture, which enables her to undermine the rigidity of the bronze figure. Rather than manipulating the inherent pliability of the clay, or introducing a sense of fluidity through movement, she introduces a kind of artificial flexibility that requires the viewer’s intervention.
Sana Farah-Bishara is a woman, a wife and a working mother, and an artist – and it is difficult to separate her work from this context. In her work, Sana expresses the modern woman’s need to divide herself into countless parts in order to fulfill herself as a woman in her own right, a family member and a socially respected professional. Sana herself copes daily with being a woman in the modern world – with balancing a home and family with a successful career. An analysis of her recent works points to an increasing fragmentation of the sculptural figure. Her figures have gradually become dynamic fragments that come together to form a whole woman, whose position may be changed at any given moment. According to Sana, the sculpture’s modularity renders it more interesting and more functional – in contrast to the gestalt perception, whereby the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts.
Sana perceives the contemporary woman as one who is divided into many parts and who plays many roles due to social expectations – yet who can nonetheless live in harmony with herself. The physical division of the sculptures, and the tensions created through the juxtaposition of smooth and rough textures, also constitute an expression of woman’s inner conflict. The total fragmentation of the sculptures leads to an investigation of the nature of wholeness and of the forces that define it. For Sana, the definition of wholeness is subjective: wholeness is an internal concept which is distinct from external appearances. Nevertheless, her works are imbued with the hope of unifying the fragments and creating a future internal and external whole. One may compare the rupture or crisis expressed by Sana’s works to the schisms that pervade human society. Ever since the dawn of civilization, women have symbolized the end of war and the dissemination of peace, and the related concepts of fertility, culture and economic prosperity. As givers of life and mothers, women are spiritually responsible for the peace and wholeness of the world. In our conflicted world, Sana’s optimistic female figures express a hope for global unity and harmony.
In her most recent works, the open spaces in Sana’s sculptures have grown even larger, and this precedence of space over matter has been accompanied by an increasingly spiritual quality. The figures still represent women, yet their figurative nature has given way to an abstract style. As is evident in the 2006 bronze sculpture Harmony, the material has been reduced to an outline and the figure itself is created by means of the space flowing into it. Negative space thus becomes positive, and the artist succeeds in blurring the boundaries between matter and spirit. The geometrical incisions and lines are replaced by soft, flowing, rounded forms that bespeak an appeased and sensual femininity. The fragmentation of the whole has become natural to the point that Sana no longer creates fragments of a single entity, but rather divides the sculpture into two organically independent units. Each unit can stand alone, and together they create a whole. These units may be changed and resituated in a manner that allows the viewer to play a central role in the presentation of the figure. Movement now not only emanates from the sculpture, but is also created by the viewers’ intervention as they move the different parts that make up the figure – an intervention that further heightens the sculpture’s dynamic quality. In this sense, Sana Farah-Bishara’s art gives expression to the words of Rodin, who inspired her early works: “What we love about the human body, even more than its beautiful form, is the inner flame that makes it transparent.”6
1. Auguste Rodin, The Danaid, 1885, Paris, Rodin Museum.
2. A group of slaves by Michelangelo Buonarroti was created at the beginning of the 16th century for
the tomb of Pope Julius II. The original plan for the project was not implemented, and some of the
statues remained incomplete.Today, most are in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, while
others are in the Louvre in Paris.
3. Ruth Marcus, Sculpting in Line and Space. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2003, p. 170.
4. Marcus, pp. 65-74.
5. Stated in a conversation with the artist at her home in Haifa on October 11, 2006.
6. August Rodin (1911), Art: Conversations with Paul Gsell. Trans. Jacques de Caso and Patricia B.
Sanders, Berkely, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1984. p. 52.