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March 21, 2008

Piecing together a heroine


The story of Purim is about Esther, a young, extraordinary and lovely Jewish woman who, upon becoming queen of Persia, saved her people from extermination. Over the ages, Esther's courage and grace, her sacrifices and cunning inspired many creators. Tintoretto and Rubens, Millais and Edwin Long, as well as many others, have produced wonderful paintings illustrating the Book of Esther. Joining that august list is Vancouver artist Lilian Broca, who has dedicated a series of large mosaics to Esther and her tale.

The mosaics look like an incandescent celebration, a luminous explosion of light and color. Every small tessera (individual tile) shines merrily, but together, imbued with the artist's vision, they blossom into a breathtaking, radiant panorama. Jewish symbolism abounds in Broca's mosaics; incorporated into Esther's jewelry, clothing and palace decorations.

To commemorate the gift of life Esther presented to her people, Broca has created her own magnificent gift of beauty to celebrate this holiday of survival.

"The story of Esther is the story of female empowerment," Broca explained. "It encourages women to believe in their own strength, even if surrounding culture doesn't yet acknowledge it." The leitmotif of female liberation and transformation mirrors Broca's own development as an artist.

Broca was born in Bucharest, Romania, soon after the end of the Second World War. By her own recollection, her artistic talent manifested itself very early in life, when she was four. Despite the hardships her family endured under the communist regime and later, when they escaped to Israel, her parents always encouraged their daughter's creative streak and nonconformist nature, always supported her efforts to discover her full artistic potential.

After studying art at Concordia University in Montreal and completing her master of fine arts at Pratt Institute in New York, Broca started out in Vancouver as an abstractionist, constantly searching for her own distinctive voice. Trying her hands at different art forms – murals, sculpture, ceramics, drawings and paintings – she soon gravitated towards figurative art and her persisting artistic theme: woman.

Exploring various dimensions of body and soul, Broca designed her own universe, populated by women young and old, wise and silly. Brave lines and bright colors flourish in her paintings, competing with the deep emotional impact of her drawings, as she examines a woman as the embodiment of emotions. Sadness and despair, defiance and anger, wickedness and infinite compassion characterize her female heroines.

Always interested in discovering new angles, in turning common misconceptions upside down, Broca painted her own peculiar series of brides.

"Brides are not always blissful," she reflected. "Some brides are miserable, fearful or hopeless. Changing a point of view is one of the most powerful methods in art. It shows the complexity of life. Sometimes, it shows the reality most people don't see, or don't want to see."

Continuing the tradition, Esther in Broca's mosaics is a solemn and obviously unhappy bride, a reluctant heroine. Since her school years in Israel, Broca has been fascinated with mythology, fairy tales and symbolism. Unconventional in every aspect of her art, the artist often regards the women of myths and legends from her own original perspective.

"Fairy tales are metaphors," she said. "Written in different times, they require an entirely new approach in the 21st century. Here and now, what woman would want to kiss a frog? I wouldn't. So I explored the adventures of goddesses and heroines, keeping in mind the point of view of a modern, independent woman."

One of Broca's favorite personages is Lilith, who personified women's struggles for independence, equality and love. In the male-dominated kingdoms of antiquity, Lilith was frequently identified as evil, but in Broca's drawings, Lilith is defiant and free, although her freedom is bittersweet, having exacted the heavy price of loneliness. "I wanted the real Lilith to come to the women of today and tell her true story," Broca recalled.

After the open rebel Lilith, Broca's inquisitive talent turned to more uncharted territory – woman's sacrifice. Not knowing her protagonist yet, she dived into historical research, emerging one day in 2001 with the name of Esther – the star of her new mosaic series. Broca had produced mosaics only once before, as a university student, but over the following years, she lugged her remaining boxes of glass tesserae to every new home, as if suspecting that, one day, she would return to mosaic.

"The bright, seductive colors of Venetian glass and smalti (handmade Italian glass) I used in creating mosaics many years ago suddenly beckoned me," she said. "The coincidental fact that mosaics were first mentioned in the biblical Book of Esther ... contributed to my decision to further explore this unique art form.... Executing the Esther series in an ancient method, with added contemporary symbolism, seemed most appropriate."

The entire series – eight larger-than-life mosaic panels – took Broca seven years to complete. The mosaics tell the dramatic story of Esther and her gradual transformation from a submissive Jewish girl into a proud queen. In the first panel, Esther is a frightened young woman, ordered by her uncle/cousin, Mordechai, to marry a strange old man – the king of Persia. Although she doesn't wish to be a queen, she doesn't have a choice.

Each subsequent panel signifies a new step in Esther's metamorphosis. The motif of a wrought-iron fence, symbolic of women's subjugated status throughout the ancient civilizations, is present in every panel but the last, where finally Esther takes off her mask, revealing her Jewish identity and her nature as a leader. Compared to the beginning of this visual narrative, the changes in Esther's expression and posture are drastic.

Unable to part from her beloved heroine yet, the artist is working on a new diptych of Esther and the king, to install in her own home, which is full of light, books and art.

Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer