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Nov. 18, 2011

Contemporary ancient art

Book on Lilian Broca’s Esther mosaics will launch at festival.

Lilian Broca is an award-winning artist. Her work has been much-lauded and, in her new book, The Hidden and the Revealed: The Queen Esther Mosaics of Lilian Broca (Gefen Publishing House Ltd.), Broca receives what must be one of the highest compliments for someone who, for at least the last 15 years, has turned her “attention to societal issues, especially those involving women and their plight in historical times ... to shed light on today’s concerns.” Renowned American artist, feminist, author and educator Judy Chicago has written the preface.

Chicago was not the only one inspired by Broca’s Queen Esther series to contribute to the new publication, which will have its launch on Nov. 27 as part of the Cherie Smith JCCGV Jewish Book Festival. Archeologist, art historian and curator Sheila Campbell, professor emerita at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto, and Vancouver’s Rabbi Dr. Yosef Wosk also add academic and poetic depth to what is an intriguing and beautiful full-color, large-format book detailing Broca’s creative process for this special series.

“Inspired by classical Byzantine style but imbued with contemporary meaning, ‘The Queen Esther Mosaic Series’ arose organically from my earliest esthetic instincts,” writes Broca, who was born shortly after the Second World War in Romania.

She explains, “As a school girl, I was steeped in Romanian history and art. Due to its geography, that part of the Balkan Peninsula had fallen under the influence of the old Eastern Byzantine Empire, centred in the capital city of Constantinople, today’s Istanbul. Byzantine icons, ample remnants of which remained in Bucharest, left an indelible impression on my young mind.... During those dark, lean years, when the population endured unspeakable shortages of essential goods and personal fear on a daily basis, little else other than art shone in my life. Certainly, stories from the Hebrew Bible played no part in a time when one’s Jewish identity, not unlike Esther’s in the Persian court, was better left hidden.”

In 1958, Broca’s family immigrated to Israel, staying for four years before coming to Canada, where, she writes, she pursued her dreams of becoming a visual artist. She graduated from what is now Concordia University (in Montreal) – where she became “captivated” by the “unique interplay between light and the material essence of glass mosaic” – then continued her studies at the Pratt Institute in New York City. After graduating with a master’s in fine arts, she married and moved to Vancouver.

In addition to her other artistic endeavors, Broca has created, in the last 15 years, two series based on biblical women: “Lilith, a legendary figure who was created before Eve, and Esther, a young Jewish girl living in Susa (in today’s Iran) who became queen of Persia.”

Drawing on fifth-century midrashic legends and 15th-century Zohar texts, explains Broca, “I first explored the Lilith character. I interpreted her as the messenger of and hope for human courage and egalitarianism, not only for women but for all humanity.”

The Lilith series was seven years in the making, after which Broca began on the Esther mosaics. “The biblical Book of Esther addresses the themes of sacrifice and female empowerment, two subjects that particularly intrigue me,” she writes, later adding that she “consciously set out to bring light to Esther’s character, portraying her as a figure who transforms herself into a glorious winner, despite all the demands and sacrifices the patriarchal culture required of her.”

In her preface, Chicago observes that “Broca’s mosaics represent one woman’s efforts to depict the biblical story in a way that celebrates Esther’s (s)heroic status.” Describing the series as “a modern-day visual midrash,” Chicago notes that Broca’s depiction of Esther is “entirely sympathetic – from the first mural depicting her in the harem of the Persian King Ahashvayrosh to the last mosaic showing Esther revealing her true identity as a Jew. Having grown up Jewish in Communist Romania, Broca must surely have related to the danger such a revelation might prove to be.”

Although Chicago questions Broca’s decision to include a panel showing Mordechai visiting Esther in the harem – “for surely, other than the eunuchs, men were not allowed to enter the women’s quarters” – she concludes, “The glittering mosaic panels in ‘The Queen Esther Mosaics’ were executed with Venetian glass using classic mosaic techniques, an historic method to honor an important woman in history.”

In great detail and with the help of photographs, Broca describes her mosaics methods. She does so in terms that readers will understand, and with humor; for example, when enthusing about her trip to the Orsoni factory in Venice to purchase smalto glass for the Esther series, she writes, “‘Shop till you drop’ is an apt description of the delirious buyer’s experience – literally so, since a good collection of smalti feels as if it weighs a ton.”

Broca also takes readers through each of the series’ 10 panels, which were created not only with smalti, but also gold leaf and other precious metals. She writes that, “like most visual artists, I feel reluctant to discuss any finished artworks, preferring instead to allow the viewer the pleasurable and creative act of personal interpretation. By revealing all, I remove the mystery of my works and affect the viewer’s judgment. Nevertheless, due to the narrative nature of this particular series and for the sake of this book, I make an exception in the remainder of this chapter and discuss the research I conducted, the symbolism I used and why I selected specific compositions and scenes from the story.”

Campbell, who specializes in ancient and Byzantine mosaics, provides an even broader historical context for this “personal” tour with the artist.

“In fact, the story of Esther has been portrayed by dozens of artists and in works both large and small, private and public, in individual episodes and in monumental canvases,” writes Campbell. “As painters must select stand-alone segments, not a montage as if it were a video, their choice or choices can be significant. Some artists, such as Rembrandt van Rijn (1609-69) or Gustave Doré (1832-83), depicted more than one part of the story; Rembrandt produced several large canvases of different episodes.

“Note that I intentionally I do not use the word illustrated (as in the artist illustrated an episode) but rather depicted, since these images are not mere illustrations. They represent a familiar story and remind the viewer of a particular episode from that story.... The artist’s intent can always be partially ferreted out in his or her selection of which episode to depict. Or perhaps a patron has influenced the artist’s selection. In marked contrast ... Lilian Broca has chosen to represent 10 separate episodes in her mosaic series and in a connected narrative sequence with an underlying theme clearly in mind.”

Campbell goes on to address several issues within the rubric of Broca as a “feminist artist,” because, she writes, that is how Broca identifies herself (rather than as a Jewish artist, for example). After several comparisons of Broca’s Esther series to the works of Rembrandt, Doré, Artemisia Gentileschi (c. 1597-c. 1651), Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) and other such notable artists, Campbell concludes, “Mosaic is a dynamic medium, the image constantly and subtly changing. In this fashion, the medium Broca has chosen to depict the story of Esther works together with the content and style of presentation to make the queen a provocative, three-dimensional character, more so in my view than was achieved by most painters of the past.”

Rounding out The Hidden and the Revealed – which includes the entire Scroll of Esther in calligraphed Hebrew alongside an English translation, reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society – is Wosk’s poem “Fragments of an Estr Scroll,” as well as his detailed scholarly notes on various aspects of the story. 

Adopting “an authentic persona of its heroine ... as elder, woman as sage” and spelling her name using only the transliteration of the four Hebrew consonants that comprise it, Wosk “constructs a triangulation between Estr, deity and we the readers (who are also the community). It claims no particular order and flows as a meandering conversation through the various chambers of our heroine’s mind. It is Estr’s voice, vibrant and self-assured, reflecting on who she was, what became of her, and who she is now. She speaks alternately as Estr the mundane, Estr the historical persona and as the multi-mythed Estr the goddess. She fluctuates from contemplating herself, to challenging the reader, to engaging the Creator in cosmic speculation. She emerges – like Lilian Broca’s tessellated mosaics when viewed by candlelight – as a moving picture of herself. And we see ourselves reflected in both Estr’s and Lilian’s complex lives. We both ache for and admire them as they struggle with exile, beauty, political upheaval and archetypal creativity, and tell their story in stone and parchment.”

Friedland book launch

In addition to the launch of Broca’s The Hidden and the Revealed, the book festival, with the Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation as the presenting partner, will feature a launch and reception on Nov. 29 for Robert (Bob) Friedland’s new novel, The Second Wedding of Doctor Geneva Song (Libros Libertad Publishing Ltd.).

Friedland’s first book was a collection of short stories, Faded Love (also published by Libros Libertad). In it,  “Friedland recounts some gritty, touching, raunchy and humorous moments, albeit with some sadness.” (See “Writing of loves, lives past,”, Jan. 15, 2010.)

In many of his short stories, Chinese characters and culture – often within the context of trying to find a place in Western society – take centre stage, so it is not surprising that his first novel should have a similar focus. The Second Wedding of Doctor Geneva Song has as its protagonist Dr. Geneva Song, a young woman who had all but given up on love, until she meets Sam Victor, one of her patients, who, like his author, is an older man, a lawyer who is not Chinese. Their wedding ceremony “sets in motion a fateful journey from the light to the dark for Geneva, her Spirit Sister and the men who love them.” As Friedland told West Kootenay-based publisher R.G. Morse in an Oct. 31 interview, “Much emerges from this – jealousy, hatred, murder, infidelity, essentially all the requirements of a good read.”

This year’s Cherie Smith JCCGV Jewish Book Festival features a record number of authors with new releases, including Joel Bakan, Dan Bar-el, Jill Bialosky, Aubrey Davis, Danyelle Freeman, David Guterson, Daniel Kalla, Rae Maté, Alison Pick, Norman Ravvin, Roberta Rich, Stuart Ross, Ellen Schwartz, Revital Shiri-Horowitz, Joan Stuchner, Harold Troper and Alexi Zentner. Many events are free, including the launch of Lilian Broca’s new book on Sunday, Nov. 27, 8 p.m., and Robert Friedland’s on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 7 p.m. For information about and tickets for other events, drop by the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, visit or call 604-257-5111.