Blue is a restful colour in any language. For Canadian artist Joyce Ozier, inspired by the blue-rinsed houses of Chefchaouen, it is also the colour of hope. Chefchaouen is a community of 40,000 Berbers tucked away in the Rif Mountains of northwestern Morocco. The town has a long history of providing sanctuary, first to the Moors fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400’s and more recently, Jews fleeing German oppression in the 1930’s. The Jews settled, rebuilt their lives and painted their houses blue as a symbol of defiance and forbearance. In ancient Jewish culture blue, is the colour of divinity and equilibrium. The newcomers truly believed God had delivered them to a safe haven and wanted to pay homage to their Creator.
Ozier stumbled across the story after watching a news-feed on her computer. “The image of this place just appeared and I was knocked out by it,” she says. “My first reaction was purely visual. What an exciting place.” A secular Jew herself, Ozier was drawn to the plight of the refugees
“My work has always been very gestural, very colour-based and very joyous,” she continues. And this was a joyous story. But as Ozier dug deeper, it became clear the incident was more complex. The Jews had indeed found a refuge in this small Morocco village but the Vichy regime made life hard and as soon as they could, the Jews of Chefchaouen were on the move again, this time to the newly created state of Israel.
Ozier tells the story of persecution; refuge, dashed hopes and transit in a series of nine abstract paintings called Blue Refuge, arranged in chronological order and infused with her signature style, swaths of colour interrupted by oil pastel ‘scribbles.’ She calls her scribbles “raw energy.”
Title: Danger in the Air (Refers to oppression in Germany)
Title: Running into the unknown
Ozier uses colour and movement to arouse the emotions. Her style is to start with panels that are exactly the same size, lean them up against the wall and then, using a six inch brush, start working gesturally across all of them, getting some sort of flow going. “Then I step back, look at what I’ve done and move the panels around to get a completely different configuration. I do another layer based upon that configuration. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. I do that ad infinitum until the painting tells me it’s finished.” Some paintings are turbulent, some are restful.
Ozier was surprised at how working on the paintings stirred up her own emotions. “This particular story brought out feelings of my Jewish connection,” she says. Despite not being religious, the story aroused latent feelings. “I don’t usually think about that but they were clearly stored somewhere in my consciousness.”
Title: Running again
She admits working on Blue Refuge was a departure from her normal work but now that she’s been invigorated by the experience, she’d like to tackle a narrative again.
Blue Refuge is on display at Vancouver’s Fazakas Gallery until the end of the year. And the houses of Chefchaouen? They’re still blue, re-painted decades after the fact as a testament to Moroccan hospitality and Jewish resilience.