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Reconstructing women: Artist Navah Porat reimagines the female form

CM 26/05/2021

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Navah Porat has painted hundreds of women in her life. Being a petite woman herself, she is fascinated with big ladies with enormous feet. She finds heavy women attractive. 
She artistically plays with their body parts to express their natural beauty and sexuality. She catches them in different situations and at different times of day. Porat often comes back in her mind to the same models or women she met while traveling as a photographer.
Porat is a painter, sculptor, photographer, master printer, graphic designer – and in the last decade, an accomplished curator. In the 1980s she worked at the Print Workshop at the Artist’s House in Tel Aviv, where she created her etchings, and worked as a graphic designer and art director for advertising companies. In 1988, she opened her own graphic design studio. Her art has been shown all over the world: in Israel, US, Canada, Hong Kong, Venezuela, Poland, Hungary and more. Her latest individual exhibition, “Beauty Unknown,” is on display in Tel Aviv’s Ben Ami Gallery until June 1. 
In her interview with the Magazine, Porat explains why her paintings became monochromatic during the last year, how COVID-19 affected her art. She also surprises me with her worldly upbringing – born in Italy, raised in Argentina and Israel, she speaks, among other languages, Polish (my native tongue). Her original name is actually Celina Aptekar.
“I am sorry I forgot some of my Polish,” Navah Porat begins the interview, before my first question.
I didn’t know you speak Polish! This is a surprise. How come? You were born in Italy, raised in Argentina.
I was born in 1947, at the refugee camp in Milan. My parents were originally from Poland and Polish was spoken at home. They had some family in Argentina, that’s how we came to Buenos Aires when I was a year-and-a-half.
And how old were you when you made aliyah?
I was 16. I came with my parents. I was an only child. I am Israeli 100%, besides my accent in Hebrew. I have a Spanish accent, but before it was more Polish. About 10 years ago I went to Poland, and it was the only place where I was not asked where I am from. In Israel, people often think that I am from Romania.

How did you feel visiting Poland?
I felt like a tourist. My parents were from Warsaw, my real name is Celina Aptekar; Porat is my married name. But we have nothing to do with a pharmacy (this Navah says in Polish; Aptekar comes from the word apteka, a pharmacy).
You speak fluent Polish! I didn’t expect this! It was not mentioned on your website…
I didn’t think it was important to my art. But I look for opportunities to speak Polish. It’s a pity to lose the language. I speak it, but I don’t write and read in Polish.
So you were raised in Polish in Argentina. When you came to Israel as a teenager, you needed the time for the transformation I suppose.
Yes, of course. 
We will come back to it, but moving on to your art. When I first saw your sculptures, I thought of Venus of Willendorf, the sculpture that survived over 20,000, 25,000 years. She is busty and fat. I thought that your women are very similar to her. There is something very archaic in your viewing of women. 
That’s right.
All of your women are fat. When did your fascination with fat women start?
I started painting still in Buenos Aires with a private teacher. It was common there. I started at a very early age, when I was five years old and I don’t know why, but I always liked to paint fat women. Even when a model was thin, I painted her as very fat. It was not something that came from my mind; it was intuitive. I made legs and feet very big. NAVAH PORAT: I often paint the same women for years. (Ella Blass)NAVAH PORAT: I often paint the same women for years. (Ella Blass)
These feet are enormous. Why do you focus on them and why are they so big?
I enlarge my women’s feet and toes spontaneously. My desire is to build a broad and stable foundation for my women. And at the same time, I think it comes from my need to check the limits of deformation and still to keep the woman as a whole and beautiful, erotic and attractive feminine figure. I am not trying to make anything grotesque. I am always looking for the beauty in those feet and fat bodies.
Is this only in women’s bodies or men’s and children’s as well? I saw some fat cats in your paintings.
No, only women. The pets, if they were in my paintings in the past, had a function of decoration in the frame. Now I am trying to be more minimalistic in my art expressions. All the animals – cats, birds – they have disappeared. Maybe they will appear again.
Why are you more minimalistic now?
Maybe it started unconsciously, during the corona plague. We were at home; we were very close to each other. The noise from the outside world disappeared. I started to give the entire stage to the women. All the canvases were filled with only the women. I reduced all the other details. The canvases were cleaner. I think it was my expression of the limited life we had.
You also lost the colors; your paintings became monochromatic for a few months in the past year.
This was a conscious decision. I did it to express the loss of color in our lives. I was looking for the way to show it, and I decided to create in black and white. I used to create art in black and white, but with a different technique, when I was doing etchings. They are also monochromatic. Now I am working in acrylics and I am using ribbons. I stick them to my work. They are part of the structure of my paintings. The color is coming back very slowly, very recently.
When you were a child you were painting by looking at live models. Do you use models nowadays or do you paint from your imagination?
All those women, models are in my memory, in my mind. Knowing the anatomy very well, I can deform them. But they are still women. I can deconstruct them and reconstruct them, again. 
Could we say that you play with them like they would be made from clay?
Yes, you can say that. It is a kind of new aesthetics. I am letting myself do it with a lot of self-confidence.
Do they have names in your head?
No [laughs]. I don’t give them names. I often paint the same women for years, just in different techniques. Prints, etches, oil and acrylic. Sometimes they are facing the public, other times I paint them from the back; sometimes in flower pattern dresses, sometimes – in plain clothes, sometimes they are nude. They are the same women; I show them in different positions and situations.
You, yourself, are petite…
Yes, I am very small. Often people ask me about it, and when I was doing my masters, I was trying to answer this question. My thesis was about the beauty of a fat lady. 
This is not polite of me, but was your mother fat?
No, both of my parents were very thin. 
So your fascination with fat women is not related to any family story or anyone you loved?
No. I just don’t think there is anything interesting in a thin body. Nothing.
If you could estimate, how many women did you paint in your life?
Hundreds, hundreds…
Are there any real female role models in your life?
Not really… Mostly there are women in my imagination and memories from my travels. I traveled a lot in South America and Africa. There were many fat beautiful women. I photographed them. So this is some kind of synthesis of my work from the workshops I was doing, the photos I took while traveling and all the other things I was doing all my life. THREE WOMEN in colorful dresses, acrylic on raw canvas, decor paper collages, 3D colors. (Navah Porat)THREE WOMEN in colorful dresses, acrylic on raw canvas, decor paper collages, 3D colors. (Navah Porat)
How do you position photography in your career? Was it more of a hobby or also work?
No, it was quite professional. I was a graphic designer for many years, in my own studio. I was using many of my photos in my work. I traveled a lot with a big professional camera before everyone was taking photos with their cellular phones. I lost my interest in taking pictures when everyone became “a photographer.” Now I left it for painting.
Your subject of art is stable, but over the years you used different techniques. For many years, there were etchings and prints. When did you feel the need to use the brush on canvas? 
This is actually a funny story. For over 30 years I was working in etchings. I had many shows and solo exhibitions and in one of them, the exhibition of my etchings in New York, the gallery asked me to present the same narrative, but in colors. So my naïve women started to be colorful and I started to put color in my life in 2008. 
That is quite recent.
Yes. After that show in 2008, I had another one in New York, in Chelsea, in 2010, and another one in 2014. That last one was all oil on canvas. My naïve art.
Who is your favorite naïve artist?
Fernando Botero. He also painted fat women (but his women had small feet.) I admire the beauty in his women. 
What specifically did you find beautiful in them?
They are simply beautiful… and I saw something in common between his and my paintings: the possibility of showing the beauty of ladies, also of fat ones. Until seeing his women, it was unconscious in my work. 
You are not a typical naïve artist. Often, the naïve artists like Polish Nikifor, they were natural talents, they had the lack of a formal education. You have the full artistic education, you are a professional and your naïve art is out of choice. 
Yes, that’s true. However, there are also naïve artists who had education. 
In 2019, you took part in the Art Naif Festival in Katowice. Now, as we speak, learning that you have Polish roots, I must ask, how did it feel to show your art in Poland?
It was wonderful, and I could speak Polish! Also the Festival was fantastic. My paintings are different, but they gave them a lot of honor. Usually, when people hear of the naïve art, they think of the small towns, the countryside. My paintings are naïve, but not from the countryside. I call my art, the contemporary naïve art. 
Looking at some of your paintings, I thought of the pink women in the ‘Dance’ by Henri Matisse. Your art also reminds me of Paul Gauguin’s women. Although they are artists of different genres, were they ever part of your inspiration?
Matisse I always admired! The colors in his art. I think you are right, I have been influenced by both of them. The Hawaiian women of Gauguin… 
My art is the synthesis of everything I saw during my travels, but also the history of art, I learned.
Another artist who influenced me was Friedensreich Hundertwasser. His use of gold especially inspired me. The use of gold paint was very common in the royal court paintings, as well as in the Christian icons. Some of my ladies are represented as icons, but… they are modern, sexy ladies on a gold background. I feel that the use of gold color elevates my ladies to the rank of royalty.TWO LADIES in plaid dresses, acrylic on canvas, paper decor collages. (Navah Porat)TWO LADIES in plaid dresses, acrylic on canvas, paper decor collages. (Navah Porat)
Have you ever left painting doing your other artistic jobs or was it always parallel to everything else?
I have always been painting. Maybe the only break from it was the two years just after arriving in Israel. I had to prepare for my final high school exams, and it was extremely difficult. I did not know the language. Everything was new: the Bible, the Hebrew language and I had to read many things in Hebrew – it was very difficult. 
But after those couple of years, I went back to art. I studied at ‘Midrasha of Omanut’ (the College of Arts, in Ramat HaSharon) and graduated with a bachelor’s in art education. Later I studied at the multidisciplinary program at Tel Aviv University. I graduated from the Faculty of Arts with a master’s. In 2014 I completed my curatorial studies at the Faculty of Arts, Curatorial Studies. 
Since then you became a curator. How is it to be an artist and show the work of others? How do you decide what art to choose?
First of all aesthetics. This is my personal taste. Then the subject – choosing pieces of art that relate to each other. I was always very interested in showing art in the right way. I think I am very good at it. As part of my job, I am curator of exhibitions in collaboration with Jewish and Arab artists who graduated from academic institutions such as the Midrasha, Bezalel and Shenkar. I prepare exhibitions, I choose what I like, it’s my decision. I am also a board member of MUZA, Ra’anana Artists Union. 
Having these curator experiences, how is it to be an artist with a curator, now? How is it now, with your solo exhibition “Beauty Unknown”?
I had my ideas for the expositions, but I had to hold myself back and listen to my curator Johanan Herson. He convinced me to have this exhibition as my retrospective. I was planning to show only my newest work. Especially because during the pandemic I was working all the time. But my curator came to my studio, saw my old paintings and etchings and said he must show the context of my fat women.
I was very excited about this exhibition. Ben Ami Gallery is very avant-garde, attached to a coffee house. It was also very important to me to find the right gallery, a place I would fall in love with. I didn’t want a “white box” – empty white walls. I was looking for a place that is alive, where people come every day, not just for the opening night.
Is it something you always look for or is it something post-corona that you need more life?
Yes, this is because of the post-corona period. I wanted a place that is alive.  

Source: Jerusalem Post

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