Like the mystical artists’ colony of Safed in Northern Israel where ancient doors and walls have been painted blue since the 1600s – a spiritual reminder of God in heaven, Morocco’s medina of Chefchaouen is awash in turquoise and lapis lazuli.
It’s here, amid twisted cobblestone streets and mountain air, now a heady mixture of spices and kef, that Jews and Moors escaping the Spanish Inquisition, settled in 1471. Those refugees built the Andalusian town of whitewashed walls and red-tiled roofs sequestered between the Rif Mountains. Beginning in the 1930’s more Jews escaping from Europe, took refuge here, painting the Chefchaouen village in striking hues of blue everywhere, including interiors- hence the sobriquet, the ‘Blue Pearl.’ Blue has always been a sacred color to the Jews as the Torah commanded them to weave a twisted thread of tekhelet into the fringes of their prayer shawls. After the WWII, most members of the Jewish community moved to Israel, however now the predominantly Muslim Berber residents continue the tradition and enjoy the yearly ritual of freshening up the village with new coats of vibrant blue paint.
Artist, Joyce Ozier was so astonished to discover the Jewish legacy of Chefchaouen that she devoted the last year creating her abstract narrative paintings on nine large canvases entitled Blue Refuge opening at The Fazakas Gallery, Vancouver, Canada, November 26th to December 17th.
“This is really a departure for me interpreting history through my abstract paintings,” admits Ozier “and I’m so excited about it!” she says from her bright Beaumont studio with spectacular views across to Olympic Village, where she and her husband live.
Just a few telltale clues in her speech reveal that the vivacious Ozier was originally from Boston. She has made Vancouver her home for over 40 years. Ozier has embraced almost every aspect of the arts; from theatre and set design to arts management as the Manager of the Karen Jamieson Dance Company and Executive Director of the Vancouver Dance Centre (now part of the ScotiaBank Dance Centre.) She owned a display company – WOW! Windows Display and Design Ltd. until 2009. “Like most women, I’ve re-invented myself at least five times but didn’t start seriously painting until after I retired,” she laughs.
Ozier’s love for dance and movement is immediately apparent in her paintings: “I use a very large brush and using acrylic paints, I sweep across three or four 6-foot- high panels at one time,” she demonstrates. No small feat for the petite artist. “I’ll often switch-up the panels, even turn them upside down until I feel the narrative is right and of course, add my trademark oil pastel ‘squiggles’ that I feel really give my paintings a raw energy.”
Of Blue Refuge, Ozier explains: I responded to Chefchauen as a beautiful testament to the power of hope. The people who chose to express themselves by painting everything blue for their God, created an environment that gave them the hope they needed to go on. I also respond to the reality with genuine sadness that there is no longer a Jewish population in Chefchauen, even though the telltale blue remains. These refugees may have been saved from incineration in Nazi extermination camps, but they were treated harshly by the Vichy regime while they were there. Their sense of safety was a dream. As a result, when they had the opportunity after WWII ended, they chose to uproot once again and leave for Israel. It is sad that their dream was temporary.”
TOP PHOTO: Chefchaouen, the “Blue Pearl” of Morocco. INSET: “Danger in the Air” from Blue Refuge by Joyce Ozier, Acrylic & oil pastel on canvas – 72″ x 18″ x 1 1/2″ (X3) – Photo: SITE Photography