Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

A legacy of light from the sorrow of hideous death

There are some individual things in life so terrible, so unspeakable, so hideous that ordinary language no longer works. A few days ago, Isis Nassar, a 54-year-old British-Lebanese artist, a woman who paints portraits and landscapes filled with so much colour that they almost glow in the dark, was following her habit of travelling the world.

She was in Belize. I first met her years ago when the Barbican hung her devastatingly painful landscape of the 1982 Palestinian massacre at Sabra and Chatila, carried out by Israel's Lebanese militia allies. It was wide scale but when the Israeli Symphony Orchestra came to play at the Barbican, it insisted it be removed.

A few days ago, Isis was in the small home where she was staying in Belize when someone broke into the house, stripped her, tied her hands and feet together and cut her throat. An American sex offender was arrested for deportation to the US while a Belizean was questioned by the local police.

Isis's 85-year-old father Edward, travelled to Belize with a young relative, Nada Nassar, to bring Isis home via the US - a process which involved the usual heartless bureaucratic delays in Belize and an equally heartless initial refusal to allow Edward to travel through Florida. Isis was buried last week in the beautiful family cemetery above Beirut.

I noticed that the Belize newspapers used the usual clichés. Isis had been "brutally murdered". But I found this uniquely unsatisfactory. Yes, all murders are brutal. But her own murder was so iniquitous that the phrase didn't work. I was simply speechless. And then, last week, I was reading a terrifying history of the Nazi invasion and occupation of the Soviet Union and realised that Isis's cruel end was faced by tens of thousands - indeed, millions - of Russians. And that's when I grasped what had happened to Isis. She was the victim of an atrocity every bit as terrible as the war crimes committed by the Nazis.

So when Isis's father invited me to see him again a week ago, I was stricken with the old question. What do you say? He said something most eloquently - and frailer than ever - in his little antiquities museum which is partly dedicated to Isis's work: "I am 85 and I should be dead and Isis should be alive." I did tell him that I thought the Second World War word "atrocity" was what fitted this terrible act and he thought about it and agreed.

On such occasions, I usually let a grieving relative talk and Edward wanted to talk about the brilliance of his daughter. He had decided to open a second museum dedicated to Isis's work. "I want to dedicate my life to her work," he said to me, "and I want someone to write her biography, using so many of her colour paintings in the book. That is the only way I can give my further existence a meaning, you see."

We drove up to Edward's home over the Mediterranean where we were surrounded by dozens of Isis's paintings.

The German artist Hans Hofmann once wrote: "In nature, light creates the colour. In the picture, colour creates the light." And Edward agreed with me that this description seemed to apply almost uniquely to Isis's work. There was a painting in front of me that I guessed - correctly - was of the Irish coast. And behind Edward a spectacular mountain made up of every colour of the rainbow. I took my leave and drove back to Beirut and Edward went for his afternoon siesta. An atrocity it was. But no more words to say.

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