Ahuva Zeloof: Set in Stone

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AhuvaZ To say Ahuva Zeloof’s stone sculptures are alive with movement is not only an oxymoron, it’s practically admitting supernatural sensibilities. But how else can I describe it?

Her figures bend, lunge, stretch. The arched backs, straining arms and tensed calves, mid-motion, make your own muscles twinge. They concentrate, with an almost audible Om, as they maintain their yogic poses. Cast in bronze after being moulded, the statuettes are initially built up little by little, with wisps of wax. The resulting uneven surface serves to make them all the more real, their outlines appearing blurred as though they were trembling from their acrobatics.

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The evolution collection is very different, but no less dynamic. Here, the slightest touch of art deco has swept through, leaving behind comely, rounded women with Cleopatra bobs. Though Ahuva often leaves half their bodies sunk in stone, with only part of the form completely smooth and defined – perhaps a voluptuous shoulder, a pregnant belly, or the suggestive tangle of limbs – it is nonetheless clear what these girls are doing. They are striving to get someplace. Ahuva says so herself. Contemplating her stonework, head on one side, she nods meditatively, “You see? She’s going. They’re all going. And they’re going confidently. But I don’t know where!”

The reveal-conceal technique Ahuva uses, where part of the stone is left rocky and untouched, serves to heighten the sense of mystery. You want to know more. These forms seem to invite you to study them closer, try to guess what they’re communicating, what thoughts they embody, what themes they broach. The result is so effective that you almost catch them whispering to one another, bristling with expression in their sculptural landscape. Much of Ahuva’s approach is bound up with one of her own favourite sculptors, Rodin, who said, “I chose a block of marble and chop off what I don’t need.” Similarly, Ahuva believes each stone carries a story encrusted within its solid shell. She need only coax it out with her chisel. “I ask for the colours and the kilos,” she explains, “and nothing else. Whatever stone I get sent, they’ll be a story there. Even when it goes wrong, someday I’ll go back and find it there. [Stone-carving] is like the subconscious, you think and it comes to the surface.”

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Leading me through her home, Ahuva points out a sculpture here and there from the rows lined across her windowsills, on tables, stands, counters. A whole gang of models lie cosy by the fireplace, and an entire armada on plinths crowd her living room, exercising ecstatically. The space gleams with green steatite, lashings of alabaster and pink quartz peaks. Everywhere I look, sculptures are dancing, jumping, thinking, leaping. If the Chinese Emperor had the terracotta army to protect him in the afterlife, and Sir John Soane filled his Bloomsbury townhouse with antiquities “to create poetry”, then Ahuva Zeloof’s body of work is surely homage to the body at work. They even move from room to room, accompanying Ahuva in her routines. When I first arrived in the driveway, she excitedly waves me over to show a half-finished piece in her car boot. Her friend, designer Avshalom Gur, who curated her first exhibition, says of his frequent visits, “There’s always stones everywhere!” He takes me through to the kitchen, pointing, “Look! Sometimes I come to visit and she has a salad here, a chisel there… mountains of potatoes by the sink and a stone next to it!” There is a clue in this. Just as a parent teaches a child, so the artwork is informed by its maker. No doubt Ahuva’s sculptures learnt such magic from their mother.

Born in Iraq, Ahuva grew up in Israel and moved to London in the early 70s with her husband. Four children and an unbelievable thirteen grandchildren later, it’s clear that for Ahuva, life doesn’t stand still. To this constant mutability she adds her own impetus, first learning yoga in the early 80s and subsequently becoming a teacher herself. Photos show her 8 months pregnant and still able to perform some of the more difficult poses. This strict practice has informed the deep understanding of movement and human anatomy which translates so clearly in her works. Herself a petit woman with large glasses, she talks with irrepressible enthusiasm about art in general and with soft, graceful bashfulness of art that is her own. She chuckles frequently with amusement and punctures her speech with wry observation. She knows how to listen, and – if the smoked salmon sandwiches she whips out at lunchtime are any indication – how to be an impeccable host.

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Despite her ever-growing family, Ahuva always maintained an interest in the arts, and begun supplementing her museum visits with courses in clay modelling or sketching. When she gained confidence in sculpting and developed her own style, she truly felt she’d found her niche. This love of the arts is felt throughout her abode, ablaze as it is with carefully picked furniture and pieces by contemporary artists, and it must have impacted her children; two of her sons founded and still run the Old Truman Brewery in East London. No wonder, having achieved such feats as a matriarch, Ahuva thinks highly of female potential, often carving girls rather than men. “The figure of a woman!” She exclaims, “It’s the most genius machine. No robot stuff, no technology, and yet it’s so functional. It can do so much.” Finally, I ask Ahuva how she feels after all these years, at mounting her first exhibition. She shrugs shyly. “Yes, I’m proud of myself. I’m raring to keep going! I’m making them fleshier and more womanly. There are other exhibitions I’ve been asked to take part in on the horizon, even a commission. We shall see. Before, people thought maybe I was just a bored housewife, now I have proved myself. Everything happens for a reason. I always have plenty to do, and I enjoy it!”

One might surmise that to another sort of woman, such a whirlwind of family life might eclipse their own, inner life. But Ahuva emerges instead as a pillar of strength. Just like her sculptures, Ahuva Zeloof is a woman whose true character is immovable, whose gifts are set in stone.

To find out more about Ahuva Zeloof and her upcoming exhibitions please visit her website. 

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