Isis Nassar: Artist who worked and taught in far-flung communities

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The Independent Online

The work of the artist and teacher Isis Nassar was informed both by her complex roots and her extensive travelling. In the tradition of the lady adventurer, Isis made her way carefully and thoughtfully through dozens of indigenous communities, learning their languages, customs and histories as she went. She was lost to us for weeks during q volcano eruption in the Philippines, and was similarly incommunicado in the Australian outback. She went to Laos, Vietnam, Mali, Ethiopia, Iran, Nicaragua, Bolivia... to over 70 countries in total, and each of these adventures is represented in her art.

Isis Nassar was a British woman of Lebanese origin. She was a third-generation expatriate, born in London in 1956, raised and educated in Switzerland and Britain, with roots deeply embedded in Africa. After schooling in Switzerland, she graduated from the Cambridge School of Art, received her BA Hons from Reading University and her Masters in Fine Arts from Newcastle University; when she had me sit for a portrait of my infant son in her studio in Chiswick in 1993, a faint Geordie accent still coloured the soft tones she used so as not to startle the baby.

At the suggestion that I write about Isis, my immediate emotions roiled on so many levels – the weight of the responsibility, the honour of it, the fear of so many ways of getting it wrong and offending. There was my own grief and anger at the manner of her death, but there was also the need to acknowledge her unique take on life, her art and her connection with thousands of people in communities across the globe.

Isis is my maternal cousin, one of the formidable clan of Nassar. She did not merely live her life, she lived Life, and did so in fast forward. She had an insight for social justice, a deep empathy and joy for people, and a simplicity and frugality that belied her privileged and educated background, which confused many. She had a disdain for falseness and duplicity and a complexity of character that made it difficult for many to find her easy to be with. She was candid, uncensored and outspoken, driven to travel and to recreate all she saw in her work.

In the late 1990s, Isis opened her studio in our grandparents' summer villa in Bkennaya, Lebanon, leaving her home in Chiswick with its memories of her beloved older brother, Rémy, who had passed away suddenly. Her parents, Edward and Aimée, joined her from Switzerland a few years later. Isis continued to travel; her mother passed away last year; her father opened a museum to house his private collection in our grandparents' winter home minutes down the hill.

Her move to Lebanon and presence within the community created a ripple welcomed by many who loved the way she challenged social and cultural tenets. Fearless and determined in the way that only Isis could be in this gorgeous, traumatised and complicated country, she travelled to Khiam, inspected the devastating work of Israeli warplanes on the local substation in Bsalim, spoke directly to Druze communities and painted it all in her rather discomfiting, lush and visceral style.

This year, Isis travelled to Belize. From her telephone calls to her father, he saw how pleased she was to have discovered a new material, a local slate. In true Isis-fashion she settled firmly into the local community, working on her sculpture, giving free art lessons to the locals and befriending the women of the town, as she had done in countless similar communities on every continent over the past three decades.

Then one morning she did not turn up for breakfast, and we discovered that she had been murdered. Incomprehensible.

Suzanne Azar

Isis Aimée Nassar, artist and teacher: born London 20 June 1956; died Belize 24 March 2011.

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