Gerry has designs on exploring Judaism in India


THE exotic sights and sounds of Calcutta have provided much of architect and designer Gerry Judah's inspiration.

He spent the first 10 years of his life there, the grandson of Jews who had moved from Baghdad to India and Burma.

But Gerry's latest project is a world away from his early days.

Last year, he was commissioned by London's St Paul's Cathedral to create an artwork in the nave to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.

Gerry created two sculptures consisting of three-dimensional white crucifixes to reflect the meticulously-maintained war graves of northern France and Belgium.

Each sculpture is embellished with miniaturised destroyed residential blocks depicting war zones in the Middle East.

"I wanted to show the dichotomy of my work," he told me. "Even 100 years since the First World War started, we are still fighting.

"Cities are still being destroyed. Look at ISIS and Syria - it is all part of the remnants of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This was a chance to interpret my take on the war."

Gerry's plethora of work has taken him from designing the set for Michael Jackson's HIStory tour to designing a massive sculpture for Porsche's Stuttgart headquarters.

It is a long way from his early years in West Bengal.

Gerry said: "My mother, Daisy, was born in Calcutta and my father, David, in Rangoon, Burma.

"In Calcutta, the Jewish community numbered around 6,000. We had a number of big synagogues, which I remember as being immaculate.

"India had received its independence in 1948 from the British.

"The Jewish community had received a lot of support from the British, so once independence happened, many Jews did not feel there was going to be much of a future for them.

"A lot of my family went to Israel, while my mother's relatives came to Britain."

It was 1961 when Gerry, his parents, brother Milton and sister Julie left behind the heat of India for the cold of London.

"The first time I saw snow was here in Britain, but in the 1960s, there was no better place to be," he recalled.

It may have been the Swinging Sixties, but Gerry was less than impressed with the food - especially the Ashkenazi variety.

He explained: "My dad would work behind the bar at weddings and barmitzvahs and he would bring home gefilte fish and salmon, which I found quite disgusting.

"I still don't like that food, but I do enjoy the Ashkenazi humour of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm."

The dramatic landscapes of India and the ornate architecture of its temples, mosques and synagogues with their theatrical rituals had a profound effect on Gerry.

He would spend as much time as possible in his bedroom conjuring up imaginary landscapes, architectural fantasies and futuristic cars - which led him to want to become an artist.

Gerry explained: "My first 10 years in India could not help but have a creative influence on me.

"When I went to shul, for example, I didn't have the level of devotion my elders had, so I was in awe of what I felt was their more direct relationship to God.

"I enjoyed the ambience in the shul that they felt was needed to transcend God."

After leaving school, he worked in a number of jobs, from kitchen porter to architectural draughtsman.

Then he went on to study foundation art and design at Barnet College of Art before gaining a degree in fine art from Goldsmiths College, University of London, and studying sculpture as a postgraduate at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London.

Gerry set up his studio in Shaftesbury Avenue, in London's West End, where he began to work on large sculptures.

He began to build a reputation for innovative design, working in film, television, theatre, and museums as a set designer, installation artist, sculptor and painter, including at the English National Opera - where he first experienced antisemitism.

Gerry said: "Some of the other guys would call me a 'Wog' and a 'Jew-boy'.

"They would flick cigarette ash at me and say, 'there's your family' or give me five pennies for the gas metre.

"It just rinsed off me and I didn't bite back. I think they were just bored."

The 63-year-old also designed sets for the BBC, the Natural History Museum, Sir Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and The Who, among others.

"Michael was a really nice guy," Gerry recalled. "I designed and made the set for the HIStory world tour in the early 1990s.

"He had an amazing work ethic. I remember we were setting up and Michael rehearsed for three hours solid.

"He was someone who had fantastic energy and strength."

Gerry also designed the backdrop for The Who's seminal 1979 film Quadrophenia.

Married to Canadian Helen for 26 years and father to Julius and Raphael, perhaps one of his most poignant pieces of work was when he was asked by London's Imperial War Museum in London to create a large model of the selection ramp in Auschwitz-Birkenau for a Holocaust exhibition.

Gerry continued: "That work shifted my whole aesthetic.

"It wanted to deal with history in a much more direct manner.

"I had to work out how moving - and connecting - I could make it."

It led him to create a body of three-dimensional paintings exploring the devastation of war and the ravages man has made upon the environment caused by conflicts in eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Gerry has also created sculptures for Ferrari, Porsche, Audi, Jaguar, Mercedes Benz, Renault, Ford, Rolls-Royce, Honda, Toyota, Land Rover, Alfa Romeo and Lotus at the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed.

Designing the sculpture at Porsche's Stuttgart headquarters was "a major bonus because it has been designed by a Jew - me.

"I felt happy and touched by that."

He is currently working on new pieces of sculpture exploring his relationship to India.

Recently, Christian Aid invited him to Calcutta to see what it is doing to alleviate climate change, which has inspired him.

"I am producing a series of sculptures based on Judaism in India, as well," Gerry revealed.

He added: "Don't be afraid to reinvent yourself and don't pigeonhole yourself. I am always willing to do anything - I guess it is down to the immigrant mentality."

© 2015 Jewish Telegraph