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Artists show how the Holocaust haunts their work

by Alison Ramsey

All five Concordia artists in the room agree -- their pieces chosen for an upcoming exhibit on the Holocaust were not made with the Holocaust in mind.

That neatly mirrors the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre exhibit's mission, to show how the issue of genocide can permeate contemporary art without necessarily being the focus.

On May 4 and 5, a group of 30 writers, cultural historians and artists will reveal their relationship with the Holocaust in a series of lectures, discussions and the art exhibit. The event is called Afterimage: Evocations of the Holocaust in Contemporary Canadian Art.


Not all of the participants are Jewish. Doctoral student Katja Kessin, for example, contributed a giant-sized reproduction of a drawing she did as a five-year-old while growing up in Germany. The picture of a sandman and child seemed innocent and harmless until she took a close look and saw the tossed sand had jagged edges and the child's eyes were wide with fear.

"In Germany, the Holocaust is the loudest violence that is not expressed," she said in an interview. "The air is dense with it, but it is not named. You have to find the names for yourself."

Professor Loren Lerner, who curated the exhibit and conference, organized the event with two strictures. First, "No direct representations of the Holocaust. No horror. No terror." Second, "No immediate biographical links. These things are done in terms of family history or in ways that are not so obvious.

"This approach allows the conference material and the art to become more easily absorbed by the audience," added Lerner, who is Chair of the Art History Department. This tactic is also intended to help visitors make links between the Holocaust and more recent occasions of genocide. "Unless you learn the lessons," said artist Sylvia Safdie, "making a statement doesn't mean very much."

Safdie is one of three Concordia alumni whose art works are part of the exhibit. Like many of the other artists involved, her pieces reminded her of the Holocaust only after their completion. One is a water-filled vessel that appears like an eternal flame when a mirror and light are correctly placed. The other is a barrel containing a book whose blank pages turn as you circle it. "There is a presence to absence," she said. "It occupies space."

Norman Ravvin, head of the newly established Centre for Canadian Jewish Studies, will read from his current work. His interest is in recreating pre-war Polish life, "to recover some element of what was lost."

Professor Marion Wagschal said that "you are affected by events long past." One of her paintings in the exhibit, Kiln, was provoked by a stroll past Concordia's ceramics kiln. She was suddenly struck by two black holes for gas -- "like eyes, like targets" -- in the creamy white oven.

Alumna Sorel Cohen's work is among the most direct. "My father's family was wiped out and all we had was a black and white snapshot of them sitting in their Sunday best. I studied it a lot as a child. I wanted to reclaim my blood ties, so I copied the photo and projected my face onto theirs. It's interesting to see how my features locked, or didn't lock."

Fibres Professor Mindy Yan Miller's piece is even more disturbing, a reflection of her childhood where "there was free-floating anxiety that can attach to anything. I felt that, at any moment, something horrible could happen."

Her video presentation is of herself eating a photo of her father, whose expression is adoring. The image is played and replayed while you listen to an audio track of her crooning a Yiddish lullaby he used to sing to her.

Afterimage is being widely publicized. It is open to the public, and will be shown to tours of local high school children and cultural visitors to Montreal. It is meant to be discussed. Traditional explanatory panels are not being used; interpretation will be done on the spot by Concordia graduate students.

A year in the organizing, Afterimage was made possible through a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal. Albeit brief, its effect is intended to be lasting. Professor Lerner is planning to follow up with a catalogue comprising not only the art work, but the historians' essays and excerpts from the readings.

Afterimage is being shown May 4 to June 7 at the Gelber Centre, Jewish Community Campus, Lower Level, 1 Cummings Square (formerly 5151 Cte Ste. Catherine Rd). The opening of the exhibition is Thursday, May 4, at 7 p.m., with presentations by the artists from 8 p.m.

Organizers of Afterimage gather for a photo. Bottom row: Mindy Yan Miller, Marion Wagschal and Sorel Cohen. Middle row, Norman Ravvin, Katja Kessin and Loren Lerner. Back row: Ilga Leimanis, Shannon Anderson, Sabina Rak (all MFA students), and Sylvia Safdie.


Katja Kessin confronts the deeply uncomfortable


by Alison Ramsey

Kessinb+wDoctoral student Katja MacLeod Kessin cannot imagine living without producing art, or of producing art without a deeply personal meaning. She is also driven to share her work with others, in collaborative projects, volunteering, exhibits and performance pieces.

The quality of her academic work and her contribution to the life of the community around her were recognized this month in a national award of merit given by the Senior Women Academic Administrators of Canada.

Though her Master's is in Fine Arts, Kessin's doctoral humanities program involves trauma research that blends art history and studio arts at Concordia with German studies at McGill.

One of Kessin's attributes is her need to confront the uncomfortable. "It's not easy to produce the art," she said. "It's always a struggle."

The result, and even the process, can be deeply shocking both to her audience and to herself. For instance, picture Kessin, a born-and-bred German, walking up and talking to Holocaust survivors at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. "Artists are accused of appropriating the Holocaust, but I feel the Holocaust has appropriated me as an artist," she said. "I don't start with a subject. It unfolds, and I watch."

She was persistent in her efforts to perform her piece Aryan Household. After initial resistance, she succeeded in mounting it in Germany, and here in Montreal, during Black History Month.

In Aryan Household, she enters the room with an exhibit packed into a suitcase, pictures of objects in the house where she grew up. The dolls, bikini, coffee can and hand-puppets portray black stereotypes. Kessin narrates each piece with personal stories placed in a historical context as, one by one, she draws them out.

"I deal with subject matter that is difficult to deal with, and, for the audience, that is difficult to look at. It's too easy for me to just point and say, 'There's the problem.' There has to be something at stake for me, to be fair, so I make myself a target."

She encourages the audience to question her, and their own stories surface. "It is a trigger, going back to incidents that might have been traumatizing for them. My work functions as a medium for them to look at their own past, and that is how I like to see it."

Often they ask how she, who has no connection to black history, can comment on it. Yet the assumption is wrong: Kessin's daughter is black. "It enables them to look through my eyes, momentarily."

Kessin's work traverses borders. She curated and brought an exhibit of lithographs by Leo Haas, a close relative, to Canada. It made its debut at the NDG Maison de la Culture, and then went on to a year-long tour, including Parliament Hill and Washington's Holocaust Center. "I can't stand not sharing things," she said.

Another exhibit of paintings by women at Auberge Transition resulted from her volunteer art workshops for battered women. "I'm interested in finding ways to get out of the trauma that violence leaves. I'm interested in art as an approach to self-healing.

"I think we're all in need of -- and capable of -- producing art, but it's discouraged when we're very young," she said. "I believe that each of us has a visual dictionary that is complex and readable. I encourage people to locate it and learn how to read it. Once you open your eyes to it, you can really learn how to use it for yourself."

You can sample Katja MacLeod Kessin's work on May 1 at a one-day art event she co-curated at Concordia's Java U, where her slide installation "A is for Auschwitz" will be on view.


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