Places of symbolic justice and coexistence

in the work of Artemis Alcalay1

By EUGENIA ALEXAKI

 

Their survival into advanced age,
an inexplicable victory.
The number on their arm,
an incessant reminder.
The look in their eyes, a legacy for the future.2

 

 

Corfiot Sandra Cohen was the first Greek Jewish Holocaust survivor photographed by Artemis Alcalay in Athens in 2012. At the time, Alcalay had decided to escape what she described as “the safety of her workshop” and wander around the city carrying “homes”– those plain, archetypical structures symbolising the hearth and a sense of belonging. Her aim was to intertwine them with their surroundings and expose herself3 to unexpected individual and social narratives as well as personal and collective memories.4 The white house with the red ribbon clasped in a hand would accompany Alcalay on her encounter with Sandra Cohen, and since that time a different house has accompanied her to every single encounter with Auschwitz survivors. These crafted houses are integrated, literally and symbolically, into the portraits of the survivors, serving a dual role: both as a thread of familiarity and communication connecting the subjects with the artist and as a means of allowing viewers to explore and expand their outlook on the notions of home, loss and trauma. Since 2012, Alcalay’s painstaking research in Greece and abroad has enabled her to meet, speak to and photograph 67 Greek Jewish survivors of the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. The result is a unique corpus of images and stories depicting Greek Jews – Sephardi, Romaniote and Apulian. It constitutes valuable material for historiography and historic memory, particularly as we find ourselves on the threshold of an era when eyewitnesses are disappearing from our lives and communities.

Alcalay’s art systematically processes the notions of trauma and memory. For years, she has been forming stitches, seams and staples using a variety of techniques ranging from painting, knitting and weaving to producing constructions and small-sized sculptures made of self-manufactured yarns, threads and fabrics. By intentionally incorporating post-modern handicraft processes, she constructs bonds over rifts, implying a new beginning. She starts from scratch and endeavours to heal underlying wounds in a symbolic manner. The project “Greek Jews Holocaust Survivors” retains and expands the performative aspect. However, in this work, Alcalay shifts her focus towards “counter-monumental” artistic recreations of historic trauma. Choosing to abandon the canvas and traditional work of art, she dares to discuss directly whether it is possible or legitimate to reproduce the unthinkable and extreme historical experience that is the Holocaust in aesthetic terms.

Challenging and resisting conventional artistic acts and experiences, Alcalay uses the methodology of historical research and social science. Occupying a personal and artistic position, she composes a place, a network of people, experiences, traumatic and extraordinary stories, recounting actual stories of life and survival. Using primary research to identify, communicate, photograph and conduct interviews with Holocaust survivors, her study on trauma is expressed distinctly through each survivor. Such “counter-monumental” approaches to trauma highlight the uniqueness of the victims and, as James E. Young emphatically stated in establishing the term and concept of the counter-monument, “return the burden of memory to viewers”5, ultimately claiming their conscious involvement in the duty of knowledge. In Alcalay’s project the survivors are neither an amorphous mass of people nor an abstraction. Quite the opposite: she pursues clear and unique visibility for each one of them. They have a name and a face, a current self, an image of how they look today; they are present; their personal story is condensed into photographic highlights and a narrative. They tell us of the value of individuality, frantically persecuted by inhuman National-Socialist ideologies and annihilated in the death camps. This is what Alcalay’s subtle perspective brings forth by exposing the stories and thoughtful images of specific survivors.

Here, photography is not merely a technical means but a discursive space6, a concept, a method, a conscious strategic choice and acceptance of the limitations and fragmentary nature accompanying any attempt to examine historical trauma on aesthetic terms alone. For Alcalay, photography in this context is a channel of communication, a means of enabling her own encounters with survivors and the viewer. In choosing to seek them out away from the “safety of her workshop”, spend time with them, immortalise their physical appearance and document their testimonies, she has created a record of images, a monument lacking monumentality; she becomes involved with them and those close to them in a structured network, ultimately striving to achieve a shared, creative method of processing trauma, a performative practice in identification, introspection and catharsis. The contemplative viewer is also invited to take part in a critical interactive process. The subjects in the photographs are not depicted as victims or witnesses; they are portrayed in their ordinary lives, thus flowing directly into ours. They could be our own relatives, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts. In the photos of Auschwitz survivors, the sole direct testament to their monstrous dehumanisation is the number on their arms. However, participants deliver their testimonies by making subtle allusions to the horrors committed by human beings to fellow human beings and resist historical apathy and amnesia, inviting us – the viewers – towards an empathic viewing.7

In recent years, performative processes have occupied an important position in artistic endeavours seeking to address the traumatic memory of the Holocaust. They are recognised as practices which, under certain conditions, can help transform viewers from passive recipients to active social agents.8 The performativity marking Alcalay’s encounter with the survivors makes space for a joint ritualistic act of commemoration; a dynamic place/time is created between her, the survivors and the morally responsible observer. The shared space she creates is a place of healing where justice is sought and the power of life is recognised. She offers time to herself, the survivors and their families, thus establishing a climate of trust. It is then that individual traumatic experiences, entire life stories, cruel ordeals and abominable mnemonic images can be unpacked. Artemis Alcalay delivers a personal, social and, ultimately, potential public place of healing and reconciliation with the memory of a singular and absolute extreme, a symbolic place of justice and coexistence.

* Eugenia Alexaki is an art historian and teaches at the Hellenic Open University. Her current research focuses on the role of art in processing the painful and traumatic historical past.

1. For an in-depth presentation of Alcalay’s project “Greek Jews Holocaust Survivors”, see Eugenia Alexaki, «Τέχνη και μεταβατική δικαιοσύνη. Τόποι συμφιλίωσης στο έργο της Αρτέμιδας Αλκαλάη» (“Art and transitional justice. Places of reconciliation in the work of Artemis Alcalay”), in Giorgos Kokkinos, Panagiotis Kimourtzis, Markos Karasarinis (eds), Ιστορία και δικαιοσύνη (History and Justice), Athens, Asini, 2020, pp. 359-389. Excerpts for this article were taken from this publication.

 

2. Odette Varon-Vassard, accompanying text to Artemis Alcalay’s exhibition, “Greek Jews Holocaust Survivors: A Visual Narrative”, Instituto Cervantes, Athens, January-March 2016.

 

3. “I decided to escape the safety of my workshop and use the home as a tool to explore, communicate and attempt an understanding of the outside world, but also as a reason to delve into my personal labyrinth”, Alcalay confesses. See Artemis Alcalay – home: a wandering, Athens, Kapon, 2012, p. 6.

 

4. Alcalay’s project “home: a wandering” was presented in 2012 in Athens (Beton 7 gallery), and a book with the same title was published that year by Kapon editions (texts by Artemis Alcalay). She began her work on homes as artistic creations in the 1990s and brought them together in a solo exhibition titled “home: an installation” at Gallery 7 (Athens, 2010. See also Artemis Alcalay – home: an installation, solo exhibition catalogue, texts by Elisavet Plessa).

 

5. James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 1993, p. 30.

 

6. Katarzyna Ruchel-Stockman astutely analyses photography as a discursive space, as well as the complex intersection of photos, history and memory in Images Performing History: Photography and Representations of the Past in European Art after 1989, Leuven, Leuven University Press, 2015.

 

7. Maria Elander, “Education and Photography at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum”, in Peter D. Rush & Olivera Simić (eds.), The Arts of Transitional Justice: Culture, Activism, and Memory After Atrocity, New York, Springer, 2014. In examining the didactic role of photography as part of transitional justice, Elander urges us not to focus on a positivist perception of the evidentiary role of the photograph. More than mere evidence, he posits, photography can create bonds with and among viewers, while at the same time forcing us to reconsider those bonds.

 

8. Diana I. Popescu & Tanja Schult, “Performative Holocaust Commemoration in the 21st Century”, Holocaust Studies, 26 (2), 2020, pp. 135-151.