Subscribe to Blog via Email
We are all immigrants, if you think about it. And these days, we are all thinking about it. In what seems a cruel paradox, a journey often motivated by the quest for peace and freedom only seems to breed fear in our current U.S. President. What would it take to replace that with compassion? In a heartening retort to the scandalous order selectively banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, the photographs of Loli Kantor, Rosemarie Zens, Larry Volk and Priya Kambli each fathom the hidden histories and universal longings of their immigrant families in the exhibit Legacy. Migration. Memory. at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, MA on view through March 5, 2017.
In her series The Sea Remembers, Berlin artist Rosemarie Zens mines the story of her mother’s escape from war in March 1945 while carrying her nursing infant (the artist) in a saga her mother only unburdened many decades later as the Berlin Wall fell. Using antique family photographs as a touchstone, Zens returns to a birthplace she never knew, drawing upon “the existential properties of landscapes” to weave reality and fantasy into oblique and poetic images that transmit the sensation of waking from a dream.
Zens’ large color landscapes of her Polish birthplace are highly metaphoric, often capturing a frosty and inhospitable winter that weeps “exile”. A keen sense of loss and yearning are palpable in her barren, marred or obscured scenes. Wildlife poignantly stands-in for the artist, especially fishes, who wiggle and dart in their furtive hunt for the unknown. Appearing like staccato notes between Zens’ landscapes are the small, antique B&W portraits of her ancestors, which are often cropped in partial exposés. These fragmentary revelations contribute to the wistful longing in her work. The installation, like Zens’ accompanying book, compounds her introspective individual pieces into a stirring, impressionistic crescendo of a quest for personal history.
In Beyond The Forest, American academic Loli Kantor traces her family’s history as Holocaust survivors and uncovers the slow re-building of an Eastern European Jewish identity in her absorbing, multi-faceted, social documentary project and accompanying book. With a scholar’s analytic eye and an artist’s sensitivity, Kantor develops her impressions in three parts. In B&W photographs, she captures telling narrative elements of a largely hidden past through evocative still-lifes and portraits whose deep shadows allude to a complex history.
Large color photographs reveal the cautious restoration of Jewish culture in the same towns that were ravaged during WWII, one of which was home to Kantor’s family. In these, there is more air and space, visually and symbolically. Vibrant depictions of community that pulse with life and a palpable sense of pride supplant the reference to frightful memories that her B&W photographs transmit.
But it is Kantor’s lovely, diminutive palladium photographs – the exact size of her medium format negatives – that most capture my imagination and heart. Intimate and refined, many combine frames to form diptychs and triptychs with touching anecdotes. The elderly Alfred Shreyer recounting a story to what appears to be his granddaughter in “There Was A Forest” is profoundly moving. In this and all of Kantor’s warm-tone palladium prints, we glimpse both a piece of the past and the present, a legacy found and a poignant reminder of the many more that have been lost.
In A Story of Rose’s, Larry Volk pieces together his mother’s complicated migration during WWII in a visual pastiche of images, documents and prose. Within horizontal frameworks reminiscent of conventional timelines, Volk conveys the eccentricity of memories with deliberate disruptions in sequencing and composition. Like Rosemarie Zens, Volk’s imagery mixes feelings with facts but, where Zens separates past and present, B&W and color, Volk combines the fragments of his mother’s past into frames that each address a different aspect of her story, such as her schooling, passage through Paris, and naturalization in the United States.
Volk’s use of space in his longitudinal frames emphasizes gaps in Rose’s history and memory at least as much as the information he includes. Symbolic elements convey the emotional significance of these missing pieces. In Volk’s somber “Blue Paris”, the repetition of hands and purses, a cool, dark palette and his use of visual disjunctions all foster a mournful tone that expresses a loss of bearings. Each of Volk’s pieces expresses that intricate balance of longing and perseverance shared by every immigrant.
In Kitchen Gods, Indian-born Priya Kambli creatively reconstructs her mysterious legacy with antique B&W family portraits that she allegorically alters and adorns. Orphaned at age 18, Kambli immigrated to the United States with just one suitcase. In the few family portraits she possessed, her mother had systematically cut her own head out of each carefully composed shot, a curiosity that disturbed Kambli and prompted her photographic exploration.
In her forebears’ tradition of paying homage to the deities displayed in one’s kitchen, Kambli decorates her family portraits with handmade and floral offerings. Her delicate and clever compositions use these symbols to express curiosity and longing for knowledge of her past. Often, a figure is presented in multiples, with graceful patterns of flower petals or intricate geometric designs concealing and revealing portions of faces and bodies. The repetition of people and patterns resembles not only the ceaseless questioning of a curious child but the comforting reiteration of religious chants. In her probing composites, Kambli has re-invented her family legacy, confronting and embellishing the supreme mystery that, to some extent, we all face when looking into our pasts.
In this thought-provoking and emotional exhibit, Zens, Kantor, Volk and Kambli all grapple with both the presence and absence of information, making powerful use of the memories that were revealed and hidden from them. Their desire to discover or create family history reflects an irresistible and universal desire for a sense of self, community and belonging, something all immigrants must leave behind and create anew. Legacy. Migration. Memory. awakens a strong sense of compassion and patriotic pride for the multiculturalism that makes America great. The humanity these photographers convey in their work ignites the conviction that art is a form of activism, capable of turning deaf ears into empathetic ones through transformative artistic expression.
For more information about this exhibit, go to: http://griffinmuseum.org/exhibitions/
To view or purchase The Sea Remembers by Rosemarie Zens and Beyond The Forest by Loli Kantor, go to: http://griffinmuseum.org/product-category/books/
Feature Image: “The Boat from Cuba, 2009” (detail) from the series A Story of Rose’s by Larry Volk (courtesy of the artist).