Sepharad Commentary

These images in the series, Sepharad, were prepared for a Vernissage after a trip to Portugal and North Africa in the fall of 2010. In previous series, I have attempted to address family narrative in the Holocaust and the dueling ‘national’ narratives in the Israel/Palestine conflict. This chapter has evolved from an ill-defined desire to study and express something in my artwork about the Diaspora as specifically reflected in images from the Iberian peninsula and North Africa.

In Portugal, we engaged a guide to show us the remnant of the Jewish history in Lisbon, and to be told the story of the Inquisition in Portugal and the forced deportation of the Jews at the insistence of Queen Isabella of Spain. We then drove to Tomar, the site of the oldest synagogue in Portugal, not knowing that the town was also the site of the castle of the Knights Templar and a great tourist draw, or that it was about twenty minutes from Fatima, which we bypassed. In Morocco I tried to find the remnants of synagogues in Casablanca, Marrakesh and Tangier, with limited success. There is a Jewish museum in Casablanca, which unfortunately was closed when we were there, a big disappointment, because it looked fascinating. We only found one tiny former synagogue, in the Rue des Synagogues, in Tangier.

My use in my art of the Portugal and North Africa images evolved to a few which are emblematic of three aspects of history: not the great achievements of Jews in medieval Iberia, or Jewish communal life, but symbols of exile, responsibility, and memory. Here they emerge as the azulejo, a quintessentially Portuguese tile which in this 17th Century example depicts three Jews in a boat, holding a Torah scroll (and, I think, referencing the traveler’s prayer), a receipt card depicting Renee Reichmann‘s wartime aid work in sending packages to the Jews in European ghettos and camps from her safe haven in Tangier, and the words of Aristides Mendes de Sousa, “the Portuguese Schindler” [Meo Objectivo Salvar Toda- my Objective to Save them All-]. As in the Impasse series, the boyhood photo of my uncle Fritz is prominent. We learned in about 1995 that the package of chocolates from Tangier that my mother received in the Terezin ghetto probably came via Renee Reichmann. To this I added, in multiple appearances, the head of the ‘ScapeGoat’, a failed collage.

Thus, images in my art which began as snapshots in time and were intended to document individual losses seem to have yielded over the course of the months I have been working on this project to ribbons of a constant flow of peoples, the lost and the saved, speaking to multiple exiles and returns, swirling back and forth and around the Mediterranean, like an image of seaweed that appears to be detached, floating randomly on a watery surface, but which like kelp has roots deep in the sea bottom. But my questions still remain. Is there but one root, spiritual and physical, and is it Zion? And/or, is Diaspora necessarily the same as Galut/Exile?

Jana Zimmer
May, 2011