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Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor   
May 2017

Jewish Museum of Florida shows us how to fight against evil

OArtFeature_1n a bright, surprisingly cool April day, an ouing to the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, surrounded by the well-preserved buildings and lovely landscaping of South Beach along Washington Avenue, couldn’t seem more inviting.

However, something isn’t quite right. I’m about to view the new exhibit “Evil: A Matter of Intent,” but already there’s a sense that the world is off kilter. This is Holocaust Remembrance Day and police cars are guarding the Holocaust Memorial, just to the north on Meridian Avenue. On a day meant to remind us of the evils of genocide, we still need security to deter fanatics who might try to deface the monument or commit some worse act.

At the top of the stairs of the gorgeous 1936 Art Deco building that houses the museum, and which served for 50 years as a synagogue for the first Miami Beach Jewish congregation, a guard is stationed at a walk-through metal detector. He also searches all bags. He’s jovial, but again a disheartening feeling sets in. The security isn’t just for today; it’s an every day precaution.

The exhibit, which originated at New York’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum, is no more cheery -- nor is it meant to be. As Jacquiline Goldstein, the local curator of “Evil,” stresses, “No, this is not an easy exhibit. But it is important that we confront evil and not be complicit.”

Evil, of course, is a uniquely human attribute. As the introduction on the front wall explains: “Evil is not a cosmic accident. It does not just happen.... It is a deliberate action or inaction....The human capacity for evil, from biblical antiquity to present day, is a constant.”

So do you really want to enter?

ArtFeature_2Yes, absolutely. While this is in the Jewish Museum, it isn’t an exhibition exclusively about the Holocaust. It comprises contemporary artworks by an array of artists from across the globe, who address genocide, racism, violence against women, child soldiers, and other atrocities in forms that range from the explicit to the abstract. But this is not a hall of horrors.

While documenting terror, an overarching theme of empowerment pulls at the viewer. We have the power, and the obligation, to go forward and fight. In fact, one photograph suggests that time does not heal all wounds, people do.

Biblical roots form the base of one of the first images you run into, a man intensely staring back at you, not letting you go. The man is Cain, “slayer of Abel,” as is scrawled in red on the painting. The story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, is familiar: the parents have stooped to temptation, and one of the sons to murder; they are punished with exile from Paradise, while he is cursed to remain a fugitive. Aside from those first few moments in the Garden of Eden, humans have struggled with evil ever since -- to fight it, to run from it, to spread it in the name of a cause.

Pass this 2015 painting from Barbara Green, and the wall breaks to let you into the interior room. At the forefront are two huge -- eight feet high -- cutouts of boys aiming automatic weapons; they are silhouettes in black placed on white canvas that hang from the ceiling, from artist Grace Graupe Pillard. They could be child soldiers in the civil wars of Africa or teens caught up in the brutal warfare of Chicago’s or Miami’s ghettos.

Behind these two “sentries” is an installation made of four freestanding structures with a larger-than-life Ku Klux Klan mannequin. Says Goldstein: “The KKK really are evil personified,” evoking a visceral reaction from most Americans. She explains that a patron had brought it in, saying she wanted nothing to do with it. It had sat in storage until this exhibit came about, and Goldstein created a mini-pavilion around it. On the walls of the surrounding structures are images she culled from the museum’s own collection.

ArtFeature_3Similar to the HistoryMiami exhibit documented here in the BT’s April issue (see “History with a Modern Twist”), which asked artists to work with the collection to come up with contemporary commentary, “Evil” is not a series of artifacts or photos from war zones; it is a variety of artistic expressions of mankind’s darkness, with paths to a brighter side that ask all of us to speak out.

Across the faces of three women in a lithograph, Linda Soberman wrote the famous lines suggesting how everyone was complicit in the Holocaust, which starts, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist,” and finishes with, “and then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

The hauntingly beautiful collaged portrait from John Lawson of Daniel Klein, the Massachusetts writer who often tackles the philosophical issues of daily life, also incorporates text. Woven into the coat he wears are his prose writings, including, the “evil of omission...is as bad, if not worse, than the evil of commission.” Again, a call out to speak out.

There is a photograph of the twin towers burning in Manhattan on September 11; two simple sketches of the homeless; a swirling oil painting titled Hiroshima, A Child’s Shirt; and a black-and-white drawing of grieving mothers after the 2004 slaughter of children in Beslan, North Ossetia, part of the Russian Federation, when they were held hostage in their school by Chechen rebels.

ArtFeature_4But the most moving works were not even made by professionals, and are in fact actually “speaking,” or testifying now. These are the drawings made by children in the unbelievably unforgiving and terrorized camps of Darfur. Aid workers had brought crayons to the area of west Sudan, where non-Arab black populations have been targeted for ethnic cleansing by Sudanese Janjaweed militias (which translates to “devils on horseback”), and got the Darfuri children to document the trauma they experienced. In 2007, the International Criminal Court at the Hague accepted hundreds of drawings by children as evidence of genocide to be used in future prosecutions.

As this exhibit reveals, humankind has always succumbed to its darker nature, but as Goldstein points out, with the Internet age, we are now aware of so much more -- not necessarily because there is more brutality but because we can see it. We can’t pretend anymore that we don’t know, all the more reason, she says, to open not just our eyes but our mouths: “We simply can’t be complicit anymore.”

 

“Evil: A Matter of Intent” runs through October 1, Jewish Museum of Florida -- FIU, 301 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; jmof.fiu.edu.

 

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