Justice and Genocide
We have to recognize that there is both the capacity for good and for atrocity in each and every one of us. -Vaddey Ratner
Argentina, Chile, Cuba | 2000-2014
AS A LAWYER, I have always gravitated toward human rights law, and the rights of refugees. I was particularly moved by events in South America—the juntas in Chile and Argentina in particular. Around 1980, my husband and I hosted Dolly Filártiga, who was suing over the torture and murder of her brother by the police in Paraguay. She had fought for decades for justice. Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, 630 F.2d 876 (2d Cir., 1980), was a landmark case in United States and international law. It set the precedent for United States federal courts to punish non-American citizens for tortious acts committed outside the United States in violation of international law.
I was shamed by the U.S. government’s intervention in Chile, and response to the coup by military dictator, Augusto Pinochet. I wrote a law review article about it, entitled, “Political Refugees: A Study in Selective Compassion”. I also wrote an article about the Sanctuary movement in the 1980’s, which pertained to sheltering refugees from the Salvadoran Civil War. I intended to practice immigration law, but it did not work out.
In 2000, my husband taught a summer program in Argentina. Across the street from our Recoleta apartment was an art gallery, from which we purchased “Tirarse a la Pileta,” by Ana Fabry. The title means, literally, to throw yourself into the bucket (take a chance). I was attracted to the text (the Santa Maria telephone book), the collage elements, and the Reubenesque divers, none of whom is on a safe trajectory into the bucket. Humor and ridicule remain important weapons for the resistance.
I have never had romantic illusions about the abuses of the left. A 2014 trip to Cuba inspired a series of “mini-prints,” that were exhibited in various places–Spain, Bulgaria, and the U.S. The series includes “Flight from Cienfuegos” and “Studebaker before Patronado.” Both pieces reflect my preoccupations with exile, flight, and memory. “Studebaker before Patronado” incorporates an image from Havana’s Patronado Synagogue, which we passed by on an art tour. Since we were not on a “Jewish” tour, we were not invited inside.
Reaching for Heroes and Shaming Villains: Stockholm, Amsterdam, Paris | 2012-2014
Wherever I travel, I tend to focus on the history of exiles, the dispossessed, and the disappeared, as well as on artists whose work is focused on memory, and narrative. Maps and boundaries have always fascinated me:
In “Tulips through Anne’s Window” and “Field of Tulips/Rain of Names,” I remember the loss of Dutch children in the Holocaust.
My work with the names of children, of course, reminded me of my half-sister, Ritta, as well as Lydia and Rita Brand, my mother’s young cousins from Kromeriz, deported to Maly Trostinec, July, 1942–the young girls from my family who were deported, and who disappeared forever.
Cambodia/Vietnam | 2014
During a 2014 trip to Cambodia, I discovered an old postcard of a royal Cambodian dancer. The image haunted me. It symbolized the intentional obliteration of culture, as well as the spiritual response and struggle of the survivors. At the time, I was reading In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Vaddey Ratner, the fictionalized story of the author’s survival of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Much like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge destroyed an entire culture. In an interview with NPR, Ratner described her indebtedness to the stories of Holocaust survivors, such as Elie Wiesel, in writing of her experiences. She explained that she shared her story so that such atrocities might not happen again:
In order to prevent it, we can only be vigilant. We have to recognize that there is both the capacity for good and for atrocity in each and every one of us. When we recognize this, then I think we are more vigilant that it can happen, not just in a culture like Cambodia. It can happen anywhere. (Neary)
I am interested in the similarities and differences among cultures in coping with atrocities. Throughout our trip, I was struck by the resilience of the Cambodian people. The physical wounds of the genocide and its “leftovers” are very much present—blind, maimed people were everywhere visible. Yet, a Buddhist monk, whom we met at a river temple complex, informed us that they “treat” trauma with meditation, only. I do not know if the seeming equanimity of the Cambodians whom we met is attributable to Buddhism or to the fact that time had not passed sufficiently for them to fully enter the grief of memory. It is quite possible, to my mind, that the shock and trauma of losing 25% of the population, and destruction of the entire culture, at the hands of their own people would not have begun to thaw after only 40 years. There is much more to understand about this, but I wonder what I may dare do—cannot speak for my own dead, let alone the dead of others. This is to explore.
Upon our return from Cambodia, I made a series of monotypes from the royal dancer postcard. I was haunted by numbers, and by the impossibility of giving each individual story its due. I scanned nine of the monotypes, and created a digital collage, “9 Khmer Dancers”.
In “Map of Potential, Unexploded Ordnance,” I used the unexploded ordnance to symbolize our unconscious, collective memories, and the inherited trauma that stays with me.
In “Untitled, 2014,” I reworked an image of a monotype done in 2005, in which I had included a collage element related to my father’s birthplace, Sobeslav.
Currently, I am pairing the image of the dancer with a 2008 piece, from a photo of me as a child, called, “Multigenerational Transmission of Trauma No. 3”.
I am motivated by the need to acknowledge that, although there is nothing to “compare” to the industrialized murder of the Holocaust (Rwanda and Cambodia come close in intention), these traumas are shared by peoples all over the world. During my preparations for a 2015 show in Germany, I proposed including some imagery from Cambodia/Vietnam, but the organizers wanted to stay with the Nazi genocide. I am now thinking again of pursuing this connection, as I begin to explore contemporary Vietnamese and Cambodian artists.
Art and Environment | 2015-2017
My professional life as an attorney included 30 years of environmental work, including a term on the California Coastal Commission. My role on the Commission had been to apply the strict standards of the Coastal Act, and to pay attention to fairness in the process to all parties. My attention to detail was frequently a point of contention. Yet, from the experience of my family, I know that both the devil, and the possibility of survival, are to be found in the details. My term ended just after Santa Barbara experienced a major oil spill. I was very angry about a lot of things, including my feeling of helplessness over what I consider to be an inept response by those responsible, on all sides.
I created “Restore This, F@#$%^s” for a small exhibit at Underground Salon in Santa Barbara, which checked topics of environmental politics and fascism.
After I left the Coastal Commission, I contracted with Solano Press, a well known California publisher of books about land use and environmental law, to write a book called “Navigating the California Coastal Act,” which will include my art work, and photographs by Santa Barbara photographer Reeve Woolpert. I also taught a course at the Environmental Studies department at UCSB called, “Where’s My Beach?” about the Coastal Act. My law and art career intersect, but I feel now I am getting close to giving up the law part (again), and focusing on expressing the pursuit of justice in my art. A picture is worth a thousand words.
Responding to the threat of ascending nationalism in the U.S. and abroad, I have interspersed participation in marches, letter writing, and meetings, with posting art on Facebook. My goal is to communicate solidarity with refugees and immigrants, as well as concern for the environment, women’s health, and all of the human rights issues on which we thought, over the last 40 years, to have made solid, irrevocable gains. But now everything I have worked on in my life, albeit insufficiently and inadequately—Tzedekah, justice, and charity—appears to be at risk of sliding backward. I did not expect this. Foolishly, I thought that, after the Holocaust, there would not be another such event, that the arc of history bends toward justice. Instead, there has been Pinochet, the ethnic cleansing of the Balkan wars, Rwanda, the Khmer Rouge, Darfur, and now, what else to come?