Exhibition ‘Ellis Island’ unfolds many layers of what is called exile and memory

At the Jewish Museum of Belgium, the exhibition Ellis Island with a variety of works by the artists of different generations, is a visual walk through the meaning of home and belonging.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Jun 10, 2021

To unfold the intricate pattern of human history is to acquaint ourselves with the travel journeys that the human tribe undertook – either being coerced into or for survival. As the journeys across the many shores of many miles were scaled, the tumultuous stories of emotional upheaval soared. One such attempt is the latest exhibition Ellis Island, curated by Eloi Boucher in collaboration with the Jewish Museum of Belgium. The Museum, in a culturally vibrant place of Brussels, through a series of exhibitions, is relooking at the history of Jews to make it accessible to a wide audience.

Alina Szapocznikow, Sans titre | Ellis Island | Jewish Museum of Belgium | STIRworld
Alina Szapocznikow, Sans titre Image: Courtesy of Collection Nathalie Guiot

The title of the exhibition is a reference to a real island in Manhattan in New York. For a large section of people coming from Europe and West Asia, especially between 1892 and 1924, this would be an entry point to the land of America. Before making an official entry to the new nation-state, the people were put under a psychological examination and driven to change their identity. In an effort to authenticate the place, Georges Perec, a writer of Polish Jewish origin, calls his text Ellis Island written in 1979.

For the exhibition, the presenters, and the curator Boucher, “Ellis Island is not a theme, nor is it the illustration of a rhetoric. It is not a formal adaptation of a novel, but rather a motif, a formula, a syntactic unit that has the capacity to reveal a memory and trigger the imagination through the works of 20th and 21st century artists”. The group exhibition saw the coming together of nine contemporary artists of different generations including - Armando Andrade Tudela, Marianne Berenhaut, Heidi Bucher, Miriam Cahn, Latifa Echakhch, Sigalit Landau, Alina Szapocznikow, Naama Tsabar and Lawrence Weiner – to talk about the themes of exile and migration.

Miriam Cahn, o.t. | Ellis Island | Jewish Museum of Belgium | STIRworld
Miriam Cahn, o.t. Image: Courtesy of Galerie Jocelyn Wolff

The diversity of the works available at the exhibition is a testimony to the fact that the subject as wide as a human exodus cannot have a single visual language of representation. If on one hand, the Belgian artist, Marianne Berenhaut, creates the delicate garbage dolls with an old pair of stockings, on the other hand, the US-based Weiner creates a wall mural with a script that carries a “neutral language”. For the artist, Alina Szapocznikow, a Holocaust survivor, beauty is not absolute but lies close to decadence. Her finely created drawings with a felt-tip pen, ball-point pen, ink, watercolour and monotypes encapsulate this idea to emphasise the destruction is inevitable to the act of creation. Her experimental and figurative style is acutely attentive to the relationship between body and time. In the hands of the artist, the former achieves a sense of “visceral, humorous and political” quality when moved around the axis of time.

Naama Tsabar, Melody of Certain Damage | Ellis Island | Jewish Museum of Belgium | STIRworld
Naama Tsabar, Melody of Certain Damage Image: Courtesy of Dvir Gallery

Straddling the multiple disciplines - abstract painting, minimalist sculpture, the readymade and the site-specific installation - is the work of Morocco-born Switzerland-based artist, Latifa Echakhch. In a globalised world when national identity is directly proportional to the changing cultural landscape, Echakhch’s visual vocabulary is rooted in fragments of memory. The Inking from the Hanging Clouds series of works drawn from the memory of Echakhch’s childhood days is her act of rereading the current-day reality.

Sigalit Landau, Carlibaba | Ellis Island | Jewish Museum of Belgium | STIRworld
Sigalit Landau, Carlibaba Image: Sigalit Landau

If Echakhch’s sculptures are rooted in abstraction then Israel-based artist, Naama Tsabar, interweaves his sculptural art with performance and photography to extend the discussions of belonging to the idea of body as home. Dominantly, a majority of the musical genres are synonymous with masculine power with a little space dedicated to women. In order to subvert this conventional understanding of music and men, Tsabar through the series of performances and sculptures, Melody of Certain Damage, dismantle the electronic guitar, only to let the audience collect its various parts and prepare a new musical score.

Like the Ellis Island, The Dead Sea has been a repository of many histories pertaining to migration and human conditions. Sigalit Landau's works is a deep dive into personal and collective memory. Her works at once deal with the objects and the human body only to talk about private and public ways of life. The Jerusalem-based artist sees the Dead Sea as an inspiration as well as a laboratory to give tone and texture to her works. At times handmade or symbolic objects, Landau submerges them in the saltwater of the lake only to let them have a layer of salt crystals. The sculptures - fishing nets or barbed wires - as the object of display in the exhibition are an epitome of “archaeological discoveries” only to give a peek into the pages of a 20th century history.

Sigalit Landau, Malka | Ellis Island | Jewish Museum of Belgium | STIRworld
Sigalit Landau, Malka Image: Sigalit Landau

The exhibition Ellis Island re-narrates the difficult subject of home and migration only to reiterate the fact that humans have repeatedly succumbed to emotional turmoil only to successfully find their origins of existence.

The exhibition Ellis Island runs at the Jewish Museum of Belgium until June 12, 2021. 

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