How does an act of moral courage find expression in art — in particular, in an unconventional form of multimedia conceptual art?
Artist Sebastian Mendes provides an answer in his current exhibition at Yeshiva University Museum’s “There Is a Mirror in My Heart: Reflections on a Righteous Grandfather.” Because the artist’s grandfather was a righteous gentile who helped save thousands from Hitler’s concentration camps, it’s especially fitting to view the show as Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, approaches.
From childhood on, says West Coast-based artist Mendes, he’s been haunted by the story of his grandfather: the diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the so-called “Portuguese Schindler.” As the Portuguese counsel stationed in Bordeaux at the time of Hitler’s entry into France in June 1940, de Sousa Mendes disobeyed his government’s orders and issued transit visas to some 30,000 European refugees (approximately 10,000 of them Jewish), allowing them safe passage to neutral Portugal, rather than almost certain deportation to German concentration camps. For this service to humanity — the first and largest single act of rescue during World War II — de Sousa Mendes was forcibly recalled to Portugal, where he lost his job, his career and his personal fortune, including the family estate. He died in 1954, still in disgrace with the Portuguese government. He was honored by Yad Vashem in 1986, but it was not until the 1990s (when Portugal issued a commemorative stamp in his honor) that his country began to publicly recognize his courageous actions.
Although Sebastian Mendes never met his grandfather, the story became a significant and resonant family legacy, crystallized by a single, central image of the middle-aged consul sitting at his embassy desk, filling out visa after visa, signing his name again and again, doing so nonstop for two days and nights, until he actually passed out from physical exhaustion.
This image — along with the actual physical act of continuously writing out and signing each and every one of those thousands of visas — became Mendes’ inspiration for “There Is a Mirror in My Heart: Reflections on a Righteous Grandfather.” On display through July 24, the exhibition is made up of distinct parts, each one inspired by a slightly different reflection on the legacy of conscience and memory that Sousa Mendes left his grandson.
One day about eight years ago, Mendes says, he sat down at his drawing table and, as he imagined his grandfather had, began writing continuously the names of each refugee (as recorded in the ledger books his grandfather kept) followed by his grandfather’s signature, repeating the process again and again. But the names did not spill out as a long list in a row, as in a document. Instead, Mendes began super-imposing the names, writing one name and signature one upon another, again and again, hundreds of times, in a series of 20 individual drawings of densely and obsessively crosshatched, inked-over writing.
Mendes calls these palimpsest drawings — an art term that usually refers to a piece of parchment or a tablet that has been re-used after previous layers have been scraped away, leaving barely visible ghost-like evidence, if any, owf what was there before. But in these drawings, it’s the continual re-using and rewriting, the superimposing without erasure, that creates the elusive, often Rorschach-like images that emerge. Even if you look closely, you have only the slightest clue of the conglomeration of individual names beneath. That is deliberate, says Mendes: The names are all of individuals, and yet, “It’s impossible to know all the names,” he says. What this presents is “an all-encompassing legacy.” It also suggests a sense of hidden secrets and concealed identities: Jews and other refugees forced to mask their origins in order to escape Hitler. There is an autobiographical link here, too; according to family history, the Mendes family is descended from conversos, Portuguese Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity.
The drawings are rooted in the stuff of history, survival and conscience. But gazing at these thickly textured abstractions is like staring at clouds, whose shapes and shadows shift even as you look. Images seem to emerge from the thick haze of crosshatched lines, and each viewer’s interpretation of those images will differ. Where this writer perceived a baseball, for example, Mendes pointed to the outline of an infinity sign — or an eyeball with cornea. Other drawings suggested what could be a braided challah — or a pen cap or a fabric swatch — or an Asian lantern or worn shoe of a refugee — or cell division, life going on, despite everything. In one drawing, Mendes deliberately placed a 1930s-style hat in one drawing. (“It suggests a statesman’s hat,” Mendes said, “and there are photos of my grandfather wearing a hat.”)
And the drawings are ongoing. Earlier in the exhibition’s run, once a week Sebastian Mendes would sit at a giant-sized drawing desk covered with a six-foot square piece of paper, on which he continuously writes the names of the refugees and signs his grandfather’s name. It’s a work in process — his goal is to include all 30,000 names — and he hopes he’ll be able to continue it in the future at other museum sites.