Israeli artist Gil Yefman takes on the subject of sexual violence and the forced prostitution of women during the Shoah, a focus not often presented in Holocaust history, and he does so through a literal hook, the crochet hook.
“Tumtum” (2012), a huge, crocheted sculptural orb, overwhelms you as you enter the exhibit, “To Me You are Beautiful "Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn) " at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. A biblical term referring to a hermaphrodite, “Tumtum” at first view, presents as a happy, childlike cacophony of circular chunks of crocheted wool, conjuring up the large crocheted kippot worn by would-be holy men in Jerusalem. On closer inspection, however, the orb proved to be a mass of oozing orifices, bulging eyeballs, swollen genitalia, maimed body parts and drippings of blood, all crocheted in bright, primary colors.
The artist spent two years as a woman and is quite open about his gender dysphoria and many of the pieces seem more autobiographical than Shoah-related. Certainly outsiderness is part of the Holocaust’s horror, and one of its multitudinous causes, but comparing the search for one’s self with the dreadfulness of the Shoah seems, at least to me, a bit trivializing.
During the opening night panel discussion, “House of Dolls” was cited as a reference source. The 1955 novel, which is part of the Israeli high school curriculum, describes in diary format the "Joy Division," the Nazi concentration camp brothels in which Jewish women were forced to act as sex slaves.
Which leads us to “Sex Slave” (2008). Feeling disturbed is an appropriate response to such painful subject matter but it wasn’t the subject but its exploitation that I found troubling. A crocheted female doll, with Yefman’s signature decorative genitalia and bulging eyeballs, is anchored by woolen chains, a victim of impending, horrific rape. On opening night, the artist, puppeteer and actor, placed himself inside the work, only his eyes visible, and brought the doll to life. The crocheted doll watches idyllic scenes of Ravensbruck, which is where many of the sex slaves came from; Hitler’s mother’s kindly portrait hangs nearby.
Many of Yefman’s works were certainly disturbing but also thought-provoking and challenging, such as the crocheted “Baby Blanket” (2011) made of colorful Swastika squares. In his “Decomposition” series, Yefman creates hand-painted ceramic shower tiles in different formations, some shelves, some actual shower stalls, but all evocative, painful and oddly beautiful. “Time Table,” a group of screen prints featuring key Nazi female figures dressed as pornographic pin-ups felt oddly and vengefully satisfying in this setting.
Yefman’s series “Organic Soap Bars” (2012-2014) — bars of soap emblazoned with black swastikas and made of glycerin, fragrance, pigments and hair, ash and fingernails — were certainly difficult to view, as so many of his works are, but does conjure up the horror and insanity of those years better than words can do.
“To Me You are Beautiful (Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn)” is on view through June 14, 2014 at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, 31 Mercer Street, New York.
Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.