As part of the education series on “Diaspora: Celebrating the Diversity of Jewish Art and Culture around the World,” Nicholas Mirzoeff, professor of art at New York University, spoke about “Before and After Jewish: Notes on Diasporic Imagination” last Thursday.
Mirzoeff analyzed the works of Frederic Brenner, which are on display in the Myhren Gallery. By seeking out Jews all over, Brenner created photographic documentations of the Jewish diaspora. Mirzoeff analyzed the elements of some of Brenner’s works to show the workings of visual culture within Brenner’s art.
Mirzoeff started by speaking about the Holocaust and how it was intended to stop the reproduction of Jews by forced sterilization and extermination. However, there were many Jews who did survive and bore children.
Mirzoeff referred to this reproduction as doubling or cloning and then made a reference to modern technology and the ability to clone, especially in the instance of Dolly the sheep.
Brenner’s photograph “Lesbian Daughters of Holocaust Survivors” is an example of reproduction and doubling. The people in the image are standing in a circle creating an empty space in the middle, which stands for absence or a performance space, said Mirzoeff.
Mirzoeff said that Jacques Derrida is a fundamental person in speaking about Jewish diaspora. Derrida, a North African Jew, is a philosopher and founder of ‘deconstruction’ and has explored the study of deconstruction Jewishness, in conjunction with the diaspora. “Diaspora divides the body and soul of each community,” said Derrida.
Mirzoeff went on to talk about the political movement of Zionism versus the opposing movement of internationalism, which went along with Marxism and communism.
Even though many Jews wanted to return to the ancestral homeland of Israel, many thought that a part of being Jewish was to spread throughout the world bringing their religion with them, said Mirzoeff.
Many of these people thought that Jerusalem was more of a state of mind than the only place where Jews could feel at home. Mirzoeff said that the idea of being Jewish is more than just being Israeli or believing in Judaism.
Mirzoeff himself spoke of some personal diasporic moments including living in New York City in 1991 when thousands of Russians (many Jews) immigrated to the city after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
When Mirzoeff was in France he was recognized for having come from Uzbekistan. Mirzoeff then explained his exploration of diasporic art, including that of Camille Pissarro, a Jew who was born in the French colony of St. Thomas. Although he is known for his later Impressionist work, Pissarro started making art in his native land, mainly of the African culture. Mirzoeff said that Pissarro kept his Jewishness to himself until the Dreyfus affair came about in the 1890s.
Mirzoeff concluded his lecture by stating that Brenner is an integral part of the beginning of the exploration of ‘diasporic imagination’ and this is something that will be continued by all of us.