Artist challenges our perception of Holocaust

Victims of Nazis empowered through use of colour, humour and fantasy

Gun-toting Jewish women smiling ear to ear in a field full of florescent flowers — not the typical image that comes to mind when thinking about the Holocaust, but a thought provoking one, for sure.

That image, called Garden, will be on display as part of The Rosen Women, paintings by Hinda Avery at the Martin Batchelor Gallery (712 Cormorant) beginning Saturday, May 28 until Thursday, June 23.

But not all the images are as tongue in cheek. When Avery started painting her grandmother and aunt who were murdered by Nazis during the Second World War, her works were quite realistic and sombre — portraying them in the dank latrine inside the Birkenau extermination camp where they may have died. Although her late mother had fled Poland at the outset of the war and never spent time in any concentration camps, Avery also included her mother and herself in the paintings.

“It was my way of making a connection to my aunt and grandmother whom I never knew,” she says. “I wanted to convey the horror of it all. The worst environment I could think of was the latrine, at least in my imagination,” she says. “In one, I had them nude and very vulnerable of course. In another I had them in striped prison uniforms and they looked very sad. By the third painting,  I didn’t want them nude or in prison uniforms, I thought ‘I’m going to put them in army garb’— they’re getting a little stronger now.” The paintings in Avery’s first series were 18 by 24 inches.

Eventually Avery decided to portray the four women, whom she called the Rosen Women after her mother’s family name, as resistance fighters. “I didn’t want them as victims any more,” she says.

“I did a series of the four of us as resistance fighters, but because they weren’t resistance fighters, I portrayed them as character actors in the role of real Jewish women resistance fighters.”

Beside each painting, the names of real Jewish female resistance fighters are listed. “I did a lot of research on them and came up with about 36 names,” Avery says. “They were just awesome and so courageous. They infiltrated organizations, they passed secret messages, they crawled through sewage pipes. It’s just amazing what these women, and men of course, did.”

Avery tried to stay true to the people and historic events she was portraying, feeling like she couldn’t distort them out of respect for those who suffered.

Eventually, Avery would start adding more women to her paintings — her cousins, aunts, close friends and late sister — because she wants all women to be resistance fighters. “I felt somewhat restricted painting just the four of us. The characters were fighting all the time. They weren’t having any fun, and I wasn’t having any fun,” she says. The paintings were still quite serious, sombre and without much colour, but not for long.

“I wasn’t feeling that creative and I wanted to get out of this mode. I realized I had to distance myself from the reality of the Holocaust if I wanted to be more creative. As long as I stuck to the reality of the situation, which was so monstrous, I felt it restricted my creativity because the colours had to be sombre and the women had to be serious. So I decided to start fantasizing more.

“I wanted to work with colour, distortion, absurd situations and I wanted to perturb the viewer, so I started making up situations where I had these gun-slinging women in a Nazi garden, they’re smiling their heads off and having a great time. I could add a lot of colour, I could put them in camouflage, I could have them fighting on the streets of Vancouver, I could do whatever I wanted to do with them, but still with the Holocaust in mind. They’ve now become warriors or super women and they’ve become rescuers. I had a really good time with that series,” she says.

Each painting in this third series is nine feet wide by five feet tall. The growing size depicts Avery’s growing excitement and her need to make a louder statement, she says.

In her latest works, Avery depicts the Rosen Women as the characters from historic photographs, which Avery says haunted her as a child. “As a child it was hard for me to look at these photographs and realize that had I been in Eastern Europe, I would have been among those victims,” she says.

The photos show Jews and Gypsys being rounded up, interrogated and tortured by Nazis.

“I decided to take some of these photographs and appropriate them, or reconfigure them. I took out the victims and replace them with the Rosen Women. The Rosen Women are not being passive in the paintings— they’re having a good time, the women aren’t letting the Nazi’s disempower them. They’re empowered, they’re smiling and they’re not allowing themselves to be victims,” she says.

“I wanted to keep the original layout and original Nazis in the photographs, but I call them my ‘little Nazis’ because I painted them somewhat smaller and they don’t have the same power over me any more.”

Avery knows that her works could stir some emotional responses from viewers, but hopes that her message of fighting social injustice and anti-racism rings loud and clear.

“For me this is art therapy, it really is, but I really want to emphasize that although there is colour and lightness and smiling faces in my work, ultimately there is a message of genocide — that 55 million people were murdered. I want that paradox and I hope the viewer will see that.”

“For some Jewish viewers, using the Holocaust and turning it into an art form that doesn’t keep to the original monstrous events can be very painful and can push people’s buttons. I don’t want to offend anyone at all. I think there will be a mixture of responses, particualrly from viewers who aren’t able to go beyond the surface.”

This will be the first time Avery’s latest work will be on exhibition. “My latest works based on the photographs are nine feet by six feet wide, they are just huge. I want to make a really loud statement. It’s very important for me to share my work.”

The Rosen Women by Hinda Avery opens at the Martin Batchelor Gallery (712 Cormorant), Saturday, May 28, from 7 to 9 p.m. Avery will be in attendance. Exhibition continues until June 23. M

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