Jersey City Artist Aileen Bassis Explores the Holocaust with Handmade Mixed-Media Books
With a tally of more than 6 million Jews dead, the Holocaust is rightly considered one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th Century, and the systematic killing campaign still reverberates today for both Jews and non-Jews. As a Jewish American and as an artist, Jersey City’s Aileen Bassis continues to explore the great loss of human life, and the wholesale eradication of Jewish culture in Nazi Europe.
“The Holocaust haunted my childhood. I identified with the victims and fantasized about what would have happened if I had lived during World War II in the countries of Eastern Europe where my grandparents were born,” says Bassis of her time growing up as a young girl in the Bronx. “Whenever I visited Europe, I wondered about the lost histories, looking at streets where Jews once lived, the faces of old people who lived through World War II. I wanted to make art about this tragedy, and also bring something fresh to a topic that is so familiar to most people without being hackneyed and predictable.”
For nearly a decade, Bassis has been working on series of handmade books, called The Holocaust Books, which confront the tragic legacy of the European Jews. Manhattan’s Center for Book Arts is currently displaying some of them as part of the group exhibition Un[framed] Photograph, and Bassis will be participating in a panel discussion at the center next Wednesday, July 27 at 6:30 pm.
We recently caught up with Bassis to discuss her current exhibition, and the role of social activism in art.
You were born and raised in New York City. What brought you to Jersey City?
I moved to the New Jersey suburbs for all the obvious reasons; schools, community activities, safe quiet streets and backyards, a world that wasn’t my experience growing up in the Bronx. My children finished college and, around the same time, I found that I didn’t need my darkroom anymore. I always felt out of place in the suburbs: most people there don’t really understand artists and why we put so much energy into something that often has little financial reward. I had a piece at the Jersey City Museum, and at the opening, surrounded by all that artistic community and creative energy, I felt that Jersey City was a place where I would really enjoy living. My husband and I went walking around during Studio Tour and decided to start to look for a place to live.
Can you talk a little bit about what the Jersey City arts community means to you? Has Jersey City influenced your studio practice in any shape, manner, or form?
I’ve enjoyed getting to know the many artists here, networking, making friends. Jersey City’s wonderfully diverse population has inspired some of my work about the urban experience.
We know that you have a keen interest in the Holocaust; how did the idea of doing the books come about?
In 2002, I was at a printmaking residency in Belgium. I took photos in the Jewish quarter of Antwerp, where a lot of Orthodox Jews still live. I took photos in the former prison building in the city of Mechelen, where people were held before being transported by train to concentration camps. It still didn’t seem like enough material. About a year later, I was in Vienna for a vacation and traveled to the nearby Mauthausen camp. After spending a day there and taking photos, I felt I had enough visual material.
I asked a friend for a Yiddish text and he supplied a children’s story from the 1930s. The following summer, I was going on another artist residency. I had just started making altered books that spring and I had thrown a bag of old books in my car. The large prints that I had planned to make just didn’t work. I started distressing old books, inserting bits of transfer prints from my photos, adding wire, thread, modeling paste, paint. The books were perfect for me, working on so many levels: a reference to the “people of the book,” books and literacy are intrinsically important in Jewish religion, books were destroyed in The Holocaust, they are intimate, asking the viewer to enter into another world.
What do you hope the viewer takes away from the work?
We’re living in a time of unprecedented change with constant demands on people’s attention. I think any work of art that makes a viewer stop and think is very successful. I don’t want to make art that is easy and immediately transparent but rather, art that asks the viewer to think, to bring their experiences to the artwork, so the answer is “something much more open-ended.”
You conclude your Holocaust Books project description with the following statement: “The Holocaust is an interrupted — and unfinished — narrative.” What do you mean by that?
The Holocaust is an “interrupted” narrative in the sense that the story, the narrative, the culture, the life of the Jewish people in Europe was interrupted, destroyed, dispersed, and mostly ended. Many countries that once had large, thriving Jewish communities have just a shadow of these people left. It is an “unfinished” narrative in that sense, but also because the attitudes and behaviors that created that tragedy are still present in subsequent genocides, racial cleansing, warfare and political tensions exploiting racial, ethnic and religious divisions. Europe is feeling stress right now on the issue of national identity and integrating Muslim minorities. The question of what it means to be an American continues to be a polarizing issue here in the United States. This story isn’t finished.
You have a busy summer. You are also in an exhibition, Millennial Yell, in the Art for Change Gallery in New York City. The show opens August 5. What can you tell us about the exhibition?
I’m showing five pieces in this show. Two are from a group of digital photo collages about contemporary immigration. I asked a number of immigrants what they missed from their homeland and used their quotes in combination with street photos. I sewed the prints together to make larger composite images.
The other work in this show is very recent. I responded to a call for book artists to make work for a traveling show in response to the car bombing of a book store in Baghdad where artists and intellectuals gathered. One set of the books is going to a library in Iraq. This got me thinking about Muslim identity in America and there was a lot of sound and fury about the proposed mosque/cultural center in lower Manhattan. I interviewed and photographed several Muslim Americans and used their quotes and photos to make the work that’s going into the Millennial Yell show. I’m still working on the books pieces. The organization sponsoring the show sounds interesting to me and speaks to a lot of my interests in social justice and community. I thinks it’s important to get art out into the world and not have it sit around in drawers and boxes.
Another exhibition coming up that I’m excited about has been organized by Marilyn Fox at Penn State Berks. She’s put together four exhibits in different venues with 40 artists for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. I’m going to the Freyberger Gallery at the Penn State Berks campus in late August to recreate part of an installation that was at the Ceres Project Room in NYC in 2002. My piece was called The Aftermath(9/11) and used transfer photo portraits of friends and neighbors and words made out of knotted and glued thread. It was about the emotional tides that swept over everyone around here after that tragedy. I’m recreating a 6’ x 6’ x 6’ section with the words “Scared” and “Guilty”.
There’s a strong sense of social criticism in your work, and I also detect a bit of anger. Can you talk about that, and where that comes from?
I don’t think of my work as angry; I think of it as engaged in the world and seeking to engage the viewer. In the late 1980s I lost a dear friend to AIDS and started making work about that disease and suddenly found myself categorized as making “political art.” I thought that I was making art about issues touching human life, not politics. I make art about things that I care about and I care about the world around me. The very nature of the subjects that I’ve chosen often link to social issues and are implicitly critical. I’m interested in content in art. In addition to the work I’ve discussed, I made a group of collages, books, and prints about the legacy of slavery in the United States, AIDS, dementia and aging, personal narratives of overlooked individuals, multiculturalism in Europe, Muslim identity in the United States and, most recently, I’ve been doing work about the nature of memory.
As an artist, how do you reconcile aesthetics and social activism in your work?
They are very tightly bound together. I’m interested in making art about subjects that I care about in a way that will hold the viewer’s attention. Some of my work expresses more personal concerns such as work that I made about my mother’s dementia but even that subject has larger social implications.
You are also a member of _gaia, the women’s artist collective in downtown Jersey City. Why did you become a member, and how does your membership in the collective influence your life inside and outside the studio?
I decided to get my own etching press a little over a year ago and I needed a home for it. I had met Doris Cacoilo (the director of _gaia) a few years before when she included my work in an exhibition. I thought that the studio would be a good place to work and the _gaia members are a varied group with similar interests in art, feminism, community and activism.
Any last words?
My work continues to grow, spreading out into new subjects and media. I used to wonder if I’d run out of ideas, but now I feel them lining up in my head like airplanes waiting for takeoff.