German-Canadian artist Gabriela Hirt investigates the troubling legacy she inherited growing up in the wake of the Holocaust through a new painting collection of large canvases.
“IN THIS NEW BODY OF WORK, I am exploring the ways human belonging is affected by trauma—at the level of family but also, more broadly, of society and culture. Ultimately, I want to reflect on the dynamic of connection and separation that characterizes human experience—the way our need to belong can be sabotaged by segregative behaviour, leaving us painfully isolated.
“Destructive exclusion is central to the darkest chapters of the history of my country of origin, Germany—and as I learned recently, a member of my family played a key role in it. Knowing now the unpalatable truth that my step-grandfather was a member of the Gestapo, I can no longer find solace in the notion that my family were at least not agents in the Nazi regime. Plainly put, even though I was born 20 years after the end of the Second World War, I continue to feel shame and sadness for being a descendant of the followers and bystanders complicit in the Holocaust. Nor could moving across the Atlantic truly distance me from this disturbing heritage.
“Arms Empty” mixed media on unstretched canvas, 60 x 40 inches, by Gabriela Hirt
“The paintings offered reflect my meditations on the cost of exclusion—in the form of suffering for the individual as well as for society as a whole. Being a product of the culture of fear and destruction into which my parents were born I ask myself: where and how do these ideas of segregation live on inside of me? Reading Resmaa Menakem’s book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies opened my eyes further to the importance of this personal inquiry as a basis to heal racial prejudice and injustice.
“The Nazis turned age-old Anti-Semitism into murderous racism. In Bavaria, the German South where I grew up, all tenth graders are taken to see Dachau Concentration Camp, a place of terror where 41,500 prisoners alone were killed (Jews, political opponents, catholic priests, homosexuals and others). Needless to say, this experience was extremely disturbing and, thinking back, I realize we children were unsupported emotionally by the adults in our lives to deal with the shock of this visit. My parents and particularly my grandparents were mute on the subject.
“Freefall” mixed media on canvas 40 x 60 inches, by Gabriela Hirt
“My art is my attempt to speak against such silence so we may learn from past harms. I ask myself if a feeling of guilt is necessary to start being accountable to grave injustices. Does it help build the foundation for healing and forgiveness? With regards to First Nations trauma, for instance, how can compassion be shown for those suffering racism but also for those carrying the guilt of generations? Is there anything to be learned from German mistakes and redress in dealing with a traumatic history? For those with privilege, like me, where do the subtle unconscious biases regarding race, ethnicity, religion, etc. lie? The visual streams of consciousness articulated in my abstract figurative work are the product of the inquisitive, self-reflective state of mind and body through which I have and continue to engage in these concerns.”
The Indelible Mark: Legacy of a German Upbringing is on from March 9 - 28 at Gage Gallery, 2031 Oak Bay Avenue, Victoria. Hours: Tuesday to Saturday 11-5, Sundays noon - 4 (the artist will be present: Tuesdays 2-5, Saturdays 11-2). You can also watch a virtual exhibition tour by artist on the Gage Gallery Instagram feed: Saturday, March 13, 10 am; and a Q&A by Mary-Jo Hughes live on the Gage Gallery Instagram feed: Wednesday, March 17, 5pm. Part of the show is an experimental 3 D-installation inviting visitors to recall a time they felt like an outsider and pen a response directly on to the artwork. The large-as-live-sculpture of three people is called “Private Party” and is a collaboration with local sculptor, Tanya Bub.