Sisterhood Blog

Teaching Horror of Shoah Rape With Crochet

By Elissa Strauss

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Gil Yefman’s TumTum

For nearly six months last year, Dr. Rochelle Saidel, founder and executive director of Remember the Women Institute, and artist Gil Yefman met weekly to talk about a topic deemed untouchable by many in their respective communities of academia and art: rape during the Holocaust. Saidel, who along with Dr. Sonja Hedgepeth, edited a book on the topic, initially met Yefman at a panel discussion on forced prostitution at Auschwitz. “I wondered why there was a young man in the front row who was crocheting as he sat and listened,” Saidel said.

The weekly meetings eventually fed into the work Yefman created for his new show “TO ME YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL {BAY MIR BISTU SHEYN},” now at Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York City. His first solo exhibition in New York, the show takes a sharp look at gender identity, sexuality and violence through the soft touch of traditionally feminine formats methods like crochet, soap-making and glamour shots. While walking through the exhibit I found myself seduced into believing I was safe amidst these mediums often associated with domestic crafts, and then would soon feel ripped open by the subject matter of rape, trans-identity, and prostitution. To Yefman’s credit, the power of pieces lies in their intimate, rather than political, approach to the subject matter.

The Sisterhood spoke with Yefman about the new exhibit, which is up through June 14.

A Gil Yefman piece entitled ‘Organic Soap Bars’

Elissa Strauss: Tell me a little bit about how you came to creating this show.

Gil Yefman: “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn,” which it’s title is a well known Yiddish schlager from the ’30s, is part of an ongoing project which examines the interconnections between infancy, Holocaust, economy and sexual violence. There are various ways in which our daily life is ingrained and saturated with these repressed traumatic remnants, and I find it necessary to emphasize on these aspects.

The exhibition comprised of organic swastikas soaps, hand painted shower ceramic tiles decorated with elements of human decompositions, large knitted objects, videos, neon lamps, a silkscreen printed pinup calendar of SS female guards, performances with SexSlaves crocheted dolls, and more…

These artifacts are drawn from our day lives, and here appear as consumeristic Holocaust pop-culture merchandise.

What drew you to the topic of sexual violence in the Holocaust?

I often use gender and sexuality to examine various aspects and reflect upon recurrent obsessive patterns in society. I find great interest in what I consider to be suppressed, unheard or neglected. The issue of sexual violence against women during the Holocaust, and in general, is very much obscured and even worst, is often taken for granted. Oddly enough the novel “House of Dolls” by K. Tzetnik [which is about women who were kept for sexual pleasure by the Nazis] was taught in high school [in Israel], and left its mark on me.

Of course, there is a taboo against Holocaust art among hip young artists these days for the reason that it is seen as a tired topic. Did you have any resistance to this topic for this reason?

I did had some resistance first — but then realized I actually have new and concrete approach to deal with the dogmatic ways of representing and misusing the Holocaust. It’s common to see politicians use it for propaganda while too many of the Holocaust survivors in Israel are struggling for food.

You also did an exhibit in Japan exploring the comfort women. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

My solo exhibition “H” (which is pronounced “etchi” and means “degraded sexuality”) at the Container in Tokyo, had indirectly dealt with the suppressed phenomena of the comfort women which was parallel to the brothels in the camps, but on a much greater scale. Basically, I turned an old American shipping container inside a hair salon in Tokyo to a copulation cell inspired by Block 24 in Auschwitz, so that the borders between beauty and horror, vanity, life and historical traumas got completely mixed up.

What kind of response have you gotten to your new show?

The responses are always varied — from anger to praising, laughing and crying. It really depends on each person’s personal experience and instinctive reaction to it. Often the knitted objects draw people to engage with what later turns out to be more challenging and thought provoking.

Sadly, sexual violence is still a widespread issue, in the context of war and in regular life. Do you think you will continue to explore this topic in your work?

Violence is part of the human experience. Every society and culture throughout history has its skeletons, and the only way to understand this part of ourselves is to acknowledge it. Only then can healing really begin. The act of knitting resembles writing, with its rapid, calculated, and monotonous movements. I try to rewrite the history of both personal and collective traumas, and deal with suppressed topics that greatly need and deserve to become center of affection.


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