Swastikas on White Walls by Daniel Rolnik
An old potbellied man, covered head to toe in swastika tattoos, stood in front of his work during the preview night of La Luz De Jesus’ annual group show. His painting, about 4ft long as well as tall, was of the same subject matter as the ink on his hands. Alarmed, I texted several friends who had art in the exhibition, “Do you know your piece is right next to that of a Nazi’s?”…”Lame!” They were just as shocked as I was.
When I left the gallery and got back home, I sat at my computer with my fingers hovering over the keyboard. I wanted to write about all the pieces I enjoyed in the exhibit – especially ones by young artists, who weren’t even in their early twenties yet but showed potential for real growth. However, I felt like I couldn’t do that because if someone actually visited the gallery based on my critique, they would be exposed to a work that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone’s eyes.
I looked up the artist who created the painting because I had questions. Was he a neo-Nazi? Was he making reference to the ancient usage of the symbol? Did he have some kind of contextualization for the work? Or was he just completely ignorant of its modern meaning?
I found the surface answers quickly. There were videos of him talking about reclaiming the symbol from the Nazis in order to bring it back to its original meaning – which can range as diversely as the symbol of eternity to East Asian Buddhists and as a symbol of healing to the Navajo. However, his painting was without argument representative of the swastikas employed by Hitler and not those of ancient civilizations – evidenced by the familiar Nazi style red background with a white circle in the center and a black swastika in the middle of it all. In ancient cultures, the swastika generally appears on either a deity or within the framework of a tapestry – oftentimes without using the colors red and white at all, but rather the organic colors of the surface materials like metallic bronzes or beige fabrics.
On a shallow level I should’ve been satisfied by all of this. Obviously, I had nothing to worry about, since this particular artist had no intention of being anti-Semitic. Yet that acceptance would also have meant ignoring an entire part of history that took place during WWII, from 1939-1945, when over 6 million innocent people were murdered for no reason whatsoever.
I cannot forget that multiple branches on my family tree literally stop because a soldier laden in swastikas killed them off. And he didn’t just shoot them or give them the decency of a proper burial. He stripped them nude and shaved their heads and gassed them and burned their babies in front of their mothers and threw their bodies into unmarked pits and then pissed on their corpses. It’s hard to even think about it without breaking down into tears. And Jews like me, as well as gentiles, can’t help but subconsciously feel those things when they view the image of a swastika – whether it’s from India or on the walls of a gallery in Los Feliz.
In fact, the swastika and several other symbols used by the Nazis are actually outlawed in Germany under section 86a of the Strafgesetzbuch Law. And even though this may sound ridiculous, using the symbol for anti-Nazi protests will land you in jail. However, it’s easy to see why they do this when you actually step back to think about what the swastika means today. I mean just going into recent art history means that if the Holocaust wasn’t stopped or the artists themselves didn’t escape from concentration camps, key contemporary figures like Mark Rothko, Sol LeWitt, Judy Chicago, George Segal, Gary Baseman, and Roy Lichtenstein would never have been able to have shared their wonderful works with all of us.
So please, the next time you as a curator or artist think about putting a swastika in your work or exhibit, I beg that you first either meet a Holocaust survivor or visit Anne Frank’s house – a home not of refuge, but where she lived in the walls silently with her family hiding from the Nazis. Where she kept a journal of her memories written in the dark. Where the Gestapo ripped her life apart. And where a little girl who had done nothing wrong was hunted out like wild game and forced to live in fear. Go there and take it all in. Go there and attempt to feel what she felt before you just casually slap a swastika on a canvas or on your walls.
La Luz de Jesus Gallery http://www.laluzdejesus.com/
A version of this article by Daniel Rolnik has been published in the Jewish Journal.