Honoring the Hidden
Crypto-Jewish identity and tradition shine in new exhibit
By Nora Hickey
For descendants of the Crypto-Jews, signs appear in the absence of pork on the dinner table and light up in the flare of Friday night candles.
For Deborah Rael-Buckley, illumination comes from art—her own. When she discovered her ancestors were Spanish conversos (Jews who converted to Catholicism during the 14th and 15th centuries), she wanted to use her skills to convey her ancestors’ experience of arriving and acclimating to northern New Mexico. “Knowing my rich family heritage has opened new avenues for memory and imagery not before known to me,” Rael-Buckley says.
Renewed harassment of Crypto-Jews in the colonies prompted another large-scale migration—this time north, to the Southwest. Congregation Nahalat Shalom of Albuquerque (3606 Rio Grande NW) will celebrate the Sephardic and Crypto-Jewish experience during their annual three-day Festival Djudeo-Espanyol. Featuring scholars, musicians, poets and artists, the event showcases the intersection of Crypto-Jewish and Hispano life that has persevered for centuries behind the state’s dusty backdrop.
Working in the often loud and Catholic tradition of Taos folk art with altar boxes and other creations, Anita Rodriguez has captured the duality of the Crypto-Jew experience with verve and solemnity. “For so many of these people, it’s not only a religious issue, it’s a juxtaposition of identity and traditions,” says Green.
What has revealed itself is striking: a pair of blue lungs, spread like wings. A white heart with tongues of red lashing out. The sculptures are reminiscent of anatomy models, veined and swollen. Rael-Buckley’s use of color and other detail imbue the pieces with an emotional world—stirring and bittersweet. Old family photos stand out muted against the bright lungs. Shadowy figures inscribe a ventricle. The stories here are as elemental as our own organs, but we can’t quite make them out. They are a part of us, obscured.
The meaning Rael-Buckley mines is based in memory—how humans classify and organize the fragments of a life. Her pieces decant the importance of impression from the very material of their creation. “[Clay] also has its own geological memory—you can tell from the smallest shard of ceramic work, where the clay is from, how it was worked, what was stored in it and how objects moved from place to place,” she says of her chosen medium.
For Crypto-Jews, the act of remembering and passing on heritage was especially important, with their religious practice threatened by eradication. In minute practices like the closing of a door for prayers or throwing swept dirt through the window in avoidance of the sacred door, traditions survived. The art created by descendants and enthusiasts does nothing less than revive the New Mexican Crypto-Jewish experience as one stratified, encompassing the varied lives the people were obliged to inhabit.
In Hidden and Revealed: Artists' Reflections of the Crypto-Jewish Experience, the sacred and profane messages remain both well-defined and unexpressed. Alongside Rael-Buckley and Rodriguez’ work are Leo Neufeld’s burning-eyed portraits and Diana Breyer’s detailed oils, among others. The art is on display throughout the weekend festival, and the artist reception will take place on Saturday, May 17, from 5 to 7pm. Nahalat Shalom requests a donation for entry, but no one will be turned away for lack of cash.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated curator Jade Gordon’s last name. The Alibi regrets the error.
Hidden and Revealed: Artists' Reflections of the Crypto-Jewish Experience opening reception
Saturday, May 17, 5 to 7pm
Nahalat Shalom's Festival Djudeo-Espanyol 2014
Exhibit and fest run Friday through Sunday, May 16-18
Gallery of Congregation Nahalat Shalom
3606 Rio Grande NW
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