Maybe some Ursinus College students will notice something different on campus this fall. Maybe they won’t.
Maybe they’ll start asking questions, wondering why there are black-and-white portraits of all sizes with boys and girls, men and women, wearing a star across campus. Maybe they won’t care.
But Cari Freno and Julin Everett, the creators of Scene/Unseen, a unique project of individual and family portraits wearing that yellow Jewish star required by the Nazis in occupied Europe, can’t wait to find out.
“That’s kind of our intention for how we were planning to install it,” said Freno, an assistant professor of art and history in drawing and sculpture, who researched which materials would work best and give it an artistic flair. “To have it go up and be there as part of the environment. As students are going about their daily lives, they start to develop relationships with their surroundings. Then, over the winter break, we’re planning to take them down without fanfare, so that when they come back to school all those portraits would not be there.”
That seems fitting, since several of the people in the portraits encircling the Collegeville campus became Holocaust victims. There are 19 in all, and each has a story.
Freno and Everett, who was working on her doctorate at UCLA doing archival research when she came upon the portraits, know them all.
“I was always interested in the Holocaust and had a good friend in high school who was Jewish and started talking to her about it,” said Everett, an assistant professor of modern languages. “Her dad’s parents had come over from Europe but had lost a lot of people.
“I started doing this archival work in photography and found these photos and was just blown away. They were taken in various studios across Europe. It was common in Europe for people to walk down the boulevard and have themselves photographed.”
What was less common was for them to pose wearing the Jewish star, which branded them with a mark of shame according to the Nazis. Defiantly, many still did, essentially telling the rest of the world they felt no shame being Jewish.
“They’re really a phenomenon, posing for the portrait and purposely showing the image,” said Freno, who did her undergraduate work at the University of the Arts. “They’re taking this mark of what was supposed to be shameful and turning it into a source of pride.
“Visually, that’s powerful and where we start talking about deeper questions like how do you represent yourself? Developing my own teaching, I’ve realized how difficult it is to have these conversations today. I want to get better at it and for my students to be able to talk about uncomfortable subjects when they leave this institution. I find it really compelling in terms of thinking about visible and invisible minorities.”
It’s an issue Everett knows all too well.
“I have the experience as a black woman of being visible every day and bearing the consequences of that,” said Everett, who tracked down a number of people holding the original photographs and received reproduction authorization. “These photographs inspire me. They make me think about what it means to be visible and to celebrate that and be fearless about it.”
They hope to strike a similar chord on campus, then pass the baton on to someone else who might pick up the exhibit, which ends Dec. 16.
“One of the things having these portraits around campus does is it replicates what was happening when people started wearing their stars,” Everett said. “Having neighbors either sympathizing with you or have them whispering behind your back because they just found out you were Jewish. We chose a lot of these portraits specifically because many of them could be our students.”
Those students may look at today’s world and see the same kind of discrimination and prejudice taking place every day — only without the distinguishing yellow stars.
“Sadly, it’s always relevant,” said Everett of the exhibit, which was more than two years in the making. “It’s definitely timely, but it’s also timeless. We should not still be doing this.”
Perhaps Scene/Unseen will open the door to change — or at least make others think about it.
“It doesn’t answer the questions, but it pushes at more questions and creates a conversation among people,” Freno said. “Students walking along will see this giant image and there’s no explanation, so they’re going to talk to each other.”
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