Cheryl Harper will never forget her first experience with anti-Semitism.
“When I was 6 years old and in first grade a boy came up to me and said, ‘My father said I can’t play with you anymore,’” Harper recalled, as she prepared for the opening of her art exhibit, which will run from Oct. 14 to Nov. 18 at the James Oliver Gallery in Center City. “When I asked why, he said it was because I was a Jew. Where I went to school in Colonie, N.Y., outside of Albany, I was the only Jewish kid in my class. There was a Christmas tree in the classroom and a Chanukah poster. So I was always aware I was a minority.”
Harper’s appreciation of her roots has shaped her art. Visiting Germany and seeing Dachau when she was 17 had a profound influence and led to her completing a few Holocaust-related pieces.
Now, after studying Alfred Dreyfus, the French Jewish artillery captain falsely accused of passing military secrets to the Germans — then convicted and imprisoned on Devil’s Island until he was exonerated 12 years later — she’s added more of an anti-Semitic theme to her work.
“Doing artwork about anti-Semitism is risky,” said Harper, who does much of her work on a large scale that can reach 100 inches wide and take years to complete. “African-American artists are always out there, but people don’t think of contemporary Jewish artists that way. That partially may be because people of my generation didn’t really talk about it. But the message now is loud and clear.”
Gallery owner Oliver welcomes it.
“Most commercial galleries in Philadelphia would not do it because they’re little more conservative,” he said. “This is a commercial gallery but also shows edgier work. Cheryl brings something unique. She has a great perspective on her material and uses it to the fullest. It’s thought provoking.”
Even before the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, the Jewish community had witnessed rising anti-Semitism. Through her art, Harper wants to tell that story.
“Napoleon allowed the Jews back into France and then they take this guy and totally falsely accuse him,” said Harper, who got a late start on her career, attending the Tyler School of Art at Temple University at 29, then getting her master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Delaware in 1990. “All these artists took sides.
“Degas was anti-Dreyfus. Émile Zola, who was not Jewish, took Dreyfus’ side. What it’s done is immerse me back into that thinking at the same time all these incidents were happening in Marseille and Paris the last few years.
“I was at a Women of Reform Judaism encampment at Camp Harlam when Charlottesville happened. I realized immediately, ‘Here it is again, folks. It can’t be much clearer.’ If you’re aware of the history, you get it. It didn’t come from a vacuum.”
She believes it’s the role of the artist to transmit that warning.
“Artists are prescient,” said Harper, a curator at the Gershman Y for eight years before going independent. “We can see trends before the general public does. This has been gnawing at me for years. It makes me feel complete, I just had to do it because of how long I’ve been thinking about this stuff.”
While Harper is better known for her politicizing, through such ceramic sculptures as “Trumpty Dumpty” as well as ones of Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, they’re not as personal as her two French anti-Semitic works. “Je Suis Je Suis” references the outrage following the 2015 murder of 12 people at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. “Je Suis Je Suis 2” centers more on Dreyfus, along with the 2015 terrorist attack at the Bataclan theater in Paris that took 90 lives.
“I want Jewish artists to be able to talk about their history and get people to question what was going on,” said Harper, who lives in Paoli. “Always in our history, people define us as Jews and we have to really be standing up for ourselves saying we have an important history, too. In Charlottesville what were they talking about? They’re defining us. We can’t let them define us.”