CONTEMPORARY JEWISH MUSEUM – Our Struggle: Responding to Mein Kampf

Linda Ellia’s collection of powerful illustrations covering the pages of Hitler’s inflammatory manuscript
Exhibition runs February 11th through June 15th

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

In 2005, French painter and photographer Linda Ellia’s daughter showed her a book she had come across at the home of a family friend – a French translation of Hitler’s notorious memoir and manifesto Mein Kampf (My Struggle, in English). Ellia, who is Jewish, was stunned as she held the thick tome. It was as if she was holding Hitler in her hands, and the book’s weight was the heaviness of the Holocaust. She felt immediately compelled to respond. She awoke one night with an idea – what if she detached one of the pages to express her anger and resist the book’s horror? Grabbing a large red marker, she drew the head of a woman screaming on the loose page and named her Aile (the French word for ‘wing’). “I felt such pleasure, that I continued on about 30 pages,” says Ellia. “I covered them with my words, with my drawings, with my paintings. I cut them up. It’s then that I thought about the others. Why not share the experience that I was in the process of living?”

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Over the next three years, Ellia distributed the pages of Mein Kampf one by one to individuals from all walks of life – professional artists, youth and ordinary citizens each invited to paint, draw, sculpt, collage and blacken the page how they wished in response to the one they received. Six hundred pages came back to her and she gathered the results into a collective artwork and book titled Notre Combat (Our Struggle, in English) published in 2007 by Seuil Editions, a leading publisher of art books in France. Our Struggle: Responding to Mein Kampf, an exhibition on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco February 11th – June 15th, is the first North American showing of the hundreds of pages returned to Ellia. In addition to the work on view, the Museum will screen a documentary about Ellia and the project, provide a resource room about Mein Kampf developed in collaboration with the Holocaust Center of Northern California, and create opportunities for visitors to leave their own responses on a collective chalkboard ‘canvas.’

“This exhibition creates a unique opportunity for dialogue about tolerance in the modern world,” says CJM Director, Connie Wolf. “Each of the 600 participants in Linda Ellia’s extraordinary project gives us a contemporary insight into issues of intolerance which are, unfortunately, still very alive today. The works show us the power of creative resistance, and we hope will inspire new ideas about making a difference. We are excited to see and learn from the contributions of our visitors in the interactive portion of the exhibition.”

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“The objective was to express on each page the emotion it evokes,” says Ellia. “Every page returned to me provoked a profound response. I felt together we could recreate the book and experience a new reading of the pages. It would become Our Struggle.” Ellia launched her three-year effort in the streets right around her home in Paris. From the onset, she held firm to her conviction that people from all professions and social classes have something to express when faced with extreme injustice. “I stopped perfect strangers,” she says. “I would go into a café, and based solely on intuition, I would approach people that I thought could create an emotional, artistic page.”

She encountered many reactions – some were overcome with emotion; others wanted nothing to do with Mein Kampf; and some were outwardly racist and hostile. But one particular reaction gave Ellia the will to continue her quest against all odds. That came from Simone Veil, a noted French lawyer and politician who became the first elected President of the European Parliament and who serves as the Honorary President of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah (Holocaust). Veil, a survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, was profoundly moved by Ellia’s project and became its godmother. In her forward to the book Notre Combat, Veil writes, “What should we do with such a book? Ban it? Some would still pass it around on the sly. Forget it? It would be an insult to the millions who died because of it. Burn it? It would be resorting to the methods used by the Nazis during the auto-de-fés of Kristallnacht. Linda Ellia’s luminous intuition was to turn this book into a memory vector. …This past is too burdensome to be silenced and whether we want it or not, the Holocaust is our common heritage and we must confront it. Linda Ellia’s work is an expression of this confrontation. It summons us to never forget what was.”

Lifted by Veil’s support, Ellia doggedly pursued contributors and the project began to build – more and more people agreed to take a page home and work on it. Friends and family also helped to take pages to the far corners of the world. “A chain reaction was formed globally,” says Ellia. “And suddenly I had amazing messengers from all around the world helping me. The project became almost a performance – proof that it is possible to take up arms against trauma.” The pages began to steadily fill the mailbox.

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Professional artists joined in the effort. Yugoslavian comic artist Enki Billal responded, “I don’t know how in 60 years no one has ever done this.” German painter, sculptor and performance artist Jonathan Messe took four pages and covered them front and back. Respected French painter Gérard Garouste wrote to Ellia, “I am frightened for you. I will support you and make something very personal.” Others who became involved include French fashion designer Christian Lacroix, Spanish painter Miquel Barcelo, French artist Philippe Cognee, French video artist Kiki Picasso and many others. By 2007, Ellia had collected 600 pages from people living in as many as 17 countries from Cambodia to Algeria. The entire volume had been collectively transformed and was published under the title Notre Combat by Seuil Editions.

Ellia’s concept for the public exhibition of the work is to create a dynamic place of memory, haven and testimony. To that end, OUR STRUGGLE features an opportunity for visitors to leave their own responses to the contents of the exhibition and the feelings the pages and book evokes. A large blackboard area invites visitors to draw or write, adding their voice to the hundreds. A screening room provides visitors an opportunity to view a documentary (subtitled) about Ellia and the project entitled L’Art et la Maniere. Also available is a resource room developed in partnership with the Holocaust Center of Northern California that provides visitors with more information about the publication history of Mein Kampf and the rise of Nazism in Germany. This exhibition has been organized by the Contemporary Jewish Museum with the generous support of the Jewish Community Federation Holocaust Memorial Education Fund and the Cultural Services of the Consulate General of France.

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Linda Ellia with two pages from the project Notre Combat

Paris-based artist Linda Ellia has been painting for over fifteen years. She studied at the Beaux-Arts de Glaciere in Paris as well as the Ateliers d’Arts Decoratifs in Paris. She started her Notre Combat project in 2005, which culminated in 2007 with the publication of the book by the same name and a showing of the original pages at Theatre Forum Meyrin in Switzerland. In 2008, she created a sculpture for the Place St. Germain and participated in the Paris-wide Nuits Blanches events with a public artwork for the Paris Metro. Most recently, Ellia is working on a second book with Seuil Editions on her art entitled Hors Classe, forthcoming January 2010.

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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