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MIAMI — A new exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, Evil: A Matter of Intent, examines the exigencies of cruelty — what it takes to create it and the methodology that allows it to exist. Evil is not, the artists here purport, something intrinsic to humanity, not by birth, anyway. Acts of evil are deliberate. Evil is a choice.
Before traveling here, this exhibition was previously at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion. There, it didn’t include the blood-red KKK King Kleagle robe, a kind of pièce de résistance for the Miami show. King Kleagles oversee a given geographic area of the Klan and are responsible for recruiting new Klansmen, and this particular robe, from the 1940s, comes at an unnerving time, on the heels of the white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville.
When I was very young, the KKK were my biggest fear, both because of who they targeted and the mythological quality of their symbolism — it seemed childishly bold to set representations of Jesus aflame, as if Jesus would approve. It was as if they’d do anything to justify their hatred and, as Evil reveals, my childhood assumptions were correct. A weapon accompanies the robe: a literal stick of wood carved into sharp points, its user part resourceful Boy Scout and part warmonger. Evil is easy to carry out, so long as the perpetrator is determined. Even a stick will do.
The rest of the exhibition is huge, with more than 70 works (painting, sculptural pieces, photographs, ephemera) from 1940 to the present, with each addressing evil in its various incarnations: racism, abuse, slavery, rape, murder, acts of terrorism, systemic violence, and the destruction of cultural heritage. There’s a poster for the American Committee for Relief in the Near East, circa 1918, regarding the Armenian genocide in Turkey. The poster reads “LEST WE PERISH” and an accompanying plaque notes that it’s still illegal to discuss the World War I-era massacre of Armenians.
Children’s drawings collected from refugee camps in Chad (by organization Waging Peace) depict the genocide of non-Arab, black Africans in Darfur. Homes rendered in crayon burst into flames; soldiers shaded with colored pencil shoot at the bodies of running passerby. The child artists are named and quoted; a girl named Aisha says, “It is very kind to send us food, but this is Africa and we are used to being hungry. What I ask is that you please take the guns away from the people who are killing us.”
Sometimes evil is less obvious than the murder of children; it can be systemic and hidden, and Hedy Pagremanski’s pencil drawings of homeless New Yorkers portray them as victims of a system that allows the mentally ill, those who’ve lost their homes to unaffordable housing, and war veterans to end up on the street. Other sorts of evil are more insidious and subtle. Trix Rosen’s “SIN STREET,” a sendup of a pulp fiction film poster, reads “THE BEAUTIFUL BRUNETTE HAS A FACE AND FIGURE THAT COULD LEAD A MAN … TO MURDER,” implying that women’s sexuality is itself guileful.
Women are common victims in Evil. Steps away from the KKK robe is a cluster of delicate silk belts by Andi Arnovitz, each stamped with quotes by women who’ve suffered domestic abuse. Titled “Beaten out of Them,” they come in an array of colors. The red belts feature quotes by women who are no longer alive. One reads, “surviving the violence was easy, he didn’t want to kill me,” which is unsurprising enough to still be nausea-inducing.
Global or universal examples of evil are useful, but an American exhibit ought to be self-reflective. Luckily, it is. Leonard Meiselman’s oil painting, “Hiroshima, a Child’s Shirt,” is a reminder of our own government’s role in these sorts of atrocities. Faith Ringgold’s seemingly cheerful lithograph, “Here Comes Moses,” is bright and primary-colored, featuring a young slave making his way toward “freedom” (a house on his path is literally emblazoned with the word). Text surrounds the print: “Aunt Emmy said he’d find us one day … He lost his mother and father on the way. ‘They’ll never find me in this storm but we will all find freedom. God willing. We were born to be free. I will never give up,’ said Moses.”
The age-old question of evil is brought to task, too: How are we implicated? It would feel unproductive (though admittedly cathartic) to display cruelty as cruelty, a thing that simply exists. Jacqueline Nicholls’ “Who Is Righteous?,” part of a series in which she draws one page of the Talmud each day, draws upon page 55 . Here, it is said that the righteous will be branded with a tav (the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet) in ink, and the wicked with the same letter in blood. But who is truly righteous, asks God’s attribute of justice, if they cannot prevent wickedness in the first place? Who is without sin? Ben Shahn’s lithograph, “Thou Shalt Not Stand Idly By,” illustrates the Biblical quote Elie Weisel often called upon — Leviticus’s “Though shalt not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.” The blind eye turned to evil, this kind of denial, is mentioned throughout the exhibition as evil’s potential equal.
There is a great deal of honesty in Evil, particularly in its assertion that atrocity is rooted in both a fear of the other and a need for power. That said, I do wish that, given the exhibition’s placement in the Jewish Museum, there had been work contending with the state of affairs in Israel and Palestine.
The museum is housed in two former synagogues that once served as the first Jewish congregations on Miami Beach; the Kleagle robe is surrounded by sacred Hebrew symbology, trapped by that which would spur its wearer’s hatred. There’s poetry in placing a symbol of white supremacy and hatred exactly where it ought to be: in a museum, vulnerable and exposed.
Evil: A Matter of Intent continues at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU (301 Washington Ave, Miami Beach) through October 1.