LOS ANGELES — Six years ago, artist Jenny Yurshansky and her mother traveled to Moldova on an artist’s grant. It was the first time her mother had returned since fleeing antisemitism in the late 1970s. The artist was struck by the abundance of roses there, and made a connection between them and the dozens of roses her mother tended in her garden in Northridge where the family later settled. Upon returning to the US, she shared this observation with her mother, only to be met with utter confusion. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” her mother replied. “There were no roses there.”
“There’s such a set of mental gymnastics you have to do to be able to leave a place completely behind,” Yurshansky told Hyperallergic in an interview, “to convince yourself that it means nothing to you, so that you can basically survive going forward, and live this whole other life.”
This exchange provides the title for Yurshansky’s solo show A Legacy of Loss: There Were No Roses There at American Jewish University reflecting on diaspora, emigration, and intergenerational trauma, both on a personal and universal level.
In the center of the gallery hang fragments of a white lattice fence covered in red roses, their long stems trailing behind like vines. The roses are glass, the stems made from blackened steel and brass, giving the picturesque flora a sinister edge. Titled “There Were No Roses There (Diaspora)” (2022), the work is an abstract mapping of three generations on her mother’s side of the family, and their various exiles and migrations from Moldova to Argentina during the pogroms of the early 20th century; to Uzbekistan during World War II; to the US and Israel during the Soviet-era; to Germany after the fall of USSR. The roses still bloom, but their roots are broken, disconnected from each other. Six roses lie on the ground to mark the six family members who perished during World War II.
A small, poor country nestled between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova has been part of several other nations or empires over the past two hundred years, including the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Romania, Germany, and Russia. “For every one of those people that left, it was because of a transition of power,” Yurshansky said. “Every transition of power caused another purge.”
A companion piece titled “There Were No Roses There (Echo)” (2022) is a ghostly trace on the wall of a traditional Moldovan carpet, its rose pattern visible in pale pastels. In Moldova, “they have carpets on the walls and on the floor. They make the home beautiful, but they also insulate and sound proof the thin walls,” explained Yurshansky. In 1942, when Yurshansky’s grandmother learned that the German Army was approaching their village of Old Orhei, she took the family carpet off the wall, filled it with valuables, and fled, eventually reaching safety in Uzbekistan. A skilled seamstress, she had hoped to go to Paris to pursue a career in fashion, but ended up sewing garments for the wives of military officers during the war.
Rooted in her grandmother’s specific saga, the work also speaks more generally to the absence that refugees leave behind. Now there are only roughly 15,000 Jews living in Moldova, compared to the three-quarters of a million before the Holocaust. “Jenny was the first person who compelled me to think about what’s left in the place that expelled you,” Rotem Rozental, the exhibition’s curator, told Hyperallergic. “What filled the vacancy?”
A series of embroideries titled “The Border Will Not Hold” (2020) reflects the kind of toxic nationalism that can force some to leave their home, and be used to deny others asylum. The embroideries incorporate patterns used in traditional Moldovan folk costumes to reference how “symbols of nationalistic pride, that seem quite innocuous and beautiful, can actually have a much darker undertone when you known how to read them,” Yurshansky said. “Even though my family had been in the same place this whole time, we were never considered ‘one of the people’ because we’re Jewish. We’re never going to be thought of as Moldovan.” Composed of images from a Moldovan children’s book — one of the only items that the artist’s parents took with them when they left — the embroideries are hung a few inches off the walls, casting shadows that offer more ominous narratives than those on the surface. Yurshansky juxtaposes colorful images of a happy family with shadows of gray, isolated children, recalling family separations on the US / Mexico border.
The show also has a timely resonance given the millions of Ukrainian refugees who have fled their homeland since the current war broke out, an unplanned coincidence given that the show was originally slated to open two years ago. “I’ve been thinking about, not just specifically my own family, but how to build space for empathy,” said Yurshansky. “As horrifying as the details of my family story are, that is literally every émigré story. Your only choice is to leave everything behind.”
To provide a space for communal reflection, Yurshansky held workshops with children from local Jewish schools, in which they drew scenes from their own family histories in the form of paper fortune-tellers. She turned these into a large quilt titled “Unfolded Narratives” (2022) that reconfigured these personal tales into an interwoven patchwork.
Yushansky’s mother assisted her on the quilt and the embroideries, a process that strengthened their familial bonds, tapping into the legacy of her grandmother, the seamstress. Her mother had always been reticent to discuss the past, but in the hours spent with her daughter hand-sewing and embroidering, Yurshansky said that her mother began to open up, unspooling previously unspoken family yarns.
“For the ones who’ve experienced this, it’s very hard for them, but that leaves us in a really difficult place where there’s so much cultural memory that’s been lost,” she said. “So this is a counter way to think about how we go forward and get beyond that space of forgetting.”
A Legacy of Loss: There Were No Roses There continues at American Jewish University (15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air, Los Angeles) through May 12. The exhibition was curated by Rotem Rozental, PhD.