The prints of Venezuelan printmaker Beatriz Pestana-Osuna grabbed my attention for what I found and what I didn't find in her images. Petsana-Osuna chooses to talk about a part of her heritage, that of being a Sephardi Jew, also known as the Hidden Jews. She has chosen to speak about her family's past, which she's been able to re-trace back four hundred years, as a part of her identity as a person and as an artist. The work she's created echoes the loss of place, endless migration and a people who have struggled to remain themselves in spite of an apparent cloaked disguise and wearing the proverbial faceless mask to live, to survive.
For the uninitiated, a Sephardi Jew is a person descended from Jews who lived in Iberia before being expelled from Spain in 1492, and from Portugal in 1497. Those that did not leave could only stay if they publicly accepted another faith, like Christianity. Those Jews then fervently practiced their faith in secret. The traditional language of Sephardim is a form of Judeo-Spanish, also called Judezmo or Ladino. It is an Old Castilian Spanish Romance language, with elements of Turkish, and Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and French. The Sephardim have distinguished themselves in service fields of medicine and politics, and have been a valuable asset to the Christian and Muslim communities of Europe. During World War II, the Nazis almost completely wiped out entire populations of Sephardi Jewry from France, the Netherlands Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Greece during the Holocaust. Fortunately, their unique language and traditions were saved from being completely lost. They have migrated worldwide, although a small population of Sephardi remain in Spain and Portugal.
The "Golden Age" of Sephardi Jewry was a two hundred year period where Jews welcomed and worked alongside the Muslims who invaded the peninsula of Spain and Portugal. They saw the Muslim Moors as their liberators from an enforced Catholicism. One group of the Sephardi are called Crypto-Jews. This the group from which Pestana-Osuna descends. Her Sephardic heritage hails from Spanish-Portuguese origin. Her images address her personal journey to connect with her ancestors’ experience. Her choice to make the people in these images faceless and shrouded, with only an Jewish star to identify themselves as being together is painful. There is an eerie feeling of people passing us as though they are on a long journey, but they aren't necessarily people that are 'with' us in this lifetime. The images also speak of a drifting through time, and a passage with no end in sight. It is a ghostly existence and we are transfixed to sit along the side of the road to watch the endless souls passing before us. These so-called Hidden Jews, these people who, patiently endured the ignorance of the people surrounding them, have been travelling forever similarly as have the Roma, only seeking their place, their time, their home, their families, and the freedom to practice their religion.
While Pestana-Osuna describes for us her heritage, her past, we can understand the desire to belong to a place and a group. Thankfully, the Sephardi continue to survive and prosper. We see even in Pestana-Osuna's last image a collective group of people who gather under lights that identify them as being part of the same group.We can either see that in an historic context of Jews who were gathered in death camps during WWII, or we can see it as a positive step forward as these weary, long-traveled souls finally find the light to which they can gather together, to be saved from the darkness. I choose to believe she's showing us the latter, and one can look forward to seeing their hope-filled future.