Building Identity Through Art

Mirta Kupferminc Incorporates Familial Anguish in Her Latest Exhibit

By Erica Orden

Published November 18, 2009, issue of November 27, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When Argentine artist Mirta Kupferminc escorts her mother, a Holocaust survivor who fled her homeland of Hungary in the wake of World War II, to view exhibits of her work, she sometimes worries that her mother will find the material too disturbing, too reminiscent of her experiences during the war. After all, Kupferminc bases much of her mixed-media work on her parents’ heritage, employing historical details from their lives in her pieces. “Sometimes,” Kupferminc said, “I ask her: Are you sure that you can cope with such strong material in these exhibitions? It’s not hard for you?” Her mother’s answer, Kupferminc recalled, is always the same: “‘Oh, Mirta,’ she says, ‘What’s hard is what I lived, not what you’re doing.’”

  • Image 1
  • Image 2
  • Image 3
  • Image 4
  • Image 5
  • Image 6
  • Image 7
  • Image 8


But it’s that hard-lived life that Kupferminc — whose first solo show in New York, “Mirta Kupferminc: Wanderings,” is on display now through June 30, at the museum at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion — features so prominently in her work. Shifting seamlessly among printmaking, painting and other media, Kupferminc has spent the past two decades producing a body of work that speaks to the Jewish cultural soul, exploring themes of pilgrimage, exile and what she calls “built identity,” the idea of building your own character, “because my work has a very strong mark of Judaism, but also a very strong mark of Argentinean identity.”

And yes, a great deal of the thematic content of her work is derived from her parents. Her father, too, was a survivor of the war and exile, in his case from Poland. Kupferminc, though, bases her artistic output more frequently on specific details from her mother’s life, for two reasons. First, her mother had a nostalgia for her native Hungary, whereas her father “tried to forget that he was born in Poland.” And second, Kupferminc began the bulk of her work, including that incorporating numerology, after her father passed away. Since Kupferminc insists on using accurate information from the numerical tattoos that were inscribed on Jews during the war, and never thought to retrieve her father’s sequence of numbers before he died, she has had to rely primarily on data provided by her mother. “I would never use a number that’s not exact, because this would be taking away — again — his identity,” she explained.

“I am, in a good way, using her suffering,” Kupferminc said of her mother. “Sometimes I feel bad because…I feel that I am using her life to produce my life. But on the other hand, I feel like we, together, are teaching the future generations.”

At Hebrew Union College, Kupferminc’s work fills the lobby’s atrium. The signature work of the show is aptly titled “To Be a Witness” (2006), and is an installation of glass, paper and wood that stretches across nearly an entire lobby wall. Dozens of photographs show a man in a variety of poses, using his hands to cover parts of his mouth and eyes. Below the photographs is a set of glass blocks; the rightmost is inscribed with the first letter of the first word of the Sh’ma Yisrael, the leftmost with the last letter of the last word of the prayer. “You are to be a witness who loves unconditionally,” reads the wall text, by Saul Sosnowski, a writer and editor of Latin American texts. (Kupferminc also frequently bases her work on the writing of Jorge Luis Borges.) “Able to judge God over Auschwitz and to find Him guilty; and still able to pray to Him, even there, even in Auschwitz.”

Elsewhere in the show is a series of repurposed chairs, weathered wooden structures that Kupferminc has outfitted with materials like metal and coal and inscribed with allegorical imagery, incorporating magical realism and Jewish mysticism from her Kabbalah studies. Each piece is representative of a life cycle; “If you burn the wood, it will turn into coal and the coal melts metal,” she explained. “Wanderings” also contains handmade books and a series of prints.

Although Kupferminc’s work is unmistakably and distinctly Jewish, the artist shies away from heavyhanded iconography or proselytization. “You will have the menorah and David in my works, and my own challenge is to reach a very Jewish sensation and identity, a very Jewish feeling of the culture,” she said. “It’s not a religious identity, it’s a cultural one.”

Standing in the lobby, surrounded by a decade’s worth of her work, Kupferminc is enthralled, speaking in swift, excited and at times broken English about the path her career has taken. Though this is not her first show in the United States — she has enjoyed exhibitions in Chicago, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, and at the University of Maryland — she feels that this is her most meaningful endeavor to date, so much so that she eschews the pretense of humility. “Maybe it’s not nice that I say this,” she said with a smile, “but I deserve it! I work a lot, and I have a very unique voice and Jewish way of speaking, but my interest is not just to be a witness and to pass the legacy, but to produce art. I’m presenting these works not just for the Jewish world.”

Erica Orden is a freelance writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine and The New York Sun.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.