When Jenny Yurshansky’s parents fled Soviet-era Moldova in 1978, They could only take a handful of items – which would essentially fit in two small ones Suitcase. No valuables were allowed, only essentials; They could bring less than $300 in cash and no proof of education.
Michael and Rima Yurshansky Clothes and blankets stuffed into their pockets. Rima packed an embroidered baby hat and alphabet baby book for her soon-to-be daughter Jenny. Yurshansky was born months later in Rome in January 1979, and her parents – Asylum seekers at the time, awaiting permission to enter the United States – eventually settled in Northridge. The items they carted with them from Eastern Europe became an integral part of their new home in California.
Now these items have formed an exhibition about family migration and the inherited trauma of exile, a topical issue as more than 2.5 million Ukrainians have fled the country in the past few weeks since the Russian invasion. Yurshansky joins a legacy of artists who have addressed issues of displacement, trauma and loss related to the global refugee crisis, including photographer Tom Kiefer, who has rescued and photographed the belongings of migrants and asylum seekers crossing the border discarded at the US-Mexico border, and Chinese artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei, whose numerous art and media projects address the plight of refugees, freedom of expression and life in exile.
Yurshansky’s solo exhibition, A Legacy of Loss: There Were No Roses There, on view through May 12 at the American Jewish University, consists of five sculptural installations, a multimedia piece, and an audio guide. The title “There Were No Roses There (Diaspora)” – a climbing rose vine made of welded steel that has been charred in a kiln and features aiptasia with brass thorns – traces three generations of her family’s migration to Argentina, Germany and Israel or the United States in the United States last 100 years. It is also a record of family members killed in World War II.
Yurshansky, who now lives in the Lincoln Heights area of Los Angeles, said she was inspired to create the exhibit, which was created by former AJU chief curator Dr. Rotem Rozental, after she returned to Moldova with her mother in 2016 and 2017.
“I had received an artist grant from Asylum Arts to bring my mother back to Moldova for the first time since my escape,” says Yurshansky. “I wanted to explore this topic of what it means to be a refugee and use my own family as a case study.”
The continuous lines of the exhibition are universal, says Yurshansky. “Leaving your homeland and leaving everything behind and coming to a completely unfamiliar place brings with it generational trauma,” she explains in this edited interview. “I think there’s a lot of denial in the US because there’s this myth of Americanism that our past has been erased and our slates wiped clean. That we belong in this space and others don’t. Coupled with the fact that our families don’t want to talk about it, it’s too painful. The exhibition aims to provide a place to openly discuss this harsh reality.”
Your show is particularly timely. Do you now think differently about the exhibition?
The Border Will Not Hold series of framed embroideries has taken on a new dimension in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The embroideries address how the ideas of nationalism, bigotry and us-versus-the-propaganda are armed by states and turn populations against each other. It’s a pattern that we know very well here in the US, and of course it’s found around the world. Russia retaking its place at the center of this pattern is just another inevitable twist in history.
These pieces – each a Moldavian folk embroidery pattern collaged with Soviet-era images from Cyrillic Alphabet Primers – Explore how systemic oppression, oppression, and revisionist propaganda can be masked in charming presentations of folk traditions and materials. The books are filled with Soviet propaganda and, along with the alphabet, embedded with chauvinist ideas, notions of who belongs, support for the militarized state, and how to be a “good Soviet.” The folk embroidery patterns, while beautiful, have a much darker side. The shadows that the delicate embroidery casts on the surface of the silk chiffon are a reminder to be careful in both the benevolent and overt ways in which the threat of nationalism is portrayed.
How did you experience the inherited trauma of your parents’ flight experience?
The time my mother became pregnant with me was extremely stressful. Because my mother and father wanted to leave the Soviet Union as refugees, they lost their jobs and the waiting time could easily last a year. Her doctor advised her to only gain 15 pounds because there was no epidural in the USSR. She literally carried me across the borders of the Soviet Union, endured an unnecessary and botched caesarean section in an Italian hospital because there was no one to stand up for her. Adding to this stress, none of my grandparents wanted to join my parents in seeking asylum in the United States. Instead, they all immigrated to Israel, which was extremely distressing for my mother, who was incredibly close to her parents. I was born stateless in Rome while they waited.
The severe stress my mother experienced resulted in physical and psychological characteristics of me that are an imprint of my mother’s trauma. I have scoliosis – not found in my family – which required spinal fusion surgery. I’m noticeably smaller and smaller than the rest of my family and I have ADHD. Research has shown that there is often a link between ADHD and childhood trauma. The works in this exhibition are intended to convey to the visitor the difficulty of accessing buried memories due to trauma and how we carry these traumas in our bodies and pass them on to the next generations.
Your mother helped you sew several textile works on the show – how does sewing connect you, your mother and your grandmother?
Sewing, part of my practice, is done to honor my mother grandmother, a couture seamstress whose dreams were shattered by war; but also because she could sew, she survived the war. We both learned to sew from her. Sewing these painstakingly detailed pieces with my mother is a strategy that has helped me find a common space to reckon with what it means to be a refugee. My mother will never directly answer my questions about the past. I have found that the hours we spend sewing and sitting together through stillness, sharing the frustrations and rewards of intricate embroidery and large scale pieces create a space for memories to bubble up and surface.
Tell us about Unfolded Narratives, a large-scale quilted tapestry in the exhibit that was created in part by students at Jewish day schools across Los Angeles.
During workshops at AJU, I took students from schools like Milken Community School, De Toledo High School, and Shalhevet High School on a journey to discover their voices by exploring their own family narratives about immigration, change, and resilience. Crossing the globe from Iran to New York, these stories were expressed through collages, drawn images and narratives, which were then folded into playful paper fortune tellers. With my mother, I turned these small, handcrafted sculptures into Unfolded Narratives that invite us to see how all our stories are connected and put together.
How does the work in the exhibition speak to the experience of a refugee hastily collecting family artifacts before fleeing home?
There Were No Roses There (Echo) is a wall-based rubbing of a traditionally woven rug from Moldova. The wall surrounding it is colored to mimic tobacco residue. It reflects the intricate intersections of family traditions, domestic spaces, and the differing broadcasts of home and belonging issues at a national level. The work, the remnant of a carpet, is a negative space – like removing a tapestry and leaving the echo of its fibers behind. One might imagine that this is the remnant of those who left, as well as a shadow of the memories they carry.
There is an interactive audio guide on the show that allows participants to roam the AJU campus and encounter “blacklisted” plant species. What is the concept here and how does it relate to migration?
Blacklisted: A Planted Allegory (Audio Guide) explores the socio-political constructions of boundaries and belonging by challenging the scientific classification of plants as “native,” “non-native,” or “invasive” species. Listeners are invited to experience these plants in a self-adventure-style audio walking tour or radio-style radio play. It is a web-based field guide for listeners to become familiar with non-native plants commonly found in California. Each plant is performed by an actor who anthropomorphizes them through a narrative, channeling their unique history and experience of arriving and settling here.
These are the stories of generations of migrants. What these plants offer us reflects a landscape that is both cultural and botanical, everything from humble weeds to conscious landscaping. The experience is designed to introduce the audience to these plants to better understand how the landscape is not only botanical, but also historical and cultural – the result of human settlement. The listener can experience the plants as a reflection of people and history, see how they are part of this narrative, and engage with the often controversial but nonetheless important issues of colonization, migration, borders, citizenship, belonging and otherness.
“A Legacy of Loss”
Where from: American Jewish University, Marjorie and Herman Platt Gallery, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles
When: only by appointment Monday-Thursday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; walk-through with artist Select Sundays; until May 12th
Costs: for free
The information: arts.aju.edu; for appointments firstname.lastname@example.org
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-03-17/jenny-yurshansky-art-show-los-angeles The LA artist explores her family history of displacement and loss