Mapping Out “Refugee Modernism” at the Venice Biennale

VENICE, Italy — Accessible virtually and dispersed throughout the Venice Biennale’s fairgrounds, the Yiddishland Pavilion highlights a contemporary secular Yiddish visual culture that may be best defined as the inheritance of refugee modernism(s) of the early to the mid-20th century. Yiddishland was physically present throughout the biennale during its opening days, where visitors could encounter a Yiddish circle dance in the Giardini, led by Avia Moore, or a Happening-like performance in the Giardinia by Neue Jüdische Kunst, an interdisciplinary association founded in Odesa by Nikolay Karabinovych and Garry Krayevets.

With the Russian Pavilion voluntarily canceled by its curator and artists earlier this year in response to President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, current geopolitics had already reshaped the biennial fairgrounds. Yiddishland Pavilion co-curators Maria Veits and Yevgeniy Fiks, who both have roots in Russia, deployed their deterritorialized project to address how Jewish, Ukrainian, and Latvian refugee modernisms of the 20th century connect with contemporary realities in Ukraine. On April 23, they organized a talk hosted by the Latvian Pavilion, which included, among others, Ukrainian artists Konstantin Akinsha, Nikita Kadan, and Karabinovych, whose presence reflected the current situations of artists who have been compelled to flee their homes by Russian forces.

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Neue Jüdische Kunst, “Yarmulkes under the Turbans,” April 23, 2022. Arsenale (outside the Latvian Pavilion), Venice Biennale. (courtesy the artists/Yiddishland Pavilion)

Ukrainian artists are now facing an uncertain future that is unfortunately not unprecedented, as one central project in the Yiddishland Pavilion attests. Created by Fiks, who is also an artist, Yonia Fain’s Map of Refugee Modernism is an audio tour of the Venice Biennale. Written by Fiks and based on archival materials housed at the League for Yiddish and the recent documentary, Yonia Fain: With Pen and Paintbrush, it tells the story of the Ukrainian-born artist and poet and his migrations across eight countries. Visitors can listen to the audio guide by going to the Yiddishland Pavilion’s website, where four-to-five minute narrative snippets of Fain’s life can be heard. Primarily told in English with a smattering of Yiddish, the audio tour is delivered in a semi-fictionalized first-person narrative, voiced by New York-based Yiddish theater actor Shane Baker. 

Artist Nikita Kadan speaking at the “Maps of Refugee Modernism(s)” event at the Latvian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, April 23, 2022 (photo courtesy the Yiddishland Pavilion)

If listening to the audio guide at the biennale itself, visitors can move from pavilion to pavilion: The tour begins, logically enough, in Ukraine, before moving to Lithuania, Poland, USSR/Russia, Japan, China, Mexico, and finally, the United States.

Fain lived in some of these countries for years, some only for a few months. Born in Ukraine in 1913, the artist and his family fled the Bolshevik revolution when he was a child, landing first in Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, where he established the foundations of his artistic practice. Fain’s understanding of himself as an artist is fundamentally transnational and Yiddish at its core, stating at one point: “I am a Yiddishland artist. I dream in Yiddish, I paint in Ukrainian, I draw in Polish, I sculpt in Russian.” He describes one of his favorite teachers, a former German officer who remained in Vilnius after World War I. The teacher spoke German intermingled with a few Hebrew words — his own personal version of Yiddish — which suited him well enough in speaking with the budding artist.

Fain’s story becomes more fraught as he came of age during the outbreak of World War II. After joining the General Jewish Labor Bund, he became a target as both a socialist and a Jew. Fleeing Poland on foot, Fain narrowly avoided time in a Soviet prison. He later escaped to Japan thanks to Chiune Sugihara, an official who saved thousands of Jewish lives by illegally procuring them transit visas to Japan. Fain was later sent to China, where he spent the war in the Shanghai Ghetto, miserable but safe in comparison to his counterparts in Europe. After the war, Fain moved to Mexico, where he was befriended by some of its greatest modern artists — Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo — before moving permanently to New York in 1953.

Yevgeniy Fiks, Yonia Fain’s Map of Refugee Modernism (courtesy the Yiddishland Pavilion)

Each audio guide entry describing Fain’s life concludes with a fictionalized anecdote imagining what would have happened if historical circumstances were different and Fain had been allowed to thrive in each of the countries in which he has lived. Fain describes a Poland where World War II never took place, where his large-scale murals were included in an Oscar Niemeyer-designed building for the General Jewish Labor Bund in Warsaw. He imagines having his work included in the Chiune Sugihara Museum of Refugee Modern Art in Kobe and representing Japan at the Venice Biennale in 1993. He envisions a growing Yiddish-speaking art community in Shanghai after World War II and representing the Soviet Jewish autonomous zone Birobidzhan within the Chinese Pavilion in Venice. Each story reveals a fantasy of what might have been if war and nationalism had not calcified around Fain, if the refugee modernist artist had been allowed to stay in one place and set down roots.

Fain passed away in New York in 2013 at the age of 100, remembered as a longstanding faculty member at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York — where many of his works are included in the university’s art collection — as well as within Yiddish-speaking artistic and literary circles. However, even as art historians and museum curators have expanded their remit geographically to include “global modernism” in recent years, stories like Fain’s remain obscure, in part because they complicate the national boundaries that still structure so much art-history writing. For Fiks —whose work often focuses on forgotten and underrepresented narratives of the 20th century, particularly in relation to Russia — Fain is a natural subject, and the audio guide compassionately and imaginatively narrates the story of an artist whose early life was continually uprooted. Yonia Fain’s Map of Refugee Modernism, like the Yiddishland Pavilion as a whole, not only succeeds in making visible a neglected figure of modernism but also effectively questions the borders that continue to define the art world.

Yiddishland Pavilion events and projects continue over the course of the 59th Venice Biennale, including a video performance by Uladzimir Hramovich examining the stories of revolutionary Hirsch Leckert and sculptor Abram Brazier, and Ofri Lapid’s the “Shund” online reading session, focusing on early 20th-century Yiddish theater plays in Berlin. The pavilion was curated by Maria Veits and Yevgeniy Fiks.


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