Jasmine Bakalarz: Diaspora
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, DEC. 2017
Jasmine Bakalarz is an important emerging photographic artist born in Argentina. She came to Toronto when still young, studied and exhibited in Toronto and Montreal, and is now based in Buenos Aires, where she worked as a photographer at the Centro Cultural de la Memoria Haroldo Conti (Haroldo Conti Cultural Centre for Memory), developing the archive, preparing exhibitions and heading workshops. She now exhibits widely in Europe.
Bakalarz graduated from the Concordia University photographic studies program in Montreal (a program that has notably produced a number of stellar artists in recent years) where she studied with distinguished photographers like Jessica Auer and Marisa Portolese, She received later training by photographers Mary Ellen Mark, Gabriel Valansi, Hellen Van Meene and Alessandra Sanguinetti (Magnum Photography). She received the Magenta Foundation Flash Forward award twice (2011 and 2012) and won the Banco Ciudad prize, among other awards. She is now completing her MFA (Arts in Public Spheres Master program is a 2-year degree in the visual arts, addressing artists and professionals wishing to question the contemporary artist’s relation to the public sphere) at the École Cantonale d’art du Valais in Switzerland.
When studying at Concordia, and for some years afterwards, Bakalarz authored extended series of in-depth photo essays comprised of large-scale colour portraits documenting the lives and activities of children and adolescents in different social environments, including North American children’s’ competitions (such as Beauty Pageants) and others on Ballroom Dancers, Equestrians, Ballerinas and others. It is for these portraits that she received early recognition. Most of that and subsequent work has as its abiding subject women and children underscored by issues of gender, nationality and so forth.
In October and November 2014, Bakalarz was artist-in-residence at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, where the Warsaw Ghetto once stood. During this period, the photographer created a series of portraits of contemporary Warsaw Jews dilating on what they identify with today and how diverse a community they constitute.
She gave workshops related to photography, memory and genocide and mounted her Warsaw Portraits in the public spaces of the former Ghetto. Selected photographs became part of the Museum’s collection. She also documented her own family history by visiting places where her grandparents once lived (Pacanów and Klimontów). Bakalarz lost many members of her family in the Holocaust. These latter photographs constitute a more personal, and partly autobiographical, supplement to the Warsaw cycle.
All of Jasmine Bakalarz’s portraits seem infused with a deep, abiding and almost sempiternal sense of quiet. Formally speaking, her work is deft, chiselled and inordinately well defined. Her subjects seem to emerge from a deep well, instantiated on the present tense with clarity and boundless gravitas. Indeed, hers’ is an art of timelessness and otherworldly grace. She somehow captures the essence of her subjects – intensity, earnestness, angst, mourning, in the midst of loss—without manipulating or embellishing them in any way. One might suggest that hers’ is a fearless courage of truth to face interiority that transcends the documentary ethic that she also possesses. Her subjects are caught with haunting August Sander-like candour and their inherent individuality and dignity is never in doubt.
Bakalarz’s portrait essays have now organically morphed into a more personal exploration relating to Jewish identity, memory, commemoration and the Holocaust. In the following short interview, we touched on her work of the last several years.
JC: You have called your photographic project ‘Diaspora’ and it’s very aptly titled, I think. Could you talk about your intentions in developing this body of work, where it took you and where it may well lead?
Jasmine Bakalarz: Diaspora is a large ongoing project exploring themes of Jewish life and history in several countries that are very personal to me. I am interested in how new generations deal with matters pertaining to culture, religion and political issues in relation to histories of exile and diaspora. The series Kinder explores the Toronto Hasidic Jewish neighbourhood where my father and his family lived after they immigrated during the Second World War and where I grew up when I moved to Canada. These portraits of orthodox children in their homes and bedrooms explore a rarely seen perspective of this tightly knit community.
JC: Your Warsaw Portraits Cycle counts among your finest work to date. Can you talk about your residency at the POLIN Museum? How did that come about?
Bakalarz: I was selected by the POLIN Museum to be an artist in residence during the month of the museum’s inauguration and worked with Agnieszka Pindera who was in charge of the residencies and also the co-curator of the final exhibition “Presence/Absence/Traces- Contemporary Artists on Jewish Warsaw”. We searched for subjects in Warsaw’s Jewish community, this was a very difficult task given the sensitive subject matter, but my intention was to work with the many shades and layers of identities Warsaw’s recent history shaped and marked. I met with many families and individuals, each time I walked into a home I entered an entire world of intricate familial experiences and memories. The women who were just coming to terms with a newly found Jewish identity were particularly interesting to me since they were part of my generation, this is where genetic memory (something that I’m very intrigued by) became quite relevant and visually expressed in some way during my experiences photographing them. It naturally happened that only women and children reached out to participate in the project, thus, this series was in a way very much in line with my previous work. I began to realize that there was a thread throughout my ten years of photographing portraits and in a way they had all been self-portraits of a moment in time.
JC: Your series entitled Moises Ville (Santa Fe, Argentina, 2014,15) is almost a collective portrait of place – the ‘places’ have the same gravity as the subjects of the ‘portraits’. They seem somehow haunted by a past that threatens to subsume them.
Bakalarz: Moisés Ville explores the current state of the first agricultural Jewish colony of Latin America. The Eastern European Jews who were escaping the pogroms and persecution founded this small town in 1889. There are few direct descendants of the settlers left in this place, they are very old and with their passing, they will take the legacy. The new generations are coming from other poorer areas of the country in hopes for a brighter future, just as the Jews did over one hundred years ago. How these two generations and communities coexist and collectively form a new identity is a major part of the project.
JC: Your recent work is an investigation of memory, memorials and the Holocaust. Can you talk about Klimontów & Pacanów (Poland, 2014,16) that draws upon your own family history? What does it mean to bear witness in your work?
Bakalarz: My current research explores the relationship of the photographic image pertaining to representations of genocide and how they relate to education and memory. I am continuing my work in Poland with archives and my own personal research in my grandparents’ villages (Pacanów and Klimontów). I want to create new projects with the communities who live there, as to understand the present and how this place lives with its past. I would like to think that my family was taken from this place and murdered, but somehow they still live in the people and the homes of the present, I am looking for a new family.
JC: Earlier this year, you were invited to be artist-in-residence in Zakopane, Poland in the Tatra Mountains. Can you talk about this residency?
Bakalarz: The Pscheuench Residency took place in Zakopane in an old house that was formerly a hotel of a Jewish family before the Second World War. For the final exhibition of the results of the residency, we transformed a storage room in the house into an exhibition space and invited the entire village. The story of the hotel and other buildings interest me as architectural historical traces of a people who never returned. I would like to get to know the communities who live there now, as to understand the present and how this place lives with its past. It is important for me to continue to have a relationship with Poland, through my artistic practice and my socially engaged work, in order to build a present to a dark past. Documenting and developing new relationships is a fundamental way to continue building a collective memory.
JC: When I think about your work, I am struck by the enormous clarity and ethic of care you bring to your subjects, but also Socratic honesty and ’truth-telling’ as an activity devoutly to be embraced. That was one of the philosopher Michel Foucault’s last major themes of research. His last course at the College de France was entitled “le courage de la verite”. Taking a cue here from Foucault, we can argue that you unveil courage, conviction and care as ethical conditions for your own photographic practice. Does this make sense? What does it mean to tell the truth, to speak truth to power, to memory, to the past?
Bakalarz: I cannot speak of the truth but of the courage of the subjects, the landscapes and absences I have encountered. My work is a way to pay my respect to them. WM
1. See Michel Foucault, The Courage of Truth (Lectures at the College De France, 1983- 1984) (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
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James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.