Day of Dead becomes Holocaust metaphor in exhibit

When the conquistadors landed in Mexico five centuries ago, their firearms, viral diseases and treachery practically eradicated the native peoples and destroyed much of their culture.

One tradition the conquistadors could not wipe out, however, was the Indian practice that has evolved into El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Festivals and feasts are held in honor of the dearly departed and, as is the case with a New Orleans funeral, the tone of the day is half smiling, half sobering.

While Day of the Dead is an ancient Mexican tradition, Moroccan-born artist Elvire Coriat de Baëre looks at the festival through 20th-century Jewish eyes. Her nine-painting series "Realm of Silence" uses the celebration honoring the dead as a vehicle for examining the Holocaust.

Her work is part of "El Dia de los Muertos," a multicultural exhibition of artwork on the Day of the Dead, which runs today through Nov. 18 at San Rafael's Falkirk Cultural Center.

While some of the artwork is more in line with the traditional, somewhat lighthearted mood of Day of the Dead, Coriat de Baëre of San Anselmo takes a decidedly somber approach.

"I have always celebrated beauty and nature in many ways: with landscapes and seascapes and bouquets and children and still lifes with joy. But this, this is a departure from what I have done," she said. "There is very little color. Just in the first one and the last one a little bit. I really wanted to evoke a sense of loss."

The largely black and gray "Realm of Silence" stands in stark contrast to Coriat de Baëre's prior colorful and happy paintings. The series begins with a painting filled with foreboding black clouds, symbolic of the coming years of tragedy, encircling a small, colorful village during a short-lived sunny day.

In the ensuing seven paintings, the artist depicts Jewish families being marched through the streets, cattle cars full of people, Nazi soldiers torching the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz surrounded by grisly electric fences, an executioner's-eye view of the gas chamber and a mountain of shoes in the shape of a volcano. "I didn't want to put suitcases or glasses but shoes," she said. "Shoes reveal people's personalities."

"Realm of Silence" concludes with an austere black canvas highlighted by a handful of seven well-used, brightly burning candles.

While the candles symbolize hope, she said, "The Holocaust has left the Jewish people, and many other people, with a wound that will never heal."

Growing up in Morocco, Coriat de Baëre, who moved to the United States in 1956, said she was not personally affected by the Holocaust.

"People have asked me, and I don't know, if it was because I'm Jewish that I did it," said the artist. "I always felt pain, horrible pain. I wouldn't sleep at night, pondering if I should do something. But I didn't suffer from [the Holocaust], and I was young, too."

On the other hand, she admits, the tragedy troubled her deeply, "because of the pain of our people. We survive."

Coriat de Baëre is hoping to eventually send "Realm of Silence" to the East Coast. Previously, the series was shown at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, where she said it was well-received.

The artist, who studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, has also exhibited in France, where some of her work has appeared in magazines and catalogs. She has also sold paintings to private collectors in the United States, France, Italy and Australia.

"Realm of Silence" was inspired by the poetry of Nobel Prize-winner Nelly Sachs, who wrote "O the Chimneys."

After reading the collection, she said, "My soul and heart were filled with pain, a lot of pain for many days. I thought 'What can I do?' I wanted to honor the people who had perished, to tell them that we have not forgotten them and never will."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.