Article excerts from the November 2006 Issue of Northwest News
When Chicago resident and internationally renowned artist Gerda Meyer Bernstein completes one of her many unique displays of three-dimensional social conscience, she makes good on a vow that dates back to her childhood as a Jewish girl in 1930s Germany. Bernstein lived through much of the escalation of prejudicial German violence and hatred against Jews, including the infamous Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) terror action that occurred in November 1938, and she decided then that, if her life were spared, she would devote herself to battling that sort of oppression. “Before I left Germany, I decided that if I got out, I would speak out,” said Bernstein, whose moving indictment of American racial hatred, “The Hooded March,” is currently on exhibit at the IU Northwest Savannah Gallery for Contemporary Art. “If people had spoken out in Germany, Hitler wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what he did.
What I am trying to say (through my art) is that it’s important to speak out. Your voice has to be heard. I want to make people think about these things and react emotionally.” Bernstein did get out, though only barely. She departed Germany at age 14, bound for London aboard one of the last “kindertransport” ships before that child migration program ceased in 1939. Bernstein eventually made her way to New York’s Ellis Island. “I am very grateful to be in America,” she said. No conventional artist, Bernstein creates large-scale “installation” pieces that address important social or political concerns. “The Hooded March,” which is receiving its first-ever public showing here, combines stark images of racial oppression — segregated restroom doors, wooden crosses, and white sheets symbolic of the Ku Klux Klan — with imposing lists of the names, dates and perpetrators of hate crimes in this country.
Bernstein, who received a master’s degree in fine arts in 1977 from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, completed the piece in the 1980s. She was inspired, she said, by the persistent activity of white-supremacist groups, neo-Nazi organizations and other hate-based movements in this country. This sort of organized racial intolerance continues in America even today, Bernstein noted, making “The Hooded March” as relevant in 2006 as it was when she first completed it.
“I am so happy to do this show here (in Indiana) because in the early days the KKK was very strong here,” Bernstein said in an interview with the Northwest News during an Oct. 6 reception for “The Hooded March.” “This was one of their strongholds. A lot of people don’t realize that the KKK still functions in this country in such an active way even today, and particularly now that they have become involved with the neo-Nazis.”
Most of Bernstein’s installation works take about one year to complete; with its incorporation of detailed information on hate crimes and hate groups, “The Hooded March” took her two years to finish. All of her works involve multi-faceted representations of oppressed, victimized or forgotten peoples, whether they are Holocaust victims, AIDS patients, or even American soldiers killed or wounded in Iraq and flown back to the United States under cover of night and beyond the sight of television cameras. Though now in her 80s, Bernstein continues to toil over new projects.
“It’s hard labor,” she said. “All of my pieces are labor-intensive.”
“The Hooded March” exhibit will run through November.