Love thy neighbour

‘Nachbarn’, Ken Aptekar’s show in Lübeck that ran from February to May, showed how world peace can boil down to simply being good neighbours

Updated - September 16, 2016 10:36 am IST

Published - June 04, 2016 04:56 pm IST

“What, everyone should be the same?” Through his work, Ken Aptekar asks questions about identity, otherness, and the celebration of difference.

“What, everyone should be the same?” Through his work, Ken Aptekar asks questions about identity, otherness, and the celebration of difference.

I first met artist Ken Aptekar on a warm spring afternoon at his nephew’s wedding outside Boston. Later, in his New York studio apartment, a space where everything had a place, he told me more about his work over cookies and a vegetable cake he had baked. The following year, at his dining table extended to fit eight of us, he cooked for us and we ate under the watchful eyes of angels he was painting for the show ‘Nachbarn/Neighbours’ — a project that’s been 10 years in the making — for St. Anne’s Museum in Lübeck, Germany.

Lübeck, a rich Hanseatic trading port, was a poly-cultural space with sea captains going out in search of colonies. Over time, it enjoyed the patronage of several rulers as it was a dynamic economic centre — Jews lived in complete harmony with Christians. All that changed during World War II. I wove through traffic on my drive from Hamburg to make it to this exhibition, as it had aroused my curiosity deeply.

Aptekar, an appropriation artist who has featured in major galleries, museums and private collections around the world, brings a socio-political and historical perspective to his work. He reimagines and recrafts classical works with his own voice and perspective. His desire is to communicate ideas through his art on issues that matter to him. Aptekar is also Jewish.

The Lübeck show, housed in a wonderful contemporary space built on the ruins of an old nunnery, is a compilation of parts. It tells the stories of the Holocaust, includes a film interview with a survivor who Aptekar traced to South America, and has a series of silverpoint etchings in English, German, Turkish and Russian, on everyday conversations of present-day neighbours in Lübeck.

After the war, the town was repopulated by Russian Jews, and over time, Turkish immigrants settled in. Today, though these distinct communities work and live around each other, there is still a lot of ground to be covered in terms of creating a dialogue with each other.

The forward-looking director of the museum, Thorsten Rodiek, initiated and pushed for this exhibition a decade ago and commissioned Aptekar for it.

The first suite of paintings, ‘The Carlebachs Series’, is the story of the family of Rabbi Salomon Carlebach, one of the first academically-trained rabbis in Lubeck (he had a PhD). Rabbi Carlebach supervised the building of the Moorish Revival Architecture Synagogue, which survived the Holocaust because the Nazis bought it and converted it into a gym (nearly all other synagogues in Germany were burned down).

Salomon’s son, Simson, and his family had to live in inhuman conditions under the strict eyes of the Nazis. However, their Christian neighbours would secretly provide them with food. When finally fleeing Lübeck, the family knotted a towel on their neighbour’s gate as a sign of gratitude. Of the many who were deported or shot, Felix, one of Simson’s sons, survived and later became a rabbi in Manchester. He was received in the late 80s by the city of Lübeck and given honorary citizenship. At the ceremony, a woman walked up to him and presented him with the towel his family had left on the gate, saying, “Our parents were neighbours. I brought something that belongs to you.” The towel is part of the show.

Aptekar takes visual images from medieval Christian altar retables found in the museum collection and blows them up, writes questions within their ribbons and tells the story of the kitchen towel over six paintings. Beside each of the paintings is a small representation of the original altar piece. The images intermingle and the story is retold.

The show also touches upon being neighbours in today’s Lübeck. A series of fine silverpoint drawings has etchings with comments from citizens: “Your dog shit again in my kid’s sandbox”; “A good neighbour is better than bad family”; “Your tree is blocking the sun from our garden and the leaves are real problem”; “Don’t choose which house to buy, get a good neighbour”. These reveal the reality of the present.

In the filmed conversation, Aptekar talks to Rodolfo Hofmann, a survivor he tracked down in Santiago de Chile. Hofmann talks of his childhood in Lübeck, the family business of a shoe store, festivities, and the memory of how integrated they were in the town’s social fabric until the war. It reaffirms the artist’s thinking that not only are the roots of great religions shared but also that ritual and cultural influences have always existed.

The last piece that had a strong effect on me was a large painting of varying colours of the angel Gabriel shown in five frames with the question “What, everyone should be the same?” Within that question lies layers of seeking — of identity, homogeneity, otherness and the celebration of difference and diversity of the human condition.

At one level, the show tries to create discourse and harmony and comes at a time when history confronts us with larger questions around neighbourliness. The refugee issue within Europe, the Palestine-Israel conflict, our issues in India with Sri Lanka, Pakistan and now, Nepal, and also those within our cities — from vegetarian buildings in Mumbai to caste-related ghettoes in our neighbourhoods. Questions are to be asked of ourselves. How can we be good neighbours? Do we share meals and festivals? Laugh together and watch out for each other? History has taught us time and again that the good neighbour is finally the symbol of humanity at its best.

Ranvir Shah, cultural activist, philanthropist, businessman, is the founder of Prakriti Foundation.

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