Artist Lilianne Milgrom talks about the art of scapegoating

Milgrom’s new art exhibit explores the history of pointing the finger.

“J’accuse” – Photo Courtesy of Lilianne Milgrom.

By Victoria Gaffney

Scapegoating has been around for centuries. Pointing a finger at somebody else and attempting to transfer blame is something all too common in the world and our history. The JCC of Northern Virginia’s exhibit “The Psychology of Scapegoating” artistically examines, represents and reflects what it means to be both the perpetrator and the recipient of scapegoating. The show, which opened on April 7 at the Bodzin Art Gallery, is in conjunction with Yom Ha’Shoah, or Annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the Jewish Community Relations Council’s annual Holocaust commemoration.  Lilianne Milgrom, one of the artists in the exhibit, will be talking about both scapegoating and the potential role of art in society.  

Milgrom was born in Paris, grew up in Australia, lived in Israel for a number of years and now resides in Fairfax. Her experiences have informed her artistic approach, and she considers herself an international artist. In addition to her global residences through the years, she is also the daughter of two Holocaust survivors. “I’m what’s called a second-generation Holocaust survivor,” she explains. It wasn’t until a few years ago that she began to see this as intrinsically woven into her own identity and sense of self. In 2013, Irene Gavin, the fine arts coordinator at the JCC of Northern Virginia, asked her to participate in their Holocaust Observance show, “Resistance through Art.” For this show in 2013, she decided to do a sequence of photographs, “Shadows,” in which she projected her mother’s tattoos onto her own skin. “I realized just how deeply they were tattooed into my soul, just as they were tattooed onto her skin,” she says.

“Shadows” – Photo Courtesy of Lilianne Milgrom

When thinking about this year’s exhibit and scapegoating, Milgrom’s mind was drawn to the infamous Nazi propaganda technique where Jews were blamed for all the wrongs of society. In addition to this political scapegoating, however, she also found herself reflecting on the idea that anyone has the capacity to point a finger at someone else.

The large Nazi banners came to mind when she thought of these concepts, so she decided to re-appropriate the banners by replacing the swastika at the center with an image of herself.  In the picture, she is pointing towards the viewer, referring to another historical moment—the late 19th century letter by Emile Zola, “J’accuse.” In Zola’s inciting letter he accused the French government of anti-Semitism by refusing to properly try the army captain Dreyfus for treason. In this sense, Milgrom’s art banners refer to the Nazi banners and to Zola’s letter, but they also ask an important question: Would she, would the viewer, would anyone be capable of pointing the finger at someone else? “I think deep down we all are capable of that,” she says.“I want people to really reflect. I want to start a dialogue, and I want to show, especially in this world, that scapegoating is going on all the time, not just with the Jews.”

The other part of her talk will focus on the use of art as a healing and restorative power, particularly in a fractured and splintered society. To address the role of art today, she will be showing slides of a show that she helped curate called “The Bridge.” The show, organized by the nonprofit art organization Caravan, features 48 international artists of Jewish, Christian and Muslim backgrounds and is traveling to major cities globally for 18 months. The participants seek to examine common threads between all religions and ethnicities and hope to reflect the possibility of being united under common goals.

“Art can be used to harness very negative emotions, such as the Nazi propaganda, but it can also be used to promote understanding, to heal, to initiate dialogue,” she says. “I think artists necessarily are influenced and inspired by what’s going on in their environment in their own time. This is our time, and it’s a fragmented time.”

Milgrom’s talk will be on May 11 at 6:15 p.m. at the JCC of Northern Virginia. “The Psychology of Scapegoating” runs through May 25 and features Milgrom’s banners, multimedia works by Judith Peck and Cherie Redlinger, prints by Liz Wolf, memorial candles by Yonina Blech-Hermoni, fiber artwork by Bobbi Premack Gorban and metal, enamel and glass pieces by Linda Gissen. Shana Spiegel’s work, a quilt, represents the Holocaust experiences of her mother. The artists’ thought-provoking pieces, coupled with Lilianne’s sobering yet inspiring talk, reveal the potential for art to act as a social justice tool with the power to heal and impact change.

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