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Czech Embassy Workshop Explores Oppression through Art

By Hannah Vandegrift

The creation of art, whether it is musical, literary or visual, has long been seen as one of the many skills that defines a human being. But what if that very same art is made illegal? Or, alternatively, what if the art itself is not illegal, but you are?

On Oct. 5, the Czech Embassy held a workshop titled “Exploring Issues of Oppression through Music, Art, and Literature” as part of its 2019 Mutual Inspirations Festival. The annual festival, running from Sept. 12 to Nov. 19, highlights how Czechs and Americans have influenced each other. This year, the festival celebrates its 10th anniversary and commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the nonviolent uprising by students and other dissidents that led to the downfall of communist rule in Czechoslovakia in 1989. This year’s focus is on Marta Kubisová, an influential freedom fighter and singer from the Czech Republic who inspired the 1989 revolution with her song “A Prayer for Marta.”

The workshop was held by the creator and director of the Jüdische Kulturbund Project, Gail Prensky, along with associate producer Mark Haney. The Jüdische Kulturbund Project is an ongoing project focused on the stories of Jewish artists in Germany during the 1930s and ’40s who faced the dilemma of whether to risk their lives to stay and fight against tyranny or escape and continue pursuing their art.

Czech Embassy Exploring Issues of Oppression
Gail Prensky of the Jüdische Kulturbund Project led the workshop “Exploring Issues of Oppression through Music, Art, and Literature” as part of the Czech Embassy’s 2019 Mutual Inspirations Festival. Photos: Embassy of the Czech Republic

“We explore issues of oppression in response to music and art, and we connect the story of Jüdische Kulturbund, which existed in Nazi Germany in 1933, to current artists around the world who use music and art in response to oppression,” said Prensky.

The workshop took place on the anniversary of the birth of former Czech President Václav Havel, the famed writer and dissident who helped to peacefully overthrow the communist regime.

The project utilizes original performance pieces such as music, plays, dance and film to connect contemporary artists with issues of oppression in their own countries. An initiative highlighted at the workshop is called Bullets to Books, which focuses on creating a documentary feature film around Jok Abraham Thon’s efforts to replace the temporary Promised Land Secondary School in South Sudan with a permanent structure. Thon’s efforts are focused on ending illiteracy and promoting peace in war-ravaged South Sudan.

“[The project] not only inspires me,” said Prensky, “but it also seems to inspire other people to feel hope. Given the examples of stories of people from the Kulturbund and around the world, that even under persecution and oppression, they are able to rise above through their music and art.”

Czech Embassy Exploring Issues of Oppression
As part of a workshop on exploring oppression through art, participants had to create artwork that was restricted in some way, as if the artists are really working under an repressive regime.

The Jüdische Kulturbund started in the 1930s with around 20,000 artists who performed in theaters across Germany, and at its peak, included over 70,000 artists. Of that number, over 18,000 lived in Berlin, or about 10% of the then-Jewish population. Their first production was “Nathan the Wise,” a story about Jewish, Muslim and Christian people living in peace in Jerusalem. The production was shut down after the first night, as Nazi officers refused to show a production based entirely around tolerance and peace between different cultures. Many of the productions were chosen because they were stories of resistance and joy, which helped keep the community going despite the persecution all around them.

“They [Jewish artists] never talked about being brave. For them, it was more about survival,” said Prensky.

The Kulturbund remained strong even in the darkest of nights. Three days after Kristallnacht, the two days of terror in November 1938 that resulted in nearly 100 Jewish deaths and destroyed countless Jewish homes, businesses, churches and schools, the Kulturbund opened its cabaret night to lift people’s spirits. After 1938, however, most of the Kulturbund theaters closed down. Berlin’s Kulturbund stayed open until 1941.

“I decided that I wanted to find connections to the Kulturbund stories and issues with [modern-day] artists,” said Prensky, who had originally filmed interviews with 15 people associated with the Kulturbund. “And today I have over 45 filmed interviews from artists from 25 countries around the world.”

Czech Embassy Exploring Issues of Oppression
German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon painted hundreds of works in the early 1940s from the south of France, where she hid from the Nazis, including pieces such as the work seen above from her “Life? or Theatre?” collection.

Art, whether created through music, literature, painting, film or any other creative work, is not only a form of expression, but also an outlet for survival. This empowering message is conveyed in the workshop through presentations, open discussions and communicative group work in which participants collaborate with those around them to create either a piece of artwork, a speech, poem or even a song.

The catch is that the artwork has to be restricted in some way, as if the artists are really working under an oppressive regime. One group wrote a revolutionary speech in which they were not allowed to say anything negative about the current regime. Another group wrote a love song in which the word “love” is forbidden. A representative from the Czech Embassy joined in and drew a picture without using the color red but still depicting red itself.

While part of the workshop was to provide information on the Jüdische Kulturbund Project, most of it was discussion-based, as Prensky asked questions about oppression and identity. The primary mission of the project is to connect stories of World War II-era Jewish oppression with issues affecting society today, so participants discussed a range of issues affecting the U.S., such as mass incarceration, immigration and health care. As participants shared their personal struggles, they also found common bonds, which is at the heart of the Jüdische Kulturbund Project.

“The Jüdische Kulturbund wasn’t only a way for the Jewish artists to express themselves,” said Prensky. “It gave them a community.”

To learn more about the Mutual Inspirations Festival, visit www.mutualinspirations.org.

Hannah Vandegrift is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.



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