PICTURED: Works by John Nava that take as their subject those who died by violence or disease while in custody at the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Photo by Michael Pearce

by Michael Pearce

A small, but deeply moving and thought-provoking exhibit has opened at Vita Art Center. 

Ojai artist John Nava, who is celebrated for his large tapestries at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, has teamed up with David Kassan to show a selection of works —  paintings, drawings and tapestries — focused on the Holocaust and diaspora. Both are brilliant figurative painters who use a deceptively simple palette, and both are singularly focused on similar subjects. 

Nava has made a career of engaging his audience in social justice issues, now turning his attention to the deaths by violence and disease of children held in custody at the border between the United States and Mexico. For five years Kassan has painted elderly survivors of the Shoah, attracting the attention of Hollywood luminaries such as Steven Spielberg. A film crew is presently following Kassan across the Southland as he visits survivors in California and Nevada and makes more of his beautifully rendered portraits. Nava has helped Kassan turn one of them into an enormous tapestry, which dominates the gallery.

“Raya Kovensky, Survivor,” David Kassan

Nava explains the relationship between the two men’s work, saying “When we look at a picture of the Holocaust, the classic question is, ‘What were the Germans thinking? How can they have not known? How can they have let it happen?’ And we think they were terrible because they were aware of these things and they just let their government do it. But in my work these things are happening now, and it confronts us with ‘What are we going to do?’ Our government has been doing these things, our officials have been doing these things, and it confronts you with that moral question.” 

Kassan agrees, noting that “Ships which had Jews on them were turned back at the border, and they were sent back to Germany. So it’s the idea of people traveling from one country to another, trying to seek a better life, trying to escape whatever political turmoil or famine that causes that immigration to happen, and how it would have been better if America would have taken in refugees at that time, but didn’t, and how America should take on more refugees now, instead of killing them at the border.”

Nava reminds us that the border deaths are real events for real people. “This is a real issue, and to see it presented in a beautiful way and as something that’s serious is a good thing  . . . It marks the fact that when these events were going on, not everyone shrugged their shoulders and went along with it, but people dissented, and critiqued it, and expressed their outrage.”

The exhibit is arresting. Shocking stories of border sickness, confinement and brutality are given on informative cards mounted beside each work. We read and look while the impassive faces of the dead gaze down at us, confronting us with their silence, stoic in their judgment. But there is redemption here, too. 

Kassan speaks of the joy that is to be found in his work. “I want the paintings to be inspiring because, yes, they went through this horrific thing, but in the 75 years they’ve had control of their lives, they’ve had these amazing families that have grown to hundreds . . . flourishing jobs and careers and businesses, and they haven’t really thought of themselves as victims, which is pretty exceptional. So, to me, these paintings are success stories.” 

These are portraits of indomitable spirit, fortitude and strength. As Nava points out, “It’s not a date movie,” but it is a powerful reminder of our moral obligations to our fellow man. 

Elegies is on exhibit through Aug. 14 at Vita Art Center, 28 W. Main St., Ventura. For more information, call 805-644-9214 or visit www.vitaartcenter.com