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Arts & Culture for Argentine Artist, Sculpture is a Statement on Unsolved Bombing

June 11, 2004
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Artist Mirta Kupferminc was home at 9:53 a.m. on July 18, 1994, when she heard the explosion that destroyed the nearby headquarters of AMIA, Argentina’s largest Jewish organization. The blast left 85 people dead, hundreds injured and an entire nation in shock. As the 10th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in Latin American history approaches, Kupferminc’s memorial to the AMIA victims remains Argentina’s most tangible, vivid reminder of that tragic day.

Her wood-and-marble sculpture is located in the heart of Buenos Aires at Plaza Lavalle, also known as Plaza de Justicia — or Justice Square — because it faces the Palacio de Tribunales, the equivalent of Argentina’s Supreme Court.

Some Jewish activists derisively call the place “Plaza de la Injusticia,” or Injustice Square, because the bombing’s chief perpetrators were never caught.

“Originally, I wanted to make a very big hole with the names of the victims, bu! t I was afraid somebody would fall into it,” said Kupferminc, a prominent local artist who was commissioned by the Jewish community to memorialize the dead.

After finalizing the design and applying for permission to place the memorial at Plaza Lavalle, Kupferminc faced bureaucratic obstacles from the municipal government, and the project was delayed for nearly a year.

Thanks to efforts by Memoria Activa — an organization of victims families and survivors of the AMIA attack that has demonstrated more than 500 times in front of the courthouse — the Jewish community eventually won approval for the site.

The sculpture was dedicated on July 18, 1996, the second anniversary of the bombing.

“I chose marble and quebracho, a very hard Argentine wood, to represent that this was an attack not only against the Jewish community but against Argentina,” Kupferminc told JTA. “This wood also was chosen because it’s a natural material, coming from the earth, and because it! changes its color as time passes. It was red at first; now it’s almos t black. This shows how time is passing, while the investigation continues without progress.”

Enrique Churva, whose wife Adriana is president of Memoria Activa, said Kupferminc’s sculpture is an emotional symbol for Argentine Jews.

“When I see Mirta’s monument, I feel the same as if I’m going to the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, the same sadness I feel when Jews are attacked anywhere,” said Churva, who lost a brother-in-law in the AMIA bombing.

For architect Andres Segal, who helped Kupferminc from the beginning, the memorial has special personal significance.

“During the military coup in 1976, my mother, a lawyer, was assassinated. We never found out who did it or why,” he explained. “When I learned that we were putting our monument in front of the Palacio de Tribunales, it was like closing a chapter for me, because the memorial demands justice.”

The memorial is shaped like a V, opening its arms to the Palacio de Tribunales and figuratively embracing! the building. Its most dramatic feature is the victims’ names, burned into the wood with fire.

“The names are included without any order, symbolizing that there was no logic in who was there that day and who wasn’t,” Kupferminc explained. “The sculpture is raised slightly from the ground because the dead haven’t been buried yet. The marble base is round, meaning totality, and there you will find a broken triangle showing the exact hour when the attack took place.”

In late April, the memorial was vandalized by local anti-Semites, who carved Nazi swastikas and the word “Hamas” into the varnish but caused minimal damage, thanks to the hardy wood.

Kupferminc, 49, is no stranger to anti-Semitism: Both her Polish-born father and Hungarian-born mother survived Auschwitz. After World War II they settled in Argentina, which welcomed both Jews and Nazi war criminals in large numbers.

“Once, when I was little, I asked my mom why she had the number 80264 branded in her! arm, and she said ‘to never forget.’ When I was older, I made a print out of it, and combined that with papers and documents the Nazis took from the Jews when they entered the camps,” she said.

That print is one of dozens included in Kupferminc’s latest catalogue, which showcases a variety of media including etchings, objects and even chairs transformed into artistic sculptures.

“While I’m working, I don’t think whether the work is Jewish or not. I do what I feel,” she told JTA. “But it’s through my being Jewish that I won national positions as an Argentine artist. In Japan, my work won a prize. I asked one of the jurors why they chose me from among all the Argentine artists, and he told me, ‘We thought your work was the most Argentine,’ ” she said. “They felt it was different from the others.”

Kupferminc’s art has been exhibited in Uruguay, Spain, Taiwan, India, Hungary and Slovakia. In the past three years, she has been the focus of artistic events in Pittsburgh, Havana, Puerto Rico and Israel.

Kupferminc said she was inspir! ed to be an artist early in life.

“When I was five years old I had a neighbor who was studying fine arts. I used to sit beside her, watching her work. I began studying at the fine arts school at the age of 15,” she said. “Perhaps my parents wanted me to follow a traditional career, to have a more organized education, but they couldn’t stop me.”

She spent a total of 11 years at three fine-arts schools.

“Sometimes I felt anti-Semitism as a student,” she said. “I’m so deeply established now that nobody tells me so directly, but I’m sure that many times I didn’t win a prize or wasn’t invited to an event because I’m Jewish.”

While Kupferminc didn’t accept money for the AMIA memorial, her other creations generally command high prices. Paintings at her studio can cost up to $4,000; in art galleries they range up to $7,000.

Kupferminc’s works frequently incorporate Jewish ritual objects such as Torah scrolls, prayer books and marriage certificates. She often enc! ases these objects in glass and juxtaposes them with random letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

“I think my challenge is to make Jewish art that is universal,” she said. “Before being a Jewish artist, you must be an artist. I don’t want to be a Jew who paints. I want everyone to be moved by my art, not only Jewish people. If not, then it’s not art.”

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