Upon entering the gallery featuring works depicting the Roma writer and artist Ceija Stojka’s time in the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, viewers meet a painting of an enormous eye staring back at them in horror. The untitled acrylic on cardboard from 1995 depicts a constricting pupil inside a cracked green iris around which carrion birds, barbed wire, a human skull, and a smoking swastika-emblazoned chimney are reflected. Although somewhat crudely rendered, these figures appear clearly and deliberately on the streaky white of the eye – a contrast to the gestural eyelashes and eyelids, chapped and streaked with blood, that surround them. Perhaps more than any other image in this presentation of Stojka’s work at Malmö Konsthall, the first of its kind in the Nordic region, this painting conveys the tragic scope of the artist’s practice and its rootedness in trauma, testimony, and witness.
Stojka (1933–2013) was a survivor of three concentration camps. She was ten years old when her family was deported from Vienna to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a journey she depicts in another untitled painting of a Nazi cattle wagon hurtling into a blazing red sky. Her autobiography Wir leben in Verborgenheit (We live in seclusion, 1988) was among the earliest accounts of the persecution of the Roma people by the Third Reich during the Second World War, and the first such testimony written by a woman. In the 1990s, Stojka, who was self-taught, took up drawing and painting as a way to enhance her writing which, in the words of one of the exhibition’s co-curators Noëlig Le Roux, “transcribed the memories and visions that haunted her.” Before her death, Stojka produced over a thousand paintings and drawings based on her experiences in the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ravensbrück, and Bergen-Belsen.
Organised chronologically, beginning with images depicting everyday scenes from before Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938 and ending in a gallery devoted to the postwar years, the show comprises around 140 of these paintings and drawings. Also included are Unter den Brettern hellgrünes Gras (The Green Green Grass Beneath, 2005), a documentary film by Karin Berger, who edited Stojka’s three autobiographies, and a large statue of the Virgin Mary (apparently the family’s only remaining possession from the pre-war period) on loan from the artist’s son.
Like many of the konsthall’s recent presentations, this is a dense and pedagogical hang, and includes extensive wall texts as well as poems and excerpts from Stojka’s essays. The artist’s use of word and image provide focal points in this exhibition, which follows recent major presentations of Stojka’s work at Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid and La Maison Rouge in Paris. Much of the works’ textual content will likely be lost on non-German speakers. Still, it’s clear that Stojka’s compressed pictorial spaces are structured by narrative demands.
In Hebrew, the Holocaust is termed the Shoah, or the “calamity.” In Romani, it is known as the Porajmos: the “devouring.” Just so, in Stojka’s work, images of grotesque and disembodied mouths appear frequently, devouring bodies and language alike with sharpened teeth and jutting phallic tongues. One drawing from 1993 renders a kapo’s distorted speech as an incomprehensible mass of jackboots and eyeballs. As much as any of the scenes depicted, it is the assuredness and expressivity of Stojka’s lines, which are often used with great economy, that seem to defy such violence.
Indeed, it is her drawings which stand out here. A series of small all-over abstractions in black ink on paper is especially poignant. Made with pours and spatters as well as handprints, they gesture towards the importance of touch not only as a way of making meaning and sense, but also as a tactic of resistance and survival. Considered alongside images showing groups of prisoners huddled together, mothers clutching their children to their breasts, and corpses heaped atop one another, they evoke not sentiment, but a sense of what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, writing in reference to the middle passage, have called “hapticality”: “the capacity to feel through others, for others to feel through you, for you to feel them feeling you.” Which is to say, Stojka’s works are permeated with an affective interiority, given form in human contact, which can never be fully regulated, sanitised, seized, or exterminated, despite every attempt to do so.
A wall text in the gallery devoted to Stojka’s time in Bergen-Belsen grimly informs that she frequently sat among the dead. “It was the only place that was really quiet. You were sheltered from the wind,” she writes. Although there is no authoritative tally, estimates suggest that as much as half of Europe’s Roma population was killed during the period 1933 to 1945. As Irka Cederberg notes in her informative essay ‘The neglected holocaust’, for the show’s accompanying catalog, “in Sweden, there is tremendous ignorance concerning the fate of the Roma.” From an educational standpoint, this exhibition does much to remedy this sad state of affairs. More than this, however, is Stojka’s work itself, which urges us to sit among the dead, to shelter among them, to feel them – and each other.