Montreal museum’s Holocaust-themed exhibition goes virtual

Yehouda Chaki museum exhibit

In October, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) was to have held the vernissage of a solo exhibition of works by Montreal-based artist Yehouda Chaki, whose career now spans six decades.

The Holocaust-themed Mi Makir: A Search for the Missing was conceived as a five-month ticketed show timed to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, but Montreal went into the COVID red zone and museums were closed. With no end of the lockdown in sight, the MMFA has put the exhibition online and it’s free of charge. The public can take a virtual tour of this haunting exhibition through the MMFA web site (mbam.qc.ca).

Chaki, 82, who survived the Nazi occupation of his native Greece, created Mi Makir (Hebrew for who knows) to honour the victims of the Shoah. This installation consists of 117 unframed portraits, spectral hollow-eyed faces whose only identification is a number in the top left corner. These were the dehumanizing tattoos of actual people who were exterminated.

Mi Makir premiered in 1999, but its inspiration goes back to the aftermath of the war when Chaki was living in Israel. He remembered the daily radio broadcasts of pleas from those desperately looking for information on missing relatives. Mi Makir was his way of putting faces to the disappeared, including his own grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who perished in Auschwitz.

On the floor in front of the paintings is a sculpture made of scattered books, which recalls those by Jewish and other “degenerate” authors burned by Nazis, as well as the ruins of Jewish property after Kristallnacht in November 1938.

Also on view is Chaki’s large-scale 1969 painting “Express Train from Salonika to Auschwitz”, on loan from Concordia University’s Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery.

Despite fragile health in recent years, Chaki continues to create. “Great artists only get better as they age,” said arts patron Sharon Azrieli in a documentary accompanying the exhibition, “and Chaki is a perfect example of one of Canada’s greatest living artists.”

The exhibition was made possible by the Bensadoun family, in collaboration with the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal and Azrieli Foundation.

Odon Wagner, owner of the eponymous gallery in Toronto which has presented the artist in eight solo exhibitions, concurs. “Without question, Chaki is the most successful artist of our gallery historically,” he said.

The prolific Chaki is better known for his boldly hued expressionistic landscapes and still lifes. Beneath this joyfulness, Mi Makir curator Iris Amizlev said Chaki’s grief over the Holocaust has always been there. “This was such an important event for him as a person, as an artist, as a Jew, as a member of the human race,” she said.

Born in Athens in 1938, Chaki, his parents and younger brother survived by pretending to be Greek Orthodox and living with a Christian family in the countryside. They left Greece in 1945 for Israel where Chaki lived until 1960. After continuing his art studies in Paris, he immigrated to Montreal in 1962.

Since then he has exhibited hundreds of times around the world, and his work can be found in private and public collections across Canada and numerous other countries.

Chaki, head of the painting and drawing department at the Saidye Bronfman Centre from 1967-1989, has had several important commissions in the Montreal Jewish community, among them the large tapestry that Congregation Shaar Hashomayim asked him to design to mark its 145th anniversary.

The online Mi Makir is 3D, allowing viewers to stroll through the actual exhibition space at their own pace and zoom in to each work and read all texts.

In a related project, the MMFA is a partner with the Montreal Holocaust Museum and two museums in France in developing the conceived-as-virtual exhibition “Ports of Exile, Home Harbours.” Through artwork and archives, this exhibition highlights the fates of Jewish refugees who passed through the port cities of Rouen and Marseille and started new lives in another port city, Montreal. It can be viewed at destinees-juives.expositionsvirtuelles.fr.

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