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Grim Images That Couldn't Be Suppressed

'Prisoners of Conscience' at the Anaheim Museum displays the art of a Nazi prisoner and an Iranian's cartoons protesting against modern values.

March 15, 2000|JUDY SILBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Anaheim Museum's current exhibit, "Prisoners of Conscience," features two artists whose work was created and suppressed under oppressive regimes.

Combined, the two exhibits are "a comparison of political suppression," Anaheim Museum Director Joyce Franklin said.

Czechoslovakian-born Eli Leskley risked his life to document Nazi atrocities at the concentration camp Terezin near Prague during World War II. Fifty years later, the Iranian government has censored and condemned Shahram Shoja's thought-provoking cartoons that provide a grim commentary on late 20th century values.

"They show what we are still doing to people and that things haven't changed that much," Franklin said.

Leskley spent his early adulthood in Terezin-Teresienstadt, where he worked in a print shop, secretly sketching his surroundings. Fearing for his life, Leskley tore up his sketches and hid the pieces, then retrieved them after the war.

In 1949, he and his wife immigrated to Israel where he redid the sketches in watercolor, filling in details and rounding out their themes.

On loan from the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum, the exhibit's 30 sketches and 17 watercolors take visitors on a journey through life at Terezin.

To the outside world, the Nazis portrayed the camp as a flourishing arts community in Czechoslovakia, and indeed, among the many Czechoslovakian Jews at Terezin were well-known artists who produced operas, plays and symphonies at the camp.

But the symphonies and operas masked a harsher reality: Tens of thousands perished at the camp and many more passed through on their way to Nazi death camps.

Leskley's drawings and watercolors are simple caricatures. They lack overtly disturbing images but still communicate the terror, harshness and surreal existence of the arts in a place where few had enough to eat and disease prevailed.

In one sketch and its companion watercolor, Leskley shows a man resting wearily over a pitchfork while a man in the background performs on a theater stage. In another, a man with long limbs and misshapen head suffers from dysentery and rushes to the latrine. A self-portrait shows the artist newly arrived at Terezin, tired, sick and receiving no sympathy from a camp doctor.

Shoja's caricatures are less a condemnation of the Iranian regime than an angry statement against 20th century industrial society, said his sister Elham Shoja, who lives in Irvine.

One drawing shows a hand pushing a globe through a juicer and is titled "Earth's Natural Resources Are Juiced Away." Another shows a crowd cheering a man, who is playing piano keys made of thick wads of money. A caricature titled "Free Soul" shows a man bound up and his shadow exuberant.

Shoja has suffered because of his art, said his sister. Pressure from his editors to change his subject matter forced him to resign from two magazines several years ago. Shortly afterward, his exhibit at Tehran University was canceled and he was prohibited from showing his work in Iran for three years.

The three-year period is over, but the 28-year-old Shoja fears showing his work in Iran, said his sister. The Anaheim Museum's exhibit is Shoja's first outside that country.

Franklin had already chosen Leskley's work for an exhibit in one of the museum's two rooms over a year ago, but she wanted the second room to have a similar theme. Once she heard Shoja's story from his sister and saw his caricatures, Franklin said she knew his work would fit well with Leskley's.

"There seemed to be a logical connection. They had so much in common," Franklin said.

"Prisoners of Conscience" is on display until April 1 at the Anaheim Museum, 241 South Anaheim Blvd. Museum hours are Wednesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from noon to 4 p.m.

Information: (714) 778-3301.

Judy Silber can be reached at (714) 966-5988

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