ArtPic artist: Ira Hoffecker
Exhibition: History as Personal Memory at The Front Gallery through Nov. 28
Work: Sometimes the child is silenced by violence or by a direct threat of murder; tar, acrylic, pastel and charcoal on canvas; 8’ x 11.5’
Details: As a young child, Victoria artist Ira Hoffecker was sexually abused by her grandfather, who was also a loyal Nazi captain during the Second World War.
Painting with tar, her latest show is her most personal, an attempt to reconcile not only her own survival of abuse but also the way Germany dealt with its ugly legacy after the war. In each circumstance, she found common ground of people hiding secrets and, generally, hoping to avoid talking about damage done. Even outside her artist statement in her must-read catalogue available at the gallery, her 17 paintings are sombre yet emotional — but the inspiration of their origin makes this show exceptionally bold and brave, a place of monumental contemplation.
Q: Can you talk about the choice of tar to explore and confront your own abuse, as well as Germany’s history during the Second World War. You call it the “blackened violation manifest,” and apply it with sticks from the forest.
A: When I started to mentally approach this body of work, I knew I could not go to my painting studio and use the mediums, colours and brushes that I know. My dark memories from my childhood which I was trying to come to terms with feel like a black and heavy clump in my body. Through memory work and my therapy, I was making an attempt to let it out, by not only starting to talk about it, but also by manifesting it in my work, by “pouring it out of my body.” I knew it had to be black and thick and sticky, so tar was an obvious choice. Also, the way I applied the tar and the oil paint involved the whole body. As a child I learned to separate my mind from my body, so making that connection to the body felt important.
Reading Foucault and discussing him in my MFA thesis allowed me to address both, the power structures under the Nazis as well as my personal history at the same time. He writes about many different constellations of power structures and addresses both these themes.
The process of coming out with this is very difficult, as I carried a feeling of shame and guilt and feeling dirty with it at the same time. When you consciously face the memory though, I realized that it was not my fault and I could not have done anything against it.
Q: Can you talk about the trust that breaks down in making connections surviving abuse, and how this relates to how you see Germany as well?
A: I was threatened to be killed and I, therefore, did not talk about it. I tried to put it away my whole life, in the furthest corner of my being and closed it away, until it came up to the surface.
Over the many years I have started to learn to trust. I was lucky to meet some people in my life who have proven they deserve my trust. One of the most important things I learned during the research was that I am changeable. I do not need to react to situations in a certain way, as I have done previously. For example, I do not need to absorb people’s anger and frustrations anymore, as I used to do for so many years. When I studied the consequences of trauma, I learned that letting go, letting the mind take a break from the constant overthinking of situations, has become less difficult. As I experienced sexual abuse in my childhood, I did not know how to protect myself. That includes not being able to sleep as your mind cannot rest. I have learned how to protect myself over the years and am still working on it.
Q: Books — philosophy, history and poetry — have voices in your paintings, which made me think about how reading is both a solitary exercise while at the same time is a relationship between a reader and writer, where the reader always has the power to walk away. Maybe there’s no question here, but I am curious how important books are to you.
A: I read all the time. This year I have read about 14-16 novels about Stalinism and also post-WWII in Germany to try to get an understanding of history. I mostly read German books. Besides many, many art books in my studio, I mostly listen to books via audible and also have a lot of books everywhere in my place. I prefer to listen to books now as it allows me to look out on the land, walk, hike, paint, etc., at the same time.
Q: There is still a sense of hope in the show, the pink creeping through the black perhaps. How do you feel when surrounded by the paintings? What do you hope other victims might take away from your work?
A: It’s hard to tell where the pink came from. After I let the canvases (with tar, oil and acrylic paint and the soil) dry in the yard, I brought them into the studio and screwed them into my studio wall. Then I wrote onto the canvas with charcoal and got pink pastels in different tones. Pink was the one colour that worked for me with the black, I started to use them when I started to heal.
I usually work on 2 to 3 paintings simultaneously, I never see them together in the studio side by side. To see 17 pieces of this body of work together at one place gives me a feeling of encouragement. It tells me that it was the right thing in my life to go back to analyze my psychological childhood trauma to be able to start and heal and come to terms with my past. To accept these memories as a part of my being, not trying to hide them anymore or push them away. I hope I can encourage others to talk about their trauma, work through the past with a therapist and confront terrible memories of sexual abuse. Healing is important and makes life much better.
I hope we can work towards creating societies in which we can prevent sexual child abuse from happening. In which there is a better education about that subject, in which mothers do not look the other way, in which sexual child abuse is not a bagatelle anymore.
Societies in which we do not have to heal our children from the psychological consequences of sexual abuse anymore, societies in which we take this subject extremely seriously, discuss it openly and prevent it from happening. I know it sounds like a dream, but we are the people who can encourage our government and the people in charge to help change the views on sexual child abuse.