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HomeArtAn Artist’s Exploration of His Family’s “Crypto-Jewish” Origins

An Artist’s Exploration of His Family’s “Crypto-Jewish” Origins


Jônatas, “5 Madonnas In Exile” (2018), mixed media (all images courtesy the artist)

Growing up in Brazil, Jônatas Chimen Dias DaSilva-Benayon (who goes by simply Jônatas) knew his family was different. While other families faithfully attended Catholic masses, his family stayed home. There were strict rules about how to prepare food, who you could marry, and how to prepare a clean home for special Friday night, candle-lit dinners, but the reason they kept these traditions remained a secret. It was only when he was 18 years old that Jônatas’s parents revealed to him that they were members of a long line of Sephardic “crypto-Jews.” 

The “crypto-Jews” is a term that describes people who practice Judaism secretly, usually while outwardly professing to belong to another faith. Since its colonization, Brazil has been home to a tight community of the descendants of exiled Portuguese and Spanish Jews who fled the persecution of the antisemitic Inquisition to live in Dutch colonies, only to be ruled over by the Portuguese once again for hundreds of years. Many kept their Jewishness a secret from their own descendants, even though they continued altered spiritual traditions. Upon the discovery of his family’s history, Jônatas’s parents encouraged him to research this complex history.

“My parents said, you seem to be attracted to this side of our family. Why don’t you go learn, and come back and teach us?” he told Hyperallergic. Since then, the multimedia artist has seamlessly blended academic research with sculpture, painting, and performance, in a lifetime journey to unravel his family’s story. 

Jônatas, “5 Madonnas In Exile” (2018), mixed media

Jônatas’s work dives deep into a tangled tale of migration and diaspora. In a play on “Dona,” an Iberian address for a distinguished woman, “5 Madonnas In Exile” (2018) was an installation dedicated to his family’s Sephardic matriarchs. In a parody of Catholic imagery, he sewed and sculpted a dazzling fabric “Refugee Cathedral” which included a silhouette of the archetypal Mother Mary, holding up a baby with tiny horns and cow’s ears. “This piece was a slap in the face to the Catholic church,” he said. “I had to do it at least once.” 

Although he is now a practicing Jew, Jônatas does not describe himself as a “Jewish artist.” His Brazilian background also plays heavily in his work, from which he draws, alongside his Sephardic family’s exile story, to address the global migration crisis. Although it deals with a serious subject matter, “5 Madonnas” features bright, joyful colors that swirl around defiant portraits of his female subjects. One of the “Madonnas” exudes power as she steps down from a stone block engraved with text that proclaims, “FOR I AM QUEEN.” Jônatas makes a comparison between the Inquisition-era treatment of Jews and the United States’s criminalization and simultaneous exploitation of Latine, Indigenous migrants. “I wanted to speak about sacrificing the strength of a country, which in the US, is the immigrant.”

Detail of Jônatas, “5 Madonnas In Exile” (2018), mixed media

Around 2018, research led Jonatas to his ancestor’s documents of their oppression under the Inquisition. “These books were over a thousand pages long. They were being tortured and being asked to confess to Judaizing.” Some were the records of his family members’ executions. “I didn’t want to illustrate my experience anymore via paintings,” he said, adding that he instead used the documents themselves as his medium, pasting them together to mimic the quarantine room that members of his family were confined to after their immigration from Spain to Brazil in the early 1900s. Entering the glowing, womb-like cell titled “In Thy Tent I Dwell” (2018), visitors were surrounded by photographs and records, forced to confront the hardships and perseverance of crypto-Jews. 

Jônatas, “In Thy Tent I Dwell,” (2016) mixed media

Jônatas found that some Portuguese Jews purchased titles of nobility and took up heraldic coats of arms as a way to establish status and protect themselves. Similar to Ashkenazi artisans in Eastern Europe who incorporated Polish royal imagery into synagogue ornamentation, “the western Sephardim had coats of arms on their tallits.” Jewish artists would ascribe uniquely Jewish meanings to traditional heraldic symbols. In his family coat of arms that he is reestablishing in Portuguese heraldry societies, Jonatas has incorporated symbols like the Phoenix, representing the Phoenix of Abraham, and flowers that correspond to the twelve tribes of Israel.

During his travels back and forth between Miami and Paris, Jônatas has begun drawing altered portraits of the stone royals crowning historic French palaces, combining them with his heraldry designs. Reminiscent of The Emperor’s New Clothes, an otherwise stately official poses in his birthday suit in “Exilarch II: Composure Besides Nakedness in the Wilderness.”

“I’m showing the vulnerability of these people who were treated like gods. So I show them in very unflattering poses,” he said. While still preliminary sketches for a developing project, their careful composition and intricate detail make them appear like finished works. One drawing features a pile of squashed faces, bordering on the grotesque: The pairings with royal symbolism call into question the way we ascribe “officiality” to documents, and to people, through their aesthetics. 

Contrary to the commonly held belief that Jewishness is an isolated culture, Jewish communities throughout the world commonly incorporate the culture they find themselves in. Jewish heraldry is one example of many visual assertions of the right to hold dominion over one’s own home and way of life, free from oppression. Jônatas’s oeuvre skillfully navigates this cultural complexity of his community’s history and the ways they steadfastly continued to survive under the threat of state power. 

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