Life & Culture

New cartoon exhibition showcases Jewish life

An exhibition at Camden's Jewish Museum illustrates Jewish life in 20th Britain through funny, yet poignant cartoons.


"What of those who have used cartoons and comics as a medium to address the world?”

A new exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Camden, Jew(ish) Cartoons: drawing from the collection asks this question, and answers it in fascinating fashion. Using unseen material from their archive, curators Morgan Wadsworth-Boyle and Jemima Jarman uncover some hidden gems.

They faced challenges. Due to past curating practices and societal constraints, all of the historical images were by, and about, men. So they consulted award-winning artist, curator and comics scholar Sarah Lightman, who suggested a range of contemporary female Jewish cartoonists and comics artists whose work spoke to those in the collection. It makes for a fascinating conversation. The works form a kind of snapshot of physical and social movement in the UK in the 20th Century.

The theme of attitudes to migrants and outsiders, from wider society and amongst Jews themselves, runs through the exhibition. Many of cartoonists are refugees or the descendants of migrants.

The earliest work is a satirical cartoon from a contemporary newspaper in 1754, depicting British antisemitic fears at the “Jew Bill” Naturalisation act of the previous year, to which there was such fierce opposition that it was repealed and Jews had to wait a hundred years before naturalisation was a possibility again. In this cartoon Jews are described as vermin.

A fascinating collage work by the mysterious A McLevy, who did much of his work in chalk on the back of menus from Cohen’s restaurant in the East End in the 1920s, depicts the JC fighting back against antisemite writer, GK Chesterton. A more playful work by the same artist has a car full of assimilated Jews driving “miles and miles from Stamford Hill”, and is captioned “there are good things yet to hear, and fine things to be seen, before we go to paradise by way of Golders Green.” On the back of the car is a large sack of chutzpah, a vital ingredient for any such journey.

Golders Green is seen very differently in a couple of pencil drawings from Sarah Lightman’s forthcoming The Book of Sarah (Myriad Books). Here, haunting spaces speak of loss and heartbreak, and the cost of trying to fit in. This theme is picked up in an original hand-drawn two page comic by Corinne Pearlman, Whatever Happened to Great Grandma. Pearlman’s grandparents, leaving a London flat requisitioned by the army, did not want their ancestor to travel with them “she was horribly fat, and only spoke Yiddish”. Embarrassed by this reminder of their former outsider status, they exiled her to the Essex home of the grandfather’s non-Jewish business partner. There, “with no one to cook for, amongst strangers,” she took her life.

Self-awareness enables empathy. The final image at the exhibition, by rising star Ella Baron, is of modern migrants and refugees coming up against an invisible barrier, a barrier of perception. The medium can become the message.

Karrie Fransman contributes a fantastic self -portrait which went viral, Everything is Foreign, detailing the way she and everything in her work space has a foreign provenance. She also has an award winning digital comic, Over Under Sideways Down created for the British Red Cross following the story of Ibrahim, a Kurdish Iranian refugee. His name resonates all the way back to “Abraham, the “Ivri”, the one who crosses over. Acknowledging that we were strangers, supporting others who have made difficult journeys, goes back to the bible, and is here depicted in works that are powerful, playful, and compelling.

The exhibition, which is in the entrance hall of the museum, sits alongside a desk for resident artists to fill with work, and a long table for guests to the exhibition to create their own comics in response to these works. It runs until September 16. Come along and be part of the conversation.

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