Alice Lok Cahana

<strong>photo by Mark Seliger</strong>

Photo by Mark Seliger

Born 1929, Hungary

The first artwork that Alice Lok Cahana made was as a young girl, while she was interned at Guben, a Nazi concentration camp, during World War II. At Guben (a work camp), the Nazis challenged the children to decorate the barracks for Christmas. "Can you imagine what it was like?" Cahana said in a recent interview with art historian Barbara Rose. "There were no paper or pencils to make decorations; we practically had nothing except one broom to sweep the floor with. We were about 24 children in our barrack. I decided we should choreograph ourselves into a living candelabra and hold the pieces of the broom as a part of this sculpture. We won a prize - each of us a little can of snails."

Since then, Cahana has rewarded us with her artistic achievements, most of which are based on and transform her Holocaust experiences, commemorating and thereby honoring the children, her family and and the Jewish people. Just as her "living candelabra" not only defied the Nazis by honoring a Jewish symbol, the Chanuka menorah, her work continues to celebrate Judaism and those who perished in the Holocaust by transforming the horror of their deaths into a testament to their lives.

Alice Lok Cahana was born in Sarvar, Hungary in 1929. She first learned to draw in a Jewish high school (Jews were forbidden to attend public schools, so they set up their own). As noted in her artist's statement, she and her family were sent to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belson, where Cahana was one of the few who survived. After the war, she lived in Sweden from 1952 to 1957. She came to the United States soon after and settled in Houston, Texas in 1959 where she has since made her home.

While in Houston, Cahana was influenced by the transcendental color field paintings of Morris Louis. She studied at the University of Houston and at Rice University, where color field painting was the dominant style. Her exposure to the works of Helen Frankenthaler and Kenneth Noland, color field painters collected by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, all contributed to the development of her mature style, one which was based on pure abstraction, light and color.

In 1978 Cahana made the pivotal decision to return to Hungary and visit her birthplace, Sarvar, where nothing remained of the Jewish community she had known: "The same railroad tracks that took me to Auschwitz took me back. It seemed like nothing had changed there - the town was still mute and silent - no memorial, no remembrance, no one missed us or cared. It was one of the most shocking events I experienced after the Holocaust."

After her visit to Hungary, Cahana's artwork went through a dramatic change. The lyrical abstractions she had made in Houston became the ground for a new kind of mark-making, employing collage, along with an abstract visual language that could more directly express her memorial to the dead. Moreover, she created a series of works dedicated to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who handed out fake Swedish passports to Jews targeted for the death camps. These schutzpassen, some of which are pasted as collage elements in Raoul Wallenberg - Schutz Pass , were passes to life. Wallenberg's daring efforts saved more than 20,000 people, including Cahana's father.

Given this history, it is not surprising that Cahana gave up pure abstraction after her Hungarian trip. As she told Barbara Rose in the From Ashes to the Rainbow catalog interview, "I started to paint only about the Holocaust as a tribute and memorial to those who did not return, and I am still not finished."