As the sun sets on Langdon St., the words “1492 Never Ends” beam from the upper window of Hillel UW.
Jônatas Chimen, the artist who painted them there, explains that they mean different things to different people. For white Americans, that date is famously remembered as the year “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” For native people, it marked the start of half a millenia of slavery, genocide and erasure. For Chimen, it was the year the Jews were expelled from Spain and the beginning of his family’s 500-year diaspora.
That message is part of “5 Madonnas in Exile,” a large installation Miami-based Chimen opened at Hillel UW Tuesday. The exhibit is part of his week-long artist-in-residence with the Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies program, where he is also being welcomed as its first distinguished alumni.
In grappling with his own identity and family history, Chimen confronts broader themes of immigration, persecution, memory and belonging. He invites viewers into tent-like spaces that are simultaneously cathedrals and temporary shelters to contemplate their own heritage and the paths that lead them there.
“When you stand here, I want you to remember that one of your ancestors at one point was an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land,” Chimen said. “So as we’re going through this migration crisis ... understand that there is a human being who is asking for asylum and that many of our own ancestors went through that experience.”
Chimen painstakingly mapped his own migration story during his undergraduate years at UW-Madison. Through extensive research, he uncovered his Jewish heritage and learned that his ancestors had escaped to Brazil from Spain during the Inquisition.
During the Inquisition, the Spanish attempted to expel, forcibly convert or murder all non-Catholics. Chimen noted that in the process, the Spanish destroyed the cultures that made their country strong. The fact that Spain largely missed the renaissance movement and remained in Dark ages much later than the rest of Western Europe could be a result of its sustained religious cleansing campaign.
Chimen says the inquisition serves as a powerful reminder for the present moment, when anti-immigrant rhetoric has increasingly manifested itself in violence and fear-driven politics.
“Everything that happened was because of intolerance and prejudice against the other” Chimen said. “These people were immigrants, they looked different, they spoke a different language. For that, they were persecuted.”
Chimen tells his family’s story using intense biblical symbolism and appropriated materials, including the emergency shock blankets given to children separated from their families at the Mexican border, and tent frames he plans to return to Walmart.
He investigates the way his displaced family adapted to new religious and cultural pressures in Brazil while maintaining its old traditions, and he celebrates the women to whom he attributes much of that work and wisdom.
“I’m dealing with my family history but also how it relates to what is happening now with the migration crisis, the asylum seeking crisis and family separation, and also how identities survive in moments of asylum and exile,” Chimen explained. “Narratives that your families tell you are not linear.”
The idea of constructing and reconstructing narrative and identity is central to Chimen’s instillation.
“It’s the whole idea of weaving a narrative,” he said. “As a thread you can’t do much but weave them together and they’re strong. We’ve got to come together as a nation, at this moment.”
The installation will remain up until Saturday night, and Hillel UW will host Chimen for a dinner and lecture event Friday.