Under dim, yellow light, a tent is stamped with stories, ages, memory and history. It is covered with a huge collage of personal portraits, documents and letters, and filled with the unique sounds and smells of a Brazilian upbringing.
Brought to the McAlister Center by the Chaplains, Chicano Latino Student Affairs and Claremont Hillel at the Claremont Colleges, “In Thy Tent I Dwell” is a multi-sensory installation piece. Created by Brazilian-American Jewish artist Jônatas Chimen Dias DaSilva-Benayon, known simply by the title “Jônatas,” the artwork pays homage to a 500-year history of migration, adaptation, forced conversions and hybridization.
Jônatas grew up in a strict family with traditional Brazilian practices — language, culture, tradition, different values — but never was brought up in any particular religion. It was only when he moved to Miami at age 16, where friends would question if he were Jewish, that he started his quest to discover his origins. He found out that his ancestors were crypto-Jews who fled to Brazil during the Spanish Inquisition and practiced Judaism secretly.
You may be wondering — why a tent and not a painting or a collage? Unlike a more traditional artistic form of expression like painting, the tent has its uniqueness and special underlying meaning.
“I realized that the essence of my artwork is my ancestors’ past,” Jônatas said. “I [made the decision] to take their past and literally build artwork with their past, physically. I want to remove my [artistic influence] and actually feature whatever [once was].”
Rabbi Danny Shapiro, the Jewish chaplain at McAlister, introduced Jônatas and the work, marveling at Jônatas’ expansive family history.
“It is miraculous that [Jônatas] can stand before us today,” Shapiro said. “It required such dedication for his family to maintain their traditions for 500 years through persecution and secrecy. His personal story has inspired students to appreciate and be proud of identities that [were taken] for granted before.”
In addition to the warm rays literally illuminating the art space, the tent’s multi-dimensionality created a space that directly conveys a history and memory.
“My first impression of artwork is that it is sort of warm and sweet, fragmented and also authentic,” Vicky Hsing SC ’23 said. “The soft yellow lighting inside and family photography outside all illustrate a harmonious atmosphere even though [they had a complex] historical background. I have a sense of calmness while looking through those archives of family history.”
Each piece posted outside the tent was archival material — bullet points in Jônatas’ storied family timeline, each constructing something, Jônatas said as he pointed to some of the art pieces on the tent.
“This is the cover of an [inquisition] book, this is the [result of a] DNA test [and] this is the marriage certificate of my great-grandparents from Spain,” he said. “I realized each piece and document I was building always constructed something — I was building a shelter [and] I found safety.”
The whole interactive exhibit is a “live archive,” Jônatas said. Features like folk music, Jewish song and cultural smells are meant to evoke specific memories and resonate with people through creating a multi-sensory experience of nostalgia.
“The family was merchants, and a lot of them dealt with spices,” Jônatas said, lifting a sachet full of a spice blend affixed to the tent. “This is the smell they have. I want viewers to touch more and to be more palpable when you come to my heritage.”
Regardless of background, Jônatas’ artwork has the ability to resonate with a wide audience.
“I think the process of learning about one’s identity and thinking about [an identity’s] influences can relate to anyone,” Shapiro said.
Jônatas’ work brings some new voices and ideas to Claremont and also lets people think about both the Jewish and Latin American communities from a new angle.
“His work helps us see the diversity within the Jewish and Latinx community and gives us a deeper appreciation of communities that may be different from our own,” Shapiro said.
Speaking more specifically, Claremont Hillel President Rebecca Reisman SC ’21 hoped the exhibit showcased a lesser-represented Jewish voice.
“[Jônatas] helps people understand [that] Jewish identity is not monolithic,” Reisman said. “There are Jewish [people] from a lot of different backgrounds. … Even the Jewish community can have a better understanding of what we actually look like.”
Jônatas acknowledged the complexities of picking apart one’s history and reflecting on the culture of one’s family, admitting it can change one’s entire self-identity. Ultimately, though, you can come out the other side of it more understanding of your place in the world, Jônatas explained.
“We think we know who we are,” Jônatas said. “The more information you found about who you are, the more you change … The more you research, the more you realize the [many facets] of your identity. It [requires] a lot of courage to dig until I can no longer dig deeper — but I do not regret it.”