Silence is Gold: Etchings from acclaimed Argentinean artist

Bela Gold stands in the sunny third-floor art gallery on Folsom Street, surrounded by her own outsized canvasses suspended from the ceiling. Even she seems to be a bit awed by the work, not out of any misplaced vanity but out of respect for the dead her art commemorates.

“Everything here is a gravestone,” she says of “Silence,” the name of her solo exhibition now on display through Sept. 2 at the Mexican Consulate inSan Francisco.

Some of Gold’s work does resemble grave rubbings, but instead of ancient headstones she draws on the nondescript documents of the Holocaust handwritten letters, identity papers, telegrams, newspaper ads, passports and even luggage tags- to exhume the horrors of that time.

“These are the last remains,” she says of her source materials. “The persons are gone. This is what is left. Documents are the most important testimony of what was done. You can’t erase it. I have to be humble working with these materials.”

Through the process of “photo-etching” (in which images of the documents are transferred onto copper plates, followed by an acid wash), Gold creates exquisitely textured surfaces, with the lettering –– some German, some Hebrew, some English- fading into view like ghosts.

One is called “St. Louis,” named for the ill-fated ship that carried Jewish refugees to Cuba in 1939, only to be turned back to Nazi-occupied Europe, with many of its passengers doomed.

Others include “The Book of Memory” and “Totenbuch” Paul Celan’s Holocaust poem “Fugue of Death” (“Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night/we drink you at noon/death comes as a master from Germany”).

“I have been very concerned about the Holocaust all my life,” says the Argentine-born artist now living in Mexico City. “It was important for me to say I am very involved in Jewish culture and Jewish identity. It is my first priority.”

Her passion is inborn, thanks to an Orthodox upbringing from her parents, both wartime refugees from Eastern Europe. As a youth, Gold became an ardent Zionist, eventually living in Israel for nine years. There she studied at Jerusalem’s famed Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, later relocating back to Argentina, then Brazil and finally Mexico where she has lived and worked for 27 years.

Gold also teaches art at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana in Mexico City. She has won numerous awards over the years and has shown her work in Poland, Cuba, Chile, the U.S., Mexico and the Czech Republic . She and her cardiologist husband have two grown children.

Although much of her work, especially recently, revolves around Jewish themes, Gold bristles whenever anyone tries to label her. “I don’t want to be labeled a Jewish artist who deals with Jewish stories,” she says. “I want to be considered an artist with a universal proposition.”

Still, her latest work is sure to arouse strong feelings, in both Jewish and non-Jewish viewers. And with two nephews now serving in the Israel Defense Forces, she takes seriously all threats to the Jewish people. “This [exhibition] is a loud shout against anti-Semitism,” she says.

When asked about the irony of that statement, given the title of the exhibition, Gold says, “Sometimes you can say the same thing with a loud silence. You don’t have to scream. They did all the screaming.”

“Silence” by artist Bela Gold is on display through Sept. 2, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, at the Consulate General of Mexico, 532 Folsom St., S.F. Admission is free. Information: (415) 354-1721.

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