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  • Something Alive Appears
  • Hannah Altman (bio)

My mom believes that her late mother visits us intermittently in the form of a ladybug. I have no idea where her theory stems from, and admittedly when she first shared this notion with me, my first thought was mostly wondering if Jews even have thoughts on reincarnation. Turns out, they do; kabbalists call it ibbur, in which a deceased soul spiritually impregnates a living soul temporarily. I am not sure if my mom is conscious of this theology, but in any case, she told me about her ladybug theory about three months after her own mother died—three months after tearing clothing, sitting shiva, a stranger planting a tree in her honor in Israel, my father similarly planting a tree in our front yard.

This theory emerged a year later during a conversation with another Jewish artist, talking about my work—a conversation about photography and time repeating itself through Jewish experience. It was interrupted by an awed sigh that moved from her mouth: “Woah woah woah. Hang on. A ladybug just appeared in your hair” (Figure 1). We looked at each other, a pointed silence. She took a photo, walked me over to the open window, and lifted its body to the fresh air. I was looking at the photo later that afternoon, and was reminded of my mom, of her mom, of ibbur, this impregnation of one soul by another, creating this constant interconnected narrative.

My photographic work explores ideas and practices of the body, of family lineage, and of Jewish storytelling. Much of this stems from a self-portrait project that my mother and I have been developing over the last five years called Indoor Voices (2015-present). The project is an exploration of womanhood, performative feminine behavior, and the ways in which learned action is carried down from mother to daughter.

These themes have encouraged my mom and I to use this project as a healing space to be able to tell stories, particularly that of an image titled In Her Childhood Home While Her Mother Lay Dying (Figure 2), made in [End Page 34] 2017 as my grandmother, our spiritually impregnated ladybug, was dying of cancer after a long struggle. We made critical, therapeutic work during the year after her death, and within these works a balance developed between the memory of the portrayed and the photographic portrayal of a story itself. Such balance, this oscillation between action and remembered action, became a central interest for both Indoor Voices as well as the work that would become my Masters in Fine Arts thesis, Kavana, a photographic project about performing Jewish action and memory.

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Figure 1.

Photograph of a ladybug in my hair

material artifacts

At the time that this work started to manifest, I had just moved to Richmond to pursue my degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, and was often travelling home to New Jersey. My family spent a lot of [End Page 35] time clearing out my grandma’s closets, getting lost in documents of her memory. We found yellowed handwritten notes describing her time as a Holocaust refugee seeking asylum in Cuba. We also found notes that seemingly described nothing at all, possible descriptions of gifts and objects long past their physicality. There were stacks of photographs taken after she immigrated to America: images posing my mom as a child, images of my mom pregnant with me, and onward. I kept returning to the mildewy smell, deciphering, and keeping a firm grip on objects that nodded towards the answer to whatever my digging was asking. Notably, there was a lot of Judaica: Hebrew necklaces, kiddush cups, artwork. I started using these objects in new work, perhaps as a form of healing and sharing in the way that Indoor Voices seeks to bring solace.

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Figure 2.

In Her Childhood Home While Her Mother Lay Dying, 2017.

The Judaica functioned like an active intersection; an active connection to my grandmother, my past, and a connection to myself, my present. There is a concept within Jewish cultural life called collective memory, the idea that all...


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