Can Art Bring Our Memories Alive

SKIN-4: a unique multimedia art exploration of our living connection to ancestors

by figurative painter Zhenya Gershman, renowned photographer Michele Mattei, and Oscar nominated filmmaker Carlos A. Hurtado

written by Sasha Yamnik (Subject of SKIN-4 launched by project AWE)

Image: Family photo archive, Sasha Yamnik with her grandfather Misha

I hold enormous amounts of pride in my family's history. The stories begin with my grandfather Misha's survival and his courageous acts of rescue during World War II, which allowed multiple families to continue their lineage. His perseverance through discrimination and poverty in the former Soviet Union and then eventual flight in search of a better life in America. These are all stories that I will never forget and an immigration that holds a permanent imprint on my life. Yet I fear these stories may be forgotten with the generations to come. Taking on this project became an opportunity for me to continue the connection of my family's powerful past with the child who will embody the spirit of generations before.

As a midwife by profession, I am used to being a sort of guide as new souls enter this world to join the families they have chosen. I was curious to see what would happen when the image of my own ancestors would be painted on the skin of my nearly 9 month pregnant belly. I had no idea what an incredible impact this project was going to have on me. As I was watched the image of my grandfather's face painted on my body, I felt a sense of pride and incredible joy to be able to reconnect with him again. As I moved my body, I could feel him present with me and my sons. What a beautiful gift that was.

Michele Mattei (Photographer, collaborator on SKIN-4)

"I felt that my focus could never be sharp enough to penetrate the details of the experience... I wanted the camera to be part of this transformation, to record the moment when the paint and the flesh melted together. The skin was not only a canvas but a living flesh, carrying its layers of history."

When the painting was complete, I marveled at how real it seemed and ran my hand across my belly, caressing my son's and his great grandparent's faces. For a moment, I felt the energetic oneness that was connecting the past and the future, within my body. As I was entranced with my thoughts, my son within began to move. He gently rolled his body to follow my hand back and forth as I stroked the belly. I had never had this experience in either of my pregnancies. Such rhythmic movement of his body within mine, reacting and following the movement of my hand. It is difficult to find words to describe this feeling but it literally took my breath away. It felt almost as if he had chosen our family and at that very moment we were all one, on every imaginable level.

Zhenya Gershman (Artist and Creator of SKIN-4)

"It was unlike any other painting experience: the stomach was changing temperature, radiating waves of soothing heat towards me. I felt the baby move and respond to the brush, swimming in response to my movement. I was watching an image being born, making the invisible visible."

I couldn't help but grieve each time that the beautiful paintings were erased off my skin as if they never existed. Yet I knew deep down that even with the impermanence of this project, the connection I felt will remain. SKIN-4 launched by project AWE is funded by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, in partnership with Genesis Philanthropy Group and The Jewish Agency for Israel

all images: Michele Mattei Photography, Zhenya Gershman Painting, Sasha Yamnik Model