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The Evolution of a Symbol: A SpeakEasy for Ganesh Versus the Third Reich

A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker Art Center tour guide and a local performer or choreographer. Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, February 2, about Back to Back Theatre‘s Ganesh Versus the Third Reich. This SpeakEasy was led by tour guide Mary Dew and local arts […]

A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker Art Center tour guide and a local performer or choreographer. Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, February 2, about Back to Back Theatre‘s Ganesh Versus the Third Reich. This SpeakEasy was led by tour guide Mary Dew and local arts and culture guru from Salon Saloon, Andy Sturdevant.

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A symbol designates our most powerful feelings, beliefs, and commitments. How can a single image symbolize totally opposed world-views? For a millennia the swastika was a symbol of auspiciousness in Indian religions, but it most recently symbolized murderous hatred. Once we are aware of this, what do we see when we see the swastika? Can it be both? Can it be anything but both? A symbol has a reference, it has significance, and these change over time. The swastika has gone through several evolutions in meaning before its appropriations by the Nazis. In addition to its meaning in Indian religions, the swastika represents the octopus that created the world in native Panamanian culture, and has been found on numerous artifacts from Africa, to ancient Greece, and in European antiquity. Does the association with Nazi Germany atrophy the swastika’s development as a symbol in Western culture?

(1) 150px-HinduSwastika.svg (2) 220px-Samarra_bowl (3) 150px-Swastika_iran (4) 70px-Chromesun_4_uktenas_design southeastern ceremonial complex (5) 200px-Jewish_swastika (6) 190px-Lentosotakoulu.svg latvian airforce (7) 150px-Flag_of_the_NSDAP_(1920–1945).svg

In Saturday’s SpeakEasy, audience members discussed whether a symbol could be retrieved from the cruelty it once inspired. The play was powerful enough that the audience was willing to humor the idea that the swastika could be a positive image. The discussion showed this in two ways: an analysis of power and a conversation about the use of images in print and media. The play expanded what the audience was willing to think about, and they talked about it several ways. They talked about the ability of a symbol to change: can it ever change? Or does significance accumulate? Can it be relieved of any of its past usage, or forever be burdened by all of its appropriations? These questions were the theoretical starting points for the audience and included playful imaginings of whether an ad campaign could adopt the image of the swastika without international backlash. While the speculation was far-reaching, ultimately audience members felt that symbols are so powerful that we cannot predict how they will transform in the future (while as the play demonstrated, symbols are transformed all the time).