Mae Rockland Tupa created this work in 1974. It is a Hanukkah lamp, designed to hold eight candles for the holiday of Hanukkah, with an additional ninth light to be used as the shamash, or helper light. Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the Jews against the Greeks in a fight for religious freedom more than 2,000 years ago. Beyond the need for eight flames, there are few requirements for a Hanukkah lamp. Artists over the years have experimented with a wide range of materials and designs.
Tupa constructed this lamp from a few pieces of wood, eight Statues of Liberty purchased in Times Square souvenir shops, and some small store-bought American flags. Birthday-candle holders have been glued into the torches of the statues, and the last six lines of Emma Lazarus’s poem "The New Colossus" are stenciled on the base and shamash. The work recalls assemblage art of the 1950s and ’60s. Assemblage artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg incorporated everyday, found objects into their work. Like Tupa, Johns appropriated an American icon for his famous flag paintings, challenging the way we look at familiar symbols.
Tupa’s lamp reflects her view that "just as Jews have become an integral part of the American scene, so can a classical American symbol be used to express a Jewish theme" (Rockland, The Hanukkah Book, p. 46). In creating this work, Tupa also incorporates memories of a Hanukkah performance she participated in as a child at a Sunday school in the Bronx:
Eight of us, draped in sheets, wearing paper crowns, holding books in our left hands and candles in our right, were lined up across the stage. A ninth child (the shamash) lit our candles one at a time. As she did so we raised our candles in the air and recited a line from Emma Lazarus’s poem "The New Colossus": "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore." The parents wept, and we were proud. Because that poem was us. Our parents had immigrated to the Land of the Free, the Goldene Medina [Golden Land]. We were the wretched refuse and we were breathing free. It was a great feeling. (Rockland, The Hanukkah Book, pp. 45–46)
Tupa originally faced the statues in alternating directions so the lamp would not have a front or back. But in positioning the statues, she realized that the work had also become a commentary on the history of American immigration policy. The forward- and backward-facing statues recall those times when Miss Liberty served as a beacon to newcomers, as well as those historical periods during which she turned away and America closed its doors.
Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Mae Rockland Tupa now lives in Princeton, New Jersey. She is an experienced graphic and textile artist and has explored the intersection of these two media in works such as Hanukkah Lamp: Miss Liberty.