In this painting the artist takes the viewer into the very heart of the incineration furnaces of the death factories that were meticulously constructed by the Nazis to turn millions of Jews of all ages to ashes, with industrial efficiency, and with them Sinti, Roma and homosexuals of all faiths.
The central image of the painting is one of the 66 coal-fired incineration muffle furnaces which the German engineering company J.A. Topf and Sons (J.A. Topf und Söhne) purpose-designed and installed in mass crematoria facilities constructed by the Nazis for the purpose of systematic mass murder. These were installed at the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Buchenwald, Belzec, Dachau, Mauthausen and Gusen, 46 of which were operated at Auschwitz alone. The highest daily number of people gassed and cremated by the Nazis in the 5 crematoria at Auschwitz was 24 000 during the extermination of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.
Abigail’s focus in this work is not on the grisly death scenes and unspeakable horrors that are evoked when witnessing the death paraphernalia which the Nazi’s meticulously devised. Rather, her concern is with the souls of the victims, as can be seen from the delicate single butterfly at the fiery epicentre of the painting that has settled momentarily on the ‘bed’ of the foreboding oven that historically served as the receptacle for the countless corpses that were piled onto it, three or more at a time, before being shoved into the fiery retort and incinerated.
The butterfly is an enduring symbol of human transformation that has served for thousands of years as a bridge between different domains of reality. Abigail uses the transition from caterpillar to butterfly as a metaphor for the process by which the victims of the death camps emerged into the afterlife as spiritual beings liberated from the terrible circumstances of their human deaths, and the incineration of their bodies in the ovens. The title of the work is a play on the dual meaning of the word “alight”.
In this way Abigail communicates her vision to the viewers through a hint that stimulates their intuition. Abigail’s mystical perception of this metamorphosis of the victims is as confusing to our comprehension as the transformation of the dormant caterpillar in its chrysalis into a new and very different kind of creature, a glorious winged butterfly. But for Abigail it is just as real. Her message of the ascendancy of the spirits of the victims over their earthly murderers and tormentors is enhanced by the striking contrast between the fragile, fleeting nature of the butterfly at the centre of the work and the substantial and resilient nature of the industrial oven on which it has momentarily settled, which still stands forebodingly in its place more than 70 years later.
The oven is surrounded by a smoky blue colour in which the souls of the victims who emerge from the ashes whirl around the flaming core in schematic rotation. Their ghostlike figures with numbered tattoos on their arms encircle the furnace with a presence that acts as metaphor for the unspeakable reality. Abigail does not accept their destruction as final, but depicts her vision of gilgul neshamot, the eternal cycle of souls. Further butterflies arise from the horror scene of the Shoah as symbols of transformation.