A creative grassroots approach to discovering the common interests between Jews and Arabs is on display at Hansen House in Jerusalem.
The “Embroidered Scaffolds” exhibition, curated by Gaby Hamburg Fima, presents a collection of art – mostly embroidery – created by Jewish and Muslim religious women. In Hebrew, the exhibit is called Rikmat Hibur (Connective Tissue).
“In its purely physiological definition, the term refers to tissue that supports organs or other tissues,” explained Fima. “One of the functions of such tissue is to provide structural support to other tissues, as well as to connect, separate, protect or cushion them.”
The exhibition, she said, also seeks to act as a sort of connective tissue in a reality of conflict and separation, as it sums up and examines a series of meetings that took place over the past almost three years between Jewish and Palestinian women artists and craftswomen who come from across the religious and political spectrum.
“On the surface, this would seem to be a fruitless meeting between two groups among which dialogue could hardly be imagined, owing to their different sociological situations and the language barrier between them,” said Fima. “However, during the long process, we realized that it really was possible to begin to find common ground and even create delicate and intimate connections.
“The exhibition reveals how the women’s feminine, national and religious identities are bound up in and even overlap with one another,” she continued.
The exhibit is spearheaded by Studio of Her Own and its founder, Zipi Mizrachi.
Studio of Her Own was originally started in 2010 to provide religious women artists with the most necessary basic needs for professional and economic advancement: work space, basic business education, marketing tools, a supportive environment for professional feedback and the development of a wider professional artistic network for continued career development. Over the past decade, the women have put on more than 30 exhibitions. This is the first one with Arab artists.
Mizrachi said the exhibit is meant to elevate the craft of embroidery and to leverage art as a tool to promote social change.
AT HANSEN HOUSE, the artwork of the Palestinian embroiderers is intertwined with that of the Jewish artists, on the walls and tables and even hanging from the ceiling. Pieces range from traditional embroidery and responses to the act of embroidery, and even to embroidery that is done by a three-dimensional printer.
Fima said that when she was first asked to curate this exhibit, she struggled to find a connection between the pieces. At one point, she considered asking the women to work on a communal project. Ultimately, she determined that would be superficial. Instead, she found the “thin and delicate threads” that interweave the artists and their works.
On one wall, for example, a black-and-white sketch by Yael Serlin displays a woman with a large hoop earring, which is the focal point of the piece. On the adjacent wall, Fima hung a pair of earrings made by one of the Arab artists, and nearby is a three-dimensional depiction of embroidery hoops.
In another area of the exhibition, there is a Palestinian wedding scene hung prominently on the wall.
“I felt like, in that piece, you see a wedding, but it also looks like they are going out to war,” Fima said. “I thought about the concept of marriage and relationships and how on the one hand this is such a happy scene, but on the other marriage is complex and challenging.”
Next to it, Fima displayed a work by a Jewish artist that uses military handkerchiefs that include an amulet the artist had designed for her husband when he went to war in 1969. And near that, there are two flour sifters embroidered with a depiction of embryos – the circle of life.
“It’s the connection between man and woman or the intense connection between us and the Palestinians,” said Fima, describing it as potentially beautiful but also “full of bloodshed.”
The exhibition likewise centers on the idea of passing down the craft of embroidery from generation to generation.
“In the past, when women passed down the knitting craft, they were passing down the identity and essence of the family,” Mizrachi said.
This is especially true in the Arab world.
Two sisters from Sur Bahir, situated at the southern edge of east Jerusalem, have several pieces in the exhibition. For her interview with In Jerusalem, Sana Abu Tir dressed in an embroidered dress her mother had made 60 years ago. She explained how the patterns were traditional to her tribe in Ramallah. Today, she said, much of the Palestinian embroidery is done with more modern patterns.
Abu Tir and her sister Shafika grew up around embroidery. Shafika recalled how her mother used to embroider everything from the curtains to the pillow cases and all their clothes. There were even specially embroidered garments for weddings and other celebrations.
The women said their mother started knitting when she was 10 after her own mother fell in the fields one day and broke her arms. Their mother quit school and helped around the house, including with the sewing. When she married, her husband told her she no longer had to work so hard, but embroidery was in her soul.
“She used to send me to the thread store to pick out the colors she needed,” Sana recalled, noting how her mother was very exacting in her art, and that she passed on that eye for detail to her girls.
While many of their contemporaries abandoned the old craft, Shafika said she became obsessed with it. She collects antique embroidery and describes her house almost as a museum or shrine to those works. She herself became an active artist and takes classes and participates in local exhibitions.
At Hansen House, a row of Arab dresses sits on a table, ready to be touched and felt. Fima said she displayed the dresses in this way – as opposed to being hung or on a mannequin – so that the chest embroidery would be most prominent. She said it is the most beautiful part of the dress, but also serves as a shield or cover-up for these women.
EMBROIDERY IN general is nuanced and layered, said Fima, and in this exhibit “there are a lot of paradoxes.”
Take the work of Avigail Fried, which hangs from the ceiling in the center of the room.
“From far, the piece looks happy and fun,” Fried said. “But when you get closer, you realize that intertwined between the layers of threads are dog tags of IDF soldiers.
“The security situation is always impacting our lives,” she said. “It is a collage of prayers, of the joy of our daily lives but also the army and the terror that fills our lives here in Israel.”
It is an ironic piece in such an exhibit, though so is the reality that when the group first started meeting, the women from east Jerusalem were afraid to travel to west Jerusalem, said artist Heddy Abramowitz.
“In the beginning, with the knife intifada, there was a young girl shot because she was carrying a pair of scissors,” Abramowitz recalled, referencing the November 2016 incident in which two Palestinian teenage girls armed with scissors carried out a terrorist attack near Mahaneh Yehuda market in central Jerusalem. The girls slashed at a passerby before police approached the scene with guns drawn and ultimately shot them.
These artists are not willing to accept that faith must divide.
“People think that religion is something that separates us,” said Mizrachi, that it makes big troubles. But if we have appropriate religious leaders, they can bring us toward each other and a different reality.”
Shafika said that the “personal relations between two people should not be affected by whether someone is Arab or Jewish,” and that the Hansen House exhibit shows two contrasting yet comparable sides of the same city.
“That is the message that we want to get out to the world, that is the vision,” said Shafika. “It starts with this one exhibit, but we want to see it grow.”The exhibition is open to the public. There will be a joint conversation between the embroiderers and artists of Studio of Her Own with the public on February 26 at 5 p.m. and a catalogue launch, performance and exhibition closing on March 11 at 7 p.m.
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