Going on an artistic journey with a needle

Artist Batia Shani hand-embroidered robes for acclaimed artist Marina Abramovic and distinguished architect and urban planner Moshe Safdie.

 BATIA SHANI and her hand-embroidered robes (photo credit: YANIV KOPPEL)
BATIA SHANI and her hand-embroidered robes
(photo credit: YANIV KOPPEL)

Acclaimed artist Marina Abramovic and distinguished architect and urban planner Moshe Safdie were awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Haifa, on November 10. During the ceremony, both laureates were given hand-embroidered robes created by artist Batia Shani.

“My connection to Haifa University has reached its peak with the arrival of Marina Abramovic and awarding her with an honorary doctorate, as well as our donation for the establishment of a gallery at the university,” says Batia Shani. “I was born and raised in Haifa and I studied at the university,” she adds.

“I was first introduced to Marina Abramovic and her important work when I lived in New York. Her work was one of my discoveries. I knew I could not follow in her artistic footsteps but I really appreciated her work as a female artist. She has no limits. There’s nothing stopping her. I am a mother and a wife and I feel I cannot be as free to commit to my art as she does but I am a big fan.”

“My work is intuitive. I let the needle guide me. I call it taking a journey with the needle. Except for the parts where I embroider texts.”

Batia Shani

When Abramovic agreed to come to Haifa and the whole process was set in motion, the university approached Shani and invited her to be a part of the project. “I am familiar with these ceremonies. I was given the honor of presenting the honorary award to Professor Alice Shalvy a couple of years ago, so as soon as the university approached me, I had a vision of the robe. I knew I wanted to embroider the robe for Marina.

 MARINA ABRAMOVIC and Moshe Safdie with their robes (credit: YANIV KOPPEL) MARINA ABRAMOVIC and Moshe Safdie with their robes (credit: YANIV KOPPEL)

“I employ used garments as part of my artwork. Usually, I use worn clothes that have experienced life. The robe is not made from a used garment but I wanted to present it to Marina as a token of my appreciation. To my delight, the university loved the idea. So during the summer months, I dropped everything else I was working on and dedicated my time to creating the robe. I took it with me wherever I was,” she says. “My work is intuitive. I let the needle guide me. I call it taking a journey with the needle. Except for the parts where I embroider texts.”

What was embroidered on the robes?

The robe is very impressive and colorful with inspirational sentences, such as “Freedom is a state of mind” and “Art is not what you see but what you make others see”, as well as “Performance in a stitch.” The pattern is intricate and warm, reminiscing folk embroidery with warm coloring with a lot of red, orange, yellow and pink. “Like Marina, I too love red. After creating the color palate with the threads, I embroidered the sentences and in between I just let my needle lead me.”

The texts include ideas such as “Freedom is a state of mind” and "Performance in a stitch” or “Art is not what you see but what you make others see” and more, all stitched by hand in red. “I had no intention of using harsh messages, but to hug the artist. I wanted her to feel hugged. 

“Since the acclaimed architect and urban planner Moshe Safdie received an honorary Doctorate at the same ceremony, I was approached by the university and asked to prepare a robe for him too. Of course, I agreed. How could I say no?”

Shani’s approach to Safdie’s robe was different. “I feel less emotionally connected to him but, of course, I appreciate his work and immediately went to work.”

The result is both different and similar to the robe prepared for Abramovic. 

“There are so many quotes that deal with the subject of home, so I asked my son to help and we found a great quote from the book of Proverbs and I embroidered the sentence in Hebrew. With the robe I made for Marina, the message was very personal. I do not know Safdie personally, so I was apprehensive at first. But what came out shows respect. It is an homage to him.”