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Provocative Textiles

“Domestic arts” was the pejorative term used for centuries. It relegated to the home the creativity of endless generations of women artists excluded from professional and academic training. In 1972, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro founded Womanhouse, a program at the California Institute of the Arts to nurture women and challenge the stereotypes that had frustrated their efforts to acquire a fine arts education.

A Stitch in Jewish Time: Provocative Textiles, an exhibition of the Hebrew Union College Museum in New York, features 44 artists, 36 of them women, all working in fiber: textiles, stitching, weaving and fabric collage. The legacy of Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago shines through with powerful examples from each of these germinal artists. Schapiro, who incorporates fabric collage in most of her spectacular paintings, coined the eclectic word femmage to describe her trademark use of lace, embroideries, brocade and luxurious textiles in her paintings. (Schapiro’s term has even made it into the august Oxford English Dictionary.)

The only drawing in this exhibition is of a seated woman stitching the Nazi-mandated yellow star onto a family member’s garment. How were these hated badges of persecution actually sewn onto clothing? Judy Chicago compels the viewer to realize that it was the mothers, daughters, sisters of the household who were likely the ones to carry out this heinous project. Soshanna Comet, a survivor of a horrific strafing while hiding in a grain field, allows the viewer to share her memories through an open-loom weaving of the flames of terror burning down. Lisa Rosowsky strikes an elegiac note on behalf of the victims of the Holocaust in a multi-piece installation of silk-screened and other fabrics.

There are powerful themes expressed in this fine art exhibition: social justice, history, memory, interpretation of text and ritual observances. Quilted fabric wall hangings by the collaborative artists Leslie Golomb and Louise Silk address the injustice of slavery and the conundrum of Southern Jewish slave owners during the Civil War. A family is depicted celebrating a traditional Passover seder; in the background, a “house slave” stands in attendance as the family recites “This is the bread of our affliction… we were slaves….” These works ask how people refused to recognize the implicit parallels of the situation.

Helène Aylon, a rigorous feminist, embroiders a memory, a salute to her predecessors, on a challah cover. “Coat of the Agunah,” by Andi Arnovitz, is a woman’s garment created from hundreds of sewntogether scraps and fragments of marriage contracts, calling attention to the situation of many Orthodox women locked in failed or abusive marriages: the sleeves and hem are sewn shut. Referencing a text from the Talmud, Jacqueline Nicholls, an Orthodox British fiber artist, used British millinery fabric to create a Torah mantle as a corset in the shape of a pregnant woman’s torso. The piece is based on a text that poetically describes the fetus as learning Torah from an angel whilst in the womb.

This resonant collection of dramatically wonderful textile pieces may come to a museum near you soon. Watch for it at www.huc.edu/museums/ny.