The craft of embroidery is taken to new levels in “Embroidered Scaffolds,” the latest exhibit from Studio of Her Own, a collective of religious Jewish female artists showing their works through March 11 at Jerusalem’s Hansen House Center for Design, Media and Technology.
The exhibit, which is also called “Tara” — Arabic for embroidery hoops — is the result of a two-year project in which the Jewish women shared a needlework circle with Muslim women embroiderers, finding common ground in their craft.
The works were created by a cohort of women who took embroidery to places that are both obvious and hidden, said curator Gaby Hamburg Fima.
“This whole exhibit deals with double meanings, embroidery that is both the craft of needlework and of human tissue,” said Fima, referring to the two meanings of rikma, a Hebrew word that means embroidery as well as connective tissue of the body.
“There’s so much connective tissue in the body, and the connective tissue between the diaphragm and pelvic floor is where everything happens for women. The exhibit acts as a kind of connective tissue in a reality of conflict and separation.”
The exhibit was part of a long-term endeavor for the group of women, who worked steadily together for two years in East Jerusalem.
Each of the women whose work is being shown in the exhibit created their artwork as a result of their time spent in the Israeli-Palestinian needlework circle, though no individual piece is a joint collaboration.
The cool, high-ceilinged rooms of the Hansen House gallery, originally hospital rooms in this former leper colony, display delicately embroidered portraits of women in repose by Miryam Vilner, and traditional tapestries and a table of embroidered dresses by Safika Abu Tir, Sana Abu Tir and Huddah Alian, available to feel and touch.
Fima hung Avigail Freid’s rich tapestry of woven threads and strings from a gallery archway, in order to make both front and back of the piece visible.
Under a glass cake dome sits a collection of embroidered dreidels by Lea Bruckenthal, while nearby hangs another embroidered work by Bruckenthal of the various parts of the red anemone, a treasured spring flower in Israel whose color can recall a woman’s monthly cycle.
Each woman’s artwork reveals a facet of her life and work in the exhibit, which includes a collage of antique books by Heddy Abramowitz, her embroidery stemming from the threads emerging from the cloth cover of the book, and unsparing portraits of solo women by Miryam Vilner, carefully detailed in embroidery on muslin cloth.
The Jewish women produced a range of artworks, each of which included some form of embroidery, while the works of the Muslim women were traditional embroidery projects, including dresses, decorative pillows, hangings and tapestries.
Still, said Fima, she chose to approach all the projects as a curator and treat all the participating women as artists.
The exhibit is an important part of the group’s process, said Fima — connections were quickly formed, and these offered power to all the women.
The project was begun to connect the women, said Zipi Mizrachi, an art history teacher who founded and directs Studio of Her Own.
“There are women who do these crafts without recognition, and through women’s embroidery, traditions are passed from generation to generation,” said Mizrachi. “The goal was to show that thread and needle can tie women who would otherwise never meet. They live in the same city, have no common language but have a lot in common.”
“They’re on the wall, and they gain courage from that,” she said. “There was a place to listen to people who aren’t necessarily like you, and to have the same measure of attention given to everyone.”
Mizrachi first worked as an art history teacher in religious girls’ schools. She had begun researching the connections between art and religion when she decided to put together the collective.
“There’s nothing new about teaching art to pluralistic Jews, but for the ultra-religious, it’s different,” said Mizrachi. “There’s a fear of working alone in the religious world, and artistry requires solo work. By working together, they gain a measure of courage and willpower.”
Some 40 female artists are part of Studio of Her Own, women at different stages of life and career.
“We don’t pressure them,” said Mizrachi. “They’re getting married and having kids and some are getting divorced and some are single moms and they’re building their families.”
The emphasis is on working together to get their work shown, sometimes against the wishes of their families or communities.
There have been more than 30 group exhibits from the collective, in Israel and abroad, as well as the current “Embroidered Scaffolds.” The group has another exhibit coming up in March at Haifa’s Beit HaGeffen, featuring artists from three mixed cities, Haifa, Lod and Jerusalem, examining female life and artistry under the umbrella of a religious lifestyle.
As part of their continuing embroidery project, the group also travels throughout Israel, visiting embroidery collectives in the Arab sector in which women have used their skills to create small businesses.
“We talk a lot about multi-generational embroidery,” said Mizrachi. “Grandmothers would sometimes come to the circle, as well as their daughters-in-law, and we’d talk about how tradition and knowledge gets saved and shared from generation to generation.”
Mizrachi likened the passing of skills and knowledge to sharing a recipe that bears the name of its creator.
“What we pass on exists for years, and receives an identity,” she said. “There’s also the messages and subversive messages that get passed in embroidery, and we wanted to take that, hang it up and show what people have been working on.”
“Embroidered Scaffolds” opened February 14 and closes March 11, 2019. On February 26, the exhibit will host a sale and embroidery circle, with a conversation between the embroiderers, artists and public at 5 p.m.