August 24, 2006
Can Artwork Mend Fences?
An exhibition of Palestinian embroidery at the Folk Art Museum garners visitors, raises questions
Before the Beirut airport closed during Israel's recent war with Hezbollah, a shipment of pillows, shawls and jackets sewn by Palestinian women living in Beirut refugee camps was sent off to Los Angeles' Craft and Folk Art Museum.
These objects, all exquisitely ornamented, were destined to become part of the exhibition, "Sovereign Threads: A History of Palestinian Embroidery," where they would share space with richly decorated fare dating from 1830 to the 1940s. The show opened last month as Israel fought Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas near the Gaza Strip border.
While images of bombed cities and wounded and suffering victims on all sides dominated the news, "Threads" offered a different window into the region: a rare opportunity to view Palestinian embroidery, considered among the finest in the world, in what is perhaps the first show of its kind in Los Angeles.
On display are gowns embellished with vivid crimsons and detailed geometrical designs, symbolizing a girl's maturation and readiness for marriage (muted clothing is reserved for matrons).
A married woman's headdress from 1930s Bethlehem sports a tall, conical cap studded with Ottoman coins, coral beads and silken embroidery -- all connected to the delicate silver jewelry that was intended to hang over her dress.
Other gowns glow with wide swathes of multicolored, iridescent silk or cotton cloth, covered with stitching so vibrant it appears to undulate. The colors include magentas, oranges, reds and golds; the meticulous patterns resemble Cyprus trees, double-edged combs or acanthus leaves and cups (symbolizing health and happiness), among other designs. Five circles on chest pieces from the once-Christian city of Ramallah represent Jesus and the four Apostles.
Additional new works are for sale in the museum's gift shop, with all proceeds to go toward human services in Palestinian refugee camps, museum director Maryna Hrushetska told The Journal.
"Threads" (which closes on Oct. 8) has proven so popular, she added, that museum attendance is up more than 25 percent. It's the latest success for an official who has helped put her once-imperiled institution on the map on Wilshire Boulevard's Museum Row, with well-received exhibitions, such as the current "Tigers and Jaguars: L.A.'s Asian-Latino Art Phenomenon" (through Oct. 29), which burst stereotypes about folk art. "Sovereign Threads" follows suit -- but it weaves a story that may raise eyebrows for some in the Jewish community. While the show does not overtly refer to the recent fighting near the Gaza Strip, or to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general, it subtly but unmistakably depicts the conflict from the Palestinian point of view.
The exhibition begins with a map of the region that makes no mention of Israel (it notes "Palestinian subdivisions according to the British Mandate," 1917-1948). A timeline in the show does not mention the ancient Israelite kingdoms, or the subsequent (and significant) Jewish presence in the Holy Land. Nor does it describe Arab offensives that precipitated at least two wars, as described by an analyst for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The omissions are significant, several analysts explained.
"All this effectively deligitimizes the historical Jewish presence in the land of Israel," said Yehudit Barsky, director of the division on the Middle East and international terrorism for the American Jewish Committee.
Barsky added that one exhibition sponsor, the A.M. Qattan Foundation also funds organizations such as the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee and Orient House, "the symbol of Palestinian aspirations for autonomy and solidarity in Israeli Occupied Jerusalem," according to the Web site, orienthouse.org. Even the title of the exhibition -- and Hrushetska's take on it -- suggests it crosses cultural boundaries into the realm of advocacy for the Palestinians and their cause.
"The term 'sovereign' describes self-rule, autonomy, and independence -- all still painfully absent for Palestinians in the political sphere," Hrushetska wrote in the "Threads" brochure. "However, from a cultural perspective, the term takes on a more comprehensive meaning.... The costumes and embroidery on display are living records of Palestinian 'cultural sovereignty'.... As they revive a culture in peril, the Palestinian women who create contemporary embroidery in refugee camps are also preserving their own imperiled dignity."
When asked whether the show is biased, Hrushetska doesn't entirely say no. She ties "Threads" to a continuing debate among curators over what has come to be called "the politics of representation": Just who gets to tell a people's story? The debate emerged in sharp focus when museums attempted to describe Native American history from a United States perspective some years ago, Hrushetska said.
"As a curatorial policy, if I'm going to show somebody's culture, I will show it from their perspective -- that's the only authentic way," Hrushetska said. "If we did a history of Israeli embroidery, how would the Jewish community feel if Palestinians narrated it?"
Hrushetska, who grew up in Chicago and is in her late 30s, is quick to acknowledge that she is an unconventional museum director. Her background is in international relations, not art history or museum management. She believes that most people mistakenly view folk art as "quaint, nostalgic or something their grandparents used to do."
She wishes to help reframe traditional art in a contemporary, relevant light, while promoting cross-cultural understanding in Los Angeles and around the globe.
Yet such issues were far from her mind when she caught her first glimpse of Palestinian textiles 18 months ago, around the time she arrived at the museum. The setting was the ultramodern Venice home of 75-year-old artist Huguette Caland -- daughter of Lebanon's first president, Bishara al Khuri -- who is known for her own artwork, as well as for opening her home to salons frequented by Los Angeles' cultural community. In a corner of Caland's vast studio, Hrushetska spotted a brown velvet chaise lounge covered with pillows embroidered by Palestinian women in Beirut refugee camps.
Hrushetska, a Ukrainian American who grew up in a house filled with her grandmother's embroidery, immediately assumed the pillows were Ukrainian. "Even though I consider myself a globalist, I defaulted to my own heritage," she said.
But she learned that her connection wasn't completely off mark: Eastern Orthodox Christians (including Ukrainians) reportedly made pilgrimages to Bethlehem, via Ramallah, from the 15th century onward. Some purchased embroidery samples as souvenirs of the Holy Land, which later entered the visual language of Ukrainian decor.
Caland told Hrushetska her pillows were created in workshops sponsored by the Association for the Development of Palestinian Camps (best known by its Arabic language acronym, INAASH), a United Nations non-governmental organization co-founded by Caland in 1969. INAASH provides refugee women with embroidery materials so they can supplement their incomes through international sale of their handiwork, Caland said.
"Because I'm very sensitive to the plight of women in conflict and war, I decided we need to show this work,'" Hrushetska told The Journal. She believes the work deserves to be shown, as well, because "Palestinian embroidery and costumes are known as some of the most beautiful in the folk art world."
Through Caland and other Arab American contacts, Hrushetska obtained funding for the exhibition (she declines to name the amount) and a curator, Hanan Karaman Munayyer, who has studied and collected Palestinian costumes (along with her husband, Farah) since 1987.
The exhibition concludes with a video depicting women sewing in an INAASH workshop: "Our financial situation is hardly bearable, that's why we are working," one participant says on camera.
"After six or seven hours, I can hardly hold the needle," another woman says. The museum gift shop has already sold almost $15,000 worth of their handiwork, Hrushetska said; a number of items remain for sale, although the embroiderers ceased working during the recent fighting and were unable to send additional fare while the Beirut airport was closed. (It has now reopened.)
So how can prospective buyers be sure their money will not fund anti-Israel causes? Hrushetska responds that INAASH is recognized as a U.N.-sanctioned organization. (The group did sign onto a letter calling for the Palestinian right of return, according to the Web site administered by Al-Awda -- The Palestinian Right of Return Coalition.)
When asked if "Threads" could be perceived as unfair, even irresponsible during a time when Israel is at war with Hamas and Hezbollah, Hrushetska emphasized that the show was conceived long before the current crisis.
"But enough of this," she added. "I know the history of the region, and this and that U.N. resolution, and I'm tired of it. These conflicts will only diminish when we start to humanize each other.... I think that this is an important exhibition for people to see so they start to humanize Palestinians.
"This show is not about the history of blame," she added. "It's about recognizing the dire situation that these women are in, not making a judgment on how they got there. It's saying, 'These women deserve to be recognized, because they've created something beautiful and relevant.'"
A panel discussion, "Culture, Conflict and Identity," in conjunction with the "Threads" exhibition, will take place Sept. 17 at the Goethe-Institute, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 100, Los Angeles. (323) 937-4230.