Scent of a Secret
Dr. Hadara Scheflan-Katzav
My visit to Odelia Elhanani’s exhibition, Scent of a Secret,
began with a look at the back of the piece installed in the center of the gallery space. On view was a huge tapestry comprised of 30 squares, completed over several months by the artist working with a group of women from the Bedouin village of Lakiya. In contrast to the front of the tapestry, which seemed at first glance to be in a uniform needlepoint style, the back revealed the different “handwritings” of the various embroiderers. This is the point at which the narrative begins, embodying the tensions in the work between the universal and the particular, between what the women had in common and what was unique to each, between the concealed and the revealed, differences between the image and the body that created it, and, last but not least, between East and West, bourgeoisie and proletariat.
The image embroidered on the face of the tapestry depicts three Indian women washing laundry in a river. Underneath is a black basin reflecting a blurred version of the tapestry image. The composition and landscape in the background quote a painting by 19th
century French painter Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners
(1857). The French gleaners transformed into Indian laundresses embroidered by Bedouin women raise the theme of the daily labor performed by the working class by nullifying the historical and cultural context of the original image in favor of a global expression of the status of the woman worker and her fate, wherever she may be. This merger of the creative artist and laboring maidservants from the exotic East, from the local hot Israeli South and the rural West of the 19th
century may hint at some of the internal conflicts reflected in the piece of art.
The embroidery technique
Needlework in general and tapestry embroidery in particular has an extra added symbolic meaning in the context of historical “women’s work.” However, we must distinguish between needlework performed by working class women and by middle class women. What they do have in common is their function as one of the basic symbols of a woman’s praiseworthy qualities: engagement in sewing, embroidery, and lace-making.
From the 17th
century onward, the visual arts popularized the image of woman engaged in needlework. In bourgeois Holland, among other influences was the translation into Dutch of Italian author Cesare Ripa’s book of emblems, Iconologia
(1603). Ripa’s catalogue of values and virtues presenting concepts as illustrated allegorical figures fixed the image of the “good woman” as one who weaves or embroiders. Based on this symbolization, Dutch painters began to paint realistic scenes of women embroidering, constituting a direct continuation of the moralistic aspect of art while simultaneously depicting the reality of women’s lives of the period. Women from the middle to upper classes learned to weave carpets and embroider in a daily “woman’s practice” embodying repetitive, precise, diligent work, with patience and discipline. The work was domestic and decorative, consisting of quiet, small wrist movements. This mode of keeping the women of the nobility and the bourgeoisie occupied to avoid idleness continued unabated in western Europe through the 18th
centuries. In literature, as well, embroidery reflects the ideal of the good bourgeoise mother, as described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Émile
Needlework by lower class women as represented by realistic French and English painters during the 19th
century stands in direct contrast to embroidery as a pastime. Sewing is no leisure occupation, but a means of earning one’s meagre daily bread. In this way, Elhanani’s tapestry succeeds in embodying the tension between socioeconomic strata not only through the image she selected, but also through the technique she selected. Needlepoint is the traditional women’s handiwork that has taken on a bourgeois dimension since the 17th
century, here executed by Bedouin women embroiderers from the 21st
Tapestry weaving, which had become widely appreciated during the medieval era through the wall hangings made for cathedrals and castles by men and women craftspeople, now became “women’s work” made by women from different socioeconomic strata. Middle class women now decorated their homes with needlework pieces while laborers working to survive provided the patience needed to fill in the colorful spots predetermined by the industrial designer. Both of the classes therefore made craft and not art.
From the 1970s on, feminist artists began to wish to restore the high position of women’s needlework and make it worthy of being included in the discourse of high art. The Pattern and Decoration Movement in the USA, established in 1975, also introduced the postcolonial discourse into the feminist discourse, and actively worked against the racist and sexist rhetoric of western art. A foundational article by Valerie Jaudon and Joyce Kozloff, “Art hysterical notions of progress and culture,”
sought to expose the power relations in the western art discourse which classified applied and decorative art as “other” (women’s art, Third World art). Among the numerous references they presented was the statement made by Adolph Loos in his 1908 article, “Ornament and Crime”:
We have outgrown ornament; we have fought our way through to freedom from ornament. See, the time is nigh, fulfilment awaits us. Soon the streets of the city will glisten like white walls, like Zion, the holy city, the capital of heaven. Then fulfilment will be come.
Many male and female artists from the Pattern and Decoration Movement turned to the Third World. Miriam Schapiro borrowed images from the Far East and Near East, and as early as 1972 exhibited a room installation in which she hung Persian carpets and colorful fabrics with her paintings. In 1975, Kozloff made artworks based on Islamic tile patterns, pre-Columbian design motifs, and woven carpets made by North African tribes. Jane Kaufman created textile pieces in the early ‘80s that included gilded decorations inspired by Eastern motifs.
These artists created their art based on an ideology opposed to the modernist western prejudice against the decorative. They are opposed to the hierarchical perception of a dichotomy between “high” and “low” art, historical and decorative art, individualist and collective art, and the art of the West as compared to the art of the East. Although on the surface Elhanani’s work seems to remain within the framework of the above discourse, we realize that her double quotation from the high art of the past combined with a simple photograph taken from the internet, which underwent Photoshop processing to become a handcrafted embroidered hanging, is an acrobatic shift between historical eras, geographical locations, and art categories. Elhanani’s artistic quotations are linked more to the postmodern discourse among contemporary artists (both men and women), some of whom are skilled in community-based projects, and are as involved in the community as Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei and others.
Embroidery and community-based art
Elhanani contacted the Association for the Advancement of the Status of Women, Lakiya, which put her in touch with the group of women from the village interested in working with her. After their initial meeting, for the next approximately six months, Elhanani traveled to Lakiya to work with the Bedouin women on embroidering the work. Of course, she could have chosen a different, easier way, such as working with professional embroiderers from central Israel, but apparently Elhanani’s preference reflects a wish to expand her artistic production to community involvement with people from a disadvantaged village. In this context, we must note one of the most impressive social action projects combining embroidery with community action: Embroidery-Kiryat Gat Project. Initiated by the Achoti-Sister for Women Movement (a Mizrahi feminist movement), the project centers on women from the Ethiopian and other communities in Kiryat Gat and Beer Sheva who are expert in traditional arts, such as embroidery, basket weaving, and the like. The collaboration of Ethiopian women artists from central Israel with the Achoti Movement and with the fashion company Comme Il Faut (mentored by curator Dr. Ketzia Alon and artist Orna Zaken from Achoti) generated the creation of the collection Band’lai (“together” in Amharic), a line of clothing and fashion accessories integrating traditional Ethiopian embroidery with contemporary fashion design. The launch of the collection took place in June 2010 in the Comme Il Faut building at the Jaffa Port; all income from the sale went directly to the women without any commission to the fashion house. The activist feminist project established an alternative to other earlier handicrafts production and sales ventures, such as Maskit, which had begun as a project to provide work to women based on “women’s traditional arts.” However, women working through Maskit worked at home, thus continuing to support the outlook that “a woman’s place is in the home,” an approach which viewed women’s income as a negligible and marginal supplement to the family’s support. Their wages were low, as laborers, in contrast to the salaries paid to Maskit’s directors and designers.
The Band’lai Project is highly aware of the old-time patronizing aspect of the hierarchy of the salary scale and western perception of superiority. Consequently, the embroiderers were full partners in the design and received professional mentoring through to the independent project management. Furthermore, four years before the project launch, all of the women involved met together – fashion designers and Ethiopian embroiderers - in Hayarkon Park, Tel Aviv, to learn about one another and each one’s expertise, whether it involved art, design, or cooking.
Surprisingly, Elhanani’s project diverts from the above two extreme examples, Maskit and Band’lai, in that the women selected to work on the tapestry were not chosen for their embroidery expertise. They were all were skilled in cross-stich on dresses and pillows. Elhanani taught them tapestry embroidery and joined in the work. How, then, can we understand the connection that was created through the artist, between European handwork and Bedouin embroiderers? We can extract some of the meaning of this forced combination through tracing the initial, fundamental goal of the artwork, or, in the artist’s words, “I wanted the work to deal in secrets – in concealed, invisible, things not to be talked about.”
Embroidery, secrets, and mothers
The community collaboration in the embroidery work through “talking about secrets” is reminiscent of Judy Chicago’s large-scale The Birth Project
(1981-82) which she insisted would be a collaborative creative effort by women embroiderers. Since the 1970s, Chicago had been searching for the feminine language in art, an engagement that led her to conclude that it is beyond the image and is something that exists in the creative process itself.
The search for a feminine language is part of her striving to find ways to express the unique feminine experience which is silenced in patriarchal society and culture. For The Birth
Project, Chicago chose one of the most frequent of women’s experiences – birth – although it was one which she had not experienced. This was not spoken about in the 1970s. The “secret” she wished to convey to the world was the visual imagery of childbirth which she created from the stories elicited from numerous women whom she interviewed about their childbirth experiences. Patterns of these images, which modeled birth for the artist, were sent to groups of women volunteers throughout the USA, Canada, and New Zealand, to embroider.
However, what is common to both Elhanani’s and Chicago’s projects – embroidery and collaboration between numerous women – cannot overshadow their fundamental differences. Elhanani paid the embroiderers who worked on her project, or, in other words, she provided work and livelihood to women, in contrast to Chicago, who sought volunteers. Elhanani herself embroidered along with her Bedouin collaborators, while Chicago drew on the fabric and sent the panels for the volunteers to embroider. Judy Chicago thus preserved the patriarchal hierarchy of art despite her declarations that she was subverting it by increasing the value and importance of traditional handicrafts and raising it to the status of high art..
An additional difference is associated with the biographies of the two artists and their relationships to their mothers. Chicago wrote, “I did not learn to sew at my mother’s knee,”
while Elhanani relates, “My mother is the one who taught me how to do tapestry embroidery.” It is interesting that despite the focus of Chicago’s project on birth, it contains not the slightest scrap of memory of her own mother, but becomes a metaphorical expression of creation and creativity. Elhanani’s project is entirely anchored in the memory of her mother and the structuring of her self-identity through her. Her mother not only taught her needlework, but constantly repeated that they “don’t wash our dirty linen in public.” This statement embodies an entire universe of family secrets forbidden to air outside the family. Shame, embarrassment, and pain should not be talked about, to preserve family honor. How many perfumes and cleansers have been utilized in feminine history to conceal secrets and the body with its secretions and passions. From time immemorial, women have used numerous strategies to conceal the stink of deeply-buried the deeply-buried secret, only to have the rotting corpse threaten its discovery.
During the course of about half a year, Elhanani sat with the Bedouin women, listening to them chatting in Arabic and in Hebrew, sharing their deep secrets. Although she did not understand most of them, as she explained to me in our conversation, “the ‘handwriting’ gave away what was distressing them.”
The exhibition space is perfumed with the scent of the Sod laundry powder [sod
in Hebrew literally means “secret”] giving visitors the feeling of a clean, ideal home. However, as the room deodorizer sprayed more and more scent, it became overpowering, perhaps arousing the association of a “French shower,” i.e., using perfume instead of running water to cover up the stink of deep layers of dirt.
It is here that Scent of a Secret
becomes the expression of a universal feminine strategy of concealment unifying the women servants of the “Upstairs Downstairs” television miniseries. One can imagine the women upstairs in the act of dressing up grandly thanks to the use of the modern, shiny washing machine, while downstairs, we meet the bent-over, sweating laundresses. Elhanani placed a black water basin underneath the tapestry in her installation as a metaphor for the river in which the laundresses are washing the dirty laundry. The basin can also stand for the pool of women’s tears shed in secret again and again in an infinite cycle. In this sense, the reflection in the water takes on a basic anti-narcissistic character, fundamentally different from the self-love embodied in the Narcissus myth.
There is no doubt that the biographical, mental, and conceptual narrative of the artwork belongs to Odelia Elhanani, and not to the Bedouin embroiderers. The cultural, geographic, religious, and socioeconomic status distances between them cannot be embodied in art as in life. The Bedouin women were not familiar with Millet’s painting, nor were they aware of the art of tapestry. Furthermore, they were not present at the exhibition opening because their husbands refused to allow them to travel to Tel Aviv. Their story is not Elhanani’s narrative, but the theme of the work – women’s secrets – as a given situation of covering and concealment, silencing and exclusion, alludes to a trait shared by the experience of being female, crossing borders of cultures and socioeconomic status.
“She’s pretty AND she bakes” has become, in Elhanani’s version, “She’s clean AND she embroiders.” The exhibition presents an ancient feminine ideal undergoing feminist deconstruction, exposing the mechanism attempting to restructure the ideal woman by deconstructing it into squares, turning our gaze from the face to look “behind the scenes.”
Valerie Jaudon and Joyce Kozloff, “Art hysterical notions of progress and culture,” Heresies
, 4, 1978.
Noa Hazan (2014), “Returning the gaze from the East,” in Breaking Walls: Contemporary Mizrachi Women Artists in Israel,
Ketzia Alon and Shula Keshet (eds.), Achoti –For Women in Israel Publishing: Tel Aviv, 2014.
3 Judy Chicago, The Birth Project
, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1985, p.4.