Life & Culture

The Jewish artists who weave magic versions of women

Their stunning work stands out at an exhibition exploring the female role in society and art


Given the Jewish involvement in the fashion business — about to be celebrated in a major exhibition at the Museum of London in Docklands — it’s no surprise to find Jewish artists who work magic with textiles.

A new show on the theme of womanhood at the Lightbox in Woking features two Jewish artists who use fabric, sequins, embroidery and more to make surprising statements about the place of women in society.

One is the late Miriam Schapiro, whose collage Madness of Love bursting with metallic fabrics and sequins atop a vibrant painted backdrop shines out as the most engaging picture in the show.

Schapiro loved ornament so much she co-founded the Pattern and Decoration movement in the 1970s.

She put ribbon scraps and trim as well as fabrics into her pictures to elevate the status of sewing, knitting and other crafts formerly dismissed as women’s work to become something worthy of a gallery wall.

It’s the second UK museum showing in a year to feature her work. She was included in the exhibition of female abstract expressionists at the Whitechapel Gallery, but there’s nothing abstract about Madness of Love.

It celebrates a brightly dressed couple entwined on a sequined stage bedecked with decorative curtains in one of what Schapiro dubbed her “femmages” — collages harnessing objects cherished by women using traditionally female craft techniques.

The canvas is positioned right behind, Daphne 2021 a life-size cream wool sculpture, by Israeli artist Anna Perach, portraying a lactating mother, with tiny strings of pearls standing in for her breastmilk.

The two works steal the show. That’s quite a feat, given they are among nearly 30 fabulous female works spanning a century and including far more famous artists including Barbara Hepworth, Winifred Nicholson and Leonora Carrington.

Ukrainian-born Perach, who now lives in London, is one of a new generation coming to fame says Jo Baring, director of the Ingram Collection of Modern British & Contemporary Art from which half the pieces in the Lightbox show were selected: “She is one of the most interesting artists working today, and this work dominates the show with its presence.

It’s the piece for which she won the Ingram Prize, and we had to delay the one-woman show which is part of the prize till 2024 because she was too busy to do it earlier.”

Indeed, when we talk Perach is busy gearing up for an upcoming show at London’s Gas Works, following a solo exhibition at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art and at a gallery in Jaffa.

She tells me that her career has really taken off since she moved to the UK with her Israeli partner: “My son is seven now, and I started my Masters in Fine Art at Goldsmiths when he was nine months old.”

Now 38, she graduated from Bezalel in Jerusalem 15 years ago and moved from an early fascination with embroidery to techniques which could produce works that could be worn for performance: “I think of them as activated sculptures.”

The tufting which is now her principal technique was influenced by the Russian carpets she grew up with in Beersheva after making aliyah with her family from Ukraine, but the red toenails and pearls in her Lightbox piece go back to her fascination with how mother transformed her domestic appearance when she left the house: “Putting on make-up and jewellery, even how her nail polish worked with her shoe colour — it was a transitional ritual.”

Canadian-born Schapiro, known as Mimi, also traced her love of fabric to her Russian origins — one grandfather made teddy-bears, while the other was a tailor as well as a New York rabbi.

She worked as secretary to a rabbi and a children’s art teacher before making art main profession as she entered her 30s and became a mother.

A close collaborator with fellow feminist Jewish artist Judy Chicago, she later explored her Jewish identity in works like My History, which incorporate a challah cover, pictures of Anne Frank and Marc Chagall and a Nazi-era yellow star. She died in 2015 aged 91.

Madness of Love, created in 1987, seems all about joy rather than identity politics.

“It has been a key fixture in the dining room of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge — where most of our works are on display — since it was donated to us in 2010,” says Harriet Loffler, curator of the Women’s Art Collection, Europe’s largest holding of female artists, which includes two Schapiros.

“There’s something very celebratory about it, gem-like, abundant and almost sacred, thanks to those glittery materials.”

A Spirit Inside runs at The Lightbox, Woking until January 14.

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