On a recent Sunday, a grandparent and child were sitting at a communal table embroidering onto a large cloth alongside a twenty-something couple from abroad. Together, they were chatting and creating—meeting new people. They were in the Textile Lab sitting beneath three fifteen-yard-long pieces of colorful ikat fabric hanging from the high vaulted, angled ceiling, its textured pattern warming the alluring architecture of the space.
The Textile Lab is an experiential annex that utilizes The CJM’s Yud Gallery to animate, complement, and extend the exhibition Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress from the Collection of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The exhibition, through an extraordinary range of textiles and clothing from over twenty-three countries, shares perspectives into the history, customs, and social fabric of Jewish communities primarily in North Africa, The Middle East and Central Asia from the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Through the portals of fashion, craftsmanship, and artistry, stories of cross-cultural customs, migration, and exchange take shape.
Designed with the purpose of anchoring the exhibition, which explores faraway times and faraway lands, to its inherent personal and communal contemporary connections, the Textile Lab was built around three guiding principles: democratize making, build community, and highlight underrepresented voices.
This emphasis on creating opportunities for people to connect, convene, interpret, and contribute stems from a decades-long shift taking place in museums, one in which museums are moving away from being temples of treasure to more evolving spaces, rooted in education and relevance.
Intergenerational spaces for creating and contributing are increasingly appearing in art museums. Previously relegated to the realm of children’s museums, the invitation for visitors of all ages to make, add their perspective, and explore their creative expression in art museums is experiencing field-wide investment and growth.
The Textile Lab affords a welcoming invitation to explore the craftsmanship of textiles and surface design through play, craft, and touch. The space has the approachable elements of a workshop or studio, while being housed inside boundary-breaking architecture, which affords a creative atmosphere that elevates and inspires.
When I reached the top of the stairs and spotted this room, my eyes jumped. I can’t wait to stay and play in the Textile Lab.
Divided into three interactive nooks—an embroidery table, weaving looms, and a dressing station—the space was co-designed with artists who created accessible entry points to experience the textures, patterns, and processes drawn from the exhibition. Decorative patterns incorporating hamsas and symbolic evil eyes are sketched onto the linen cloth that visitors embroider. A variety of techniques, samples, and stitches are on display. The weaving process called ikat has been broken down into touchable, in-progress pieces, and is positioned alongside oversized looms that are open for play. Fabrics on hangers sit next to dress forms, and visitors are invited to practice the folds, wraps, and layering seen in the exhibition ensembles.
Many displays built in the art museum today utilize interactive technology, whose cost may be prohibitive for smaller institutions. Technological interactives push the edges of artistic practice, create new modes of participation, and represent an exciting frontier in museology. Yet, today’s visitors also yearn to unplug in museums, to find space for reprieve and rest from their screens, to connect more personally on a human scale, to engage with old-school art-making. According to the National Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the largest motivation (76% of respondents) for arts participation is social connection.
Museums, both small and large, have a great opportunity to be places of connection. The Textile Lab represents one such place—the doors to the gallery are always open, as is the invitation to experiment and linger.
We sat here talking as we embroidered for over an hour!
The Textile Lab brought together staff members, local artists, non-profit organizations, and community leaders. This communal web and shared ownership was woven into the development of the space, and was critical to creating an interconnected community resource.
Founded on a deep and generous partnership with the locally headquartered, national organization JIMENA: Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, the Textile Lab gathered contemporary voices, scholarly perspectives, personal interviews, photographs, and music, all sharing diverse stories from the Jewish diaspora.
The space and programming was developed with co-creators comprised of artist advisors, who helped develop and participate in the space’s interactive elements as well as a calendar of Textile Lab Gatherings.
On Free First Tuesdays, the Gatherings featured local textile artists with disabilities. These included fashion designers from Creative Growth in Oakland, master weavers from Cedars Textile Arts Collaborative in Marin, and blind textile artist, Claire Spector. An earlier discussion and visit to 100-year-old Cedar’s Marin day program for people with developmental disabilities (that includes a wonderful barn filled with working looms) inspired the development of the weaving nook.
One presenting artists shared that she doesn’t get to talk about her work and process publicly, and that these gatherings afforded her an important opportunity to do so. Friends, family members, allies, and visitors alike came together during these sessions, activating the space with conversation long after the program ended.
While making opened the pathway for community to come together, the motivation for the creation of the Textile Lab was the inclusion of marginalized voices and underrepresented histories from the global diversity of the Jewish cultural narrative. For most Americans (including those who are Jewish), the most common Jewish cultural touchstones are matzo ball soup, bagels and lox, and Yiddish phrases like oy vey. These references are Ashkenormative, heralding from the dominant western Jewish culture, European, or Ashkenazic Jewish heritage. But the histories and traditions of Jewish communities from the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, often called Mizrahi Jews, remain mostly untold and unknown, despite representing approximately twenty percent of the global Jewish population.
Although much is shared across Jewish culture—the yearly holiday calendar, the weekly Sabbath, and the Torah, or Hebrew bible—dress, food, music, and spoken languages differ across the global Jewish community. Perhaps even more important is surfacing the racial, ethnic, and theological diversity of Jewish communities around the world. Veiled Meanings reveals a limited view of the multifariousness of Jewish communities, but the fullness of their stories were often disrupted due to migration and persecution.
How have the legacies of the people who wore the clothing continued to inform the contemporary culture of their descendants? The Textile Lab includes stories from community members whose families migrated from the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia in the film Journeys and Threads. Featuring four Bay Area interviewees reflecting on the centrality of their respective heritages in their lives today, this film, showcased in the space, tells unique stories from countries including Iran, Iraq, Israel, Morocco, and Tunisia. These personal reflections touch on rituals, melodies, tastes, and textures, bringing lesser-known Jewish stories, with their continued twists and turns, into the present and directly to the Bay Area.
The space also features images of henna tattoos, gathered after The Museum issued a community call for such photographs. Dozens were submitted, showing a window into today’s iterations of a still thriving wedding ritual referenced in the historic exhibition.
Sharing these untold stories from the Jewish narrative and emphasizing the nuanced and distinct dialogues that are ever present and relevant for contemporary culture and community was a driving force for the Textile Lab.
The Textile Lab was rooted in the ideals of making art museums places of relevance, community, and equity. It was an experimental iteration of The CJM’s continued commitment to community partnerships, contemporary conversations, iterative practice, intergenerational connection, and evaluation.
The CJM Staff Members: Cara Buchalter, Julie Grigoryan, Andrea Guskin, Kyle Herbert, Lauren Kenward, Laurie Lezin-Schmidt, Justin Limoges, Nahkoura Mahnassi, Evan Moring, PJ Policarpio, Renny Pritikin, Cecile Puretz, Heidi Rabben, Isabelle Smeall, Rebecca Simoneaux.
Community Partners: Barbara Shapiro, Britex Fabrics, Cedars Textile Arts Collaborative, Creative Growth, de Young Museum, Jewish Community High School of the Bay, JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to Middle East and North Africa, Keyaira Terry, Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco School of Needlework and Design, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America
"Museum making: Creating with emerging technologies in art museums." MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published February 1, 2015. Consulted December 11, 2018.
“Tapping into Creativity and Becoming Part of Something Bigger.” Denver Art Museum Publication. Published 2014. Consulted December 11, 2018. http://www.musynergyconsulting.com/Musynergy/About_files/DAM%20Creativity%20Report.pdf
“Public Engagement in the Arts: A Review of Recent Literature.” Stallings, Stephani N. and Mauldin, Bronwy. Los Angeles Arts Commission. Published August 2016. Consulted December 11, 2018.
Fraidy Aber is the Director of Education and Civic Engagement at The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM) in San Francisco, where she manages a team who collectively produce a vibrant suite of offerings realizing the Museum's mission to engage people of all ages and backgrounds in exploring Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas. Fraidy co-led the development of the Zim Zoom Family Room and the Textile Lab, teaches a graduate level course titled "Museums and Social Justice" for University San Francisco, and created JET (Jewish Education and Technology) Teacher Institute.
Veiled Meanings: Fashioning Jewish Dress, from the Collection of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem is organized by The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, and is curated by IMJ's Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life Associate Curator Efrat Assaf-Shapira. The Israel Museum’s curatorial team includes Curator in Charge Daisy Raccah-Djivre; Exhibition Curator Efrat Assaf-Shapira; Scientific Advisors No’am Bar’am Ben-Yossef and Esther Juhasz; Head of Traveling Exhibitions Sivan Eran-Levian and Traveling Exhibitions Coordinator Chandi Medad. Exhibition texts are based on the original 2014 Israel Museum exhibition Dress Codes: Revealing the Jewish Wardrobe and on The Jewish Wardrobe (edited by Esther Juhasz) published by the Israel Museum in 2012. The exhibition is organized at The CJM by Curator Heidi Rabben.
Lead Sponsorship in San Francisco is provided by the Koret Foundation, Gaia Fund, and Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt. Major Sponsorship is provided by The Bernard Osher Foundation and Dorothy R. Saxe. Patron Sponsorship is provided by Taube Philanthropies for Jewish Life and Culture and Suzanne and Elliott Felson. Supporting Sponsorship is provided by Judy and Robert Aptekar, Britex Fabrics, Dana Corvin and Harris Weinberg, Rosanne and Al Levitt, Siesel Maibach, Shelli Semler and Kyle Bach, Eta and Sass Somekh, Ellice Sperber, and the Ullman Family. Additional support is provided by an anonymous donor, David Agger, Morton and Amy Friedkin, Joy and Joel Kellman, Dr. Michael and Davida Rabbino, the Irving and Varda Rabin Foundation of the Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay, Tzipi and Sam Tramiel, and Marilyn and Murry Waldman.
Generous support is provided by the Consulate General of Israel to the Pacific Northwest.
Support for this exhibition is provided by the Bernard and Barbro Osher Exhibition Fund of The Contemporary Jewish Museum.