of Greater Los Angeles
Can Artwork Mend Fences?
An exhibition of Palestinian embroidery at
the Folk Art Museum
garners visitors, raises questions
by Naomi Pfefferman,
Arts and Entertainment Editor
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
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. The
dazzling work -- traditionally created by women -- emphasizes the female life
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
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 gelds; 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 Bethlehem represent Jesus and the four
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
"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,
"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
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.