Schmatte and Couture

16 artists took part in a London exhibit this summer exploring how history and self are wrapped up in what we wear.

During an artist meeting last year, one of many held over the course of 18 months, the ear-catching title of the summer contemporary art exhibit I recently curated was developed: Schmatte Couture.

These meetings, held once a month during the year-and-a-half it took to prepare for the show at The London Jewish Museum of Art's Ben Uri Gallery, brought together a "sewing circle" of artists working on similar things. They gave us a chance to meet, to network and to support each other's fine art practice.

The result: Schmatte and Couture, a show exploring clothing, memory and fashion. The 16 international artists that took part in the exhibit used a vast array of forms and techniques.

There were the second-hand ties twisted and pinned by Stuart Mayes in "Buddies", and the dress dipped in plaster and painted in Sue Cohen's "Oh Gilda!".

Children's dresses were reworked by Roberta Weinstein in "Fantasma" and recreated in Ruth Shreiber's "Childhood Remembered and Childhood Imagined".

A self-portrait was hand-embroidered by Anita Ceballos in "Stitched and Patched", in contrast to the machine-embroidered witticisms and designs on shirts by Patricio Forrester.

Even the removal of clothing was portrayed, by Anneke Raber, in her brightly coloured drawings printed on aluminium in "Chair".

But linking all these techniques were central themes of universal experience, including how history and self are wrapped up in what we wear (and what we wore), societal expectations regarding what we can't wear or are expected to wear, and the parallel process of making clothes and the construction of self.

Schmatte to Couture

Natasha Cowan, an exhibiting artist working under Hilary Alexander on the busy Daily Telegraph fashion desk, describes the development of schmatte to couture as such:

"The Yiddish word schmatte morphed from the translation of 'rag' to anything that has a fashion connection, universally and liberally used by the fashion industry.

"The Jewish tailors from the East End of London who probably said schmatte 10 times a day might be surprised at how widely accepted it is in today's glam fashion world."

In memory of those Jewish tailors, the exhibition was situated in Rivington Street, East London, home of the schmatte trade, where many worked in the last century, and where other generations and nationalities of immigrants have replaced them. Interestingly and aptly. Many of the artists used second hand clothes in their work, recycling, and thus reigniting with life, discarded garments from the past.

Before the show, I asked two participating artists to describe their contributions to the show and to gauge the response of the audience:

Crossing the border between inside and outside

First, I spoke with Meital Covo, an Israeli currently studying in London for her Masters degree after completing her B.A. at The Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.

How does it feels to be in a show in London and for Ben Uri Gallery, The London Jewish Museum of Art?

This is my first show in London, and I am very excited about it. I'm happy for the opportunity to show my work to a British audience, and especially, to a Jewish audience with a show that explores a theme, usually overlooked in the Jewish art world.

I'm showing a skirt and a bracelet (part of a larger installation called Hers) with woman's hair printed on them. Usually the first response to the work is "wow, so beautiful," but once people realize its hair, they go "yuck." Well, that was a typical response in Israel, now I am curious to see how the Londoners will take it.

How does the work you are showing relate to your studies?

[The piece] "Hers" was made at a time I was wondering whether I want to design or make art, and it shows in the work. Today I study art at the Royal College of Art, London, doing mainly video and sound installations, so the medium is completely different, but I am still concerned about this grey area between the intimate and the public, which becomes present when working with hair. I am working now on a sound based installation, that consists on sleep talking recordings. I sometime imagine the words people say while asleep like little hairs - crossing the border between inside and outside, crawling from within the body and into the world.

Sexy sefer Torah

I also got the chance to speak with Jacqueline Nicholls, an artist and Jewish Educator whose works "Maternal Torah", and "The Yeshiva Inside" were put on display and certain to elicit a strong response:

How do you think your "Maternal Torah" and "The Yeshiva Inside" will be received? Do you consider the works to be challenging, even controversial?

I hope the work has a subtle presence that draws people in as a beautiful object - intriguing and visually attractive. I noticed that when people take a step forward and examine the form, they pick up the sefer torah references and smile as the penny drops.

Of course it could be seen as controversial and shocking, I am mixing a sefer torah cover - a holy object, with a corset - a sexy female form. But those connections are there in the tradition, and I found that those who are shocked aren't really in touch with that tradition.

A friend, a fairly frum guy, after seeing one of these corsets, felt that he knew where the work was coming from, but was uncomfortable that it was made into a physical presence instead of leaving it as an abstract intellectual idea. There is a problem with our culture that tries to separate itself from the physical sensual side of life. These images, metaphors are there in the tradition, and they are challenging to those who deny the body and want to be disembodied heads.

How do you feel a non-Jewish or not involved Jewish viewer might relate to the work?

All my art is heavily influenced from learning in the beit midrash - that is often where my ideas generate. Sometimes the ideas may start from specifically Jewish contexts but resonate with universal themes and questions.

But the pieces each have an independent presence, and my work has had positive reactions from those who are not as familiar with those references. But any barriers (concerning lack of knowledge) can be overcome easily with simple explanations available accompanying the work.

Sometimes people who are familiar with my references come with baggage about their relationship to torah concepts, and are not so willing to be open my interpretations. Then it becomes an challenge to open up in them other possibilities of meaning.

Does the work need a Jewish context?

I feel that wherever the work has been shown it transforms the space into a Jewish context as I am inviting people to engage with Jewish ideas. So no, it doesn't need an overtly Jewish space.

A couture of schmattes

A highlight of the exhibition was when James Young, writer, musician and curator, who recently curated "The Fabric of Myth" at Compton Verney Museum, Warwickshire, visited the show. On the final Sunday of the exhibit, the beginning of London Fashion Week, James toured the gallery and interviewed the artists about their work.

I asked James about his experience of the show:

We have both just curated exhibitions that focus on work that many would consider 'craft'. Do you feel that although the Fine Art and Craft world are often seen separately, recently with the demise of the domestic skillset this divide seems less pronounced?

Yes. Fine art separates itself from the domestic space - it has to in orderto become a commodity. The less women are involved intraditional 'crafts' the more available those crafts become as media for artistic expression.

The personal space, the home, these were previously the female sphere before the sexual revolution of the late 60s. The daughters of that generation generally don't seem to connect to older traditions. I'm generalizing hugely, but in my experience few young women in their 20s can sew or cook like their grandmothers could or have any desire to do so. So these domestic activities become 'arts', the celebrity chef is a phenomenon that seems to me entirely the result of this huge social change, a fantasy is being offered of the chef as inspired artist/creator. I wouldn't be at all surprised if something equivalent kicks off with stitchery. Yet if one looks at some of the work made by women of the past like "Quilts", many of these seem to me to be powerful artworks ( I recommend Robert Hughes' book on Amish quilts.)

How do you personally relate to the show and themes?

I am from North Manchester which had (has) a large Jewish community, I think largest in U.K. outside London. They were attracted there in 1880s because of the cotton industry and the local manufacturers of items like rainwear. There were lots of sweatshops in Manchester.

My family had a cotton background, my grandfather was the manager of a cotton mill in Oldham and my father worked for a period in the cotton Mills, my first job was working in a mill also, disassembling the Machinery, it was the end of the cotton era. The markets around Manchester were great for textile. As a kid, my mum used to take me to Oldham market (one of the biggest in the Nort West) she'd buy all her tailoring needs there, it was really good stuff and the traders were all Jewish and the patter was fantastic.

Different from indigenous English, there was the flavor of Eastern Europe, a different sensibility, a different sense of humour. My dad used to stand there for hours listening and sketching and he'd invariably end up buying a length of something just for the sake of it, like paying for the show.

And well, Jewish life has always been something close to my life. My oldest friend (from school days) is Jewish, my sister-in-law also. My mum set up tea parties for Jewish refugees in the war.

There would be these afternoons where she would have open house for Jews who had fled Nazi persecution in Europe to come and make connections and link with each other - of course the common language was German! The neighbors heard all these people talking German in an Oldham living room and told the police!

Coming to some of the work from a non-Jewish, but arts background, how did you feel you related to both the works and the concerns? Were they specific, universal, and/ or accessible? (Note: Not all participating artists were Jewish, but some works were about specific Jewish experiences)

It doesn't matter whether an artist is working within the 'confines' of their culture, really, it's all down to the strength of vision. I particularly liked Jacqueline Nicholls piece. The corsets representing femininity, discipline and strength of the Torah where she'd really thought it through. So as a 'goy' looking at the work from outside the culture it sparked off all sorts of unexpected responses.

Schmatte Couture, curated by Sarah Lightman featured the work of Marisol Cavia, Anita Ceballos, Meital Cobo, Sue Cohen, Luke Cooper, Natasha Cowan, Nigel Ellis, Patricio Forrester, Sue Goldschmidt, Stuart Mayes, Jacqueline Nicholls, Anneke Raber, Rachel Rose Reid, Sophie Robertson, Ruth Shreiber, and Roberta Weinstein.

It was held at The Rivington Gallery 20th August - 14 September 2008

Sarah Lightman is an artist and curator

James Young is the author of Songs They Never Play On The Radio'

Ben Uri Gallery, The London Jewish Museum of Art,