As Long As The Thread Enables Us
That which is not of the body will not be remembered
The term ‘body,’ and in particular the human body, is present in a wide range of fields: in popular culture and scientific research, cultural criticism, art studies, feminist and queer thought, political and sociological thought, and also, of course, in psychoanalysis. The body – with its various manifestations, conduct in space, physiological characteristics, its changeability and disintegration, in exhibitions, writings, and the performing arts – is one of the main signifiers of contemporary culture.
The body as a physical entity that gives form to abstractions such as knowledge or yearning, as a remembering entity (“the body remembers”), and the connection between Woman’s body and trauma are recurring motifs in Batia Shani’s body of work over the past few years.
The central work in “Tissue,” Shani’s 2014 exhibition in the art space at 69 Rothschild Avenue in Tel Aviv, was an installation of miniature dresses and embroidery works, into which she has incorporated pieces of fabric from her late mother’s clothes; the garments and the fabric have thus become agents/mediators of memory and longing, a sign of the mother’s absent body. Later on, the focus on a specific body and a personal memory turned into viewing the female body as an arena of verbal and physical violence. In the installation A Secret’s Prison, presented as a special project during the 2018 Fresh Paint art fair, in Tel Aviv, Shani brought up the subject of domestic violence and the secrecy surrounding it, concentrating on violence directed at women and children. Another body of works addresed fears and anxieties and the wish to be free of them, by way of phrases embroidered on envelopes. In the exhibition “As long as the thread will allow us…” at Hapelech 6 space, in Tel Aviv, she is presenting an installation of second-hand clothing that hangs from the ceiling, on which she has sewn texts, figurative images, numbers, and amorphous shapes, creating an obsessive, busy, dense sequence of embroidery. For the first time, she is introducing poetry, mostly by woman poets, into the embroidered texts. Alongside the poems, she has added sentence fragments, some of them incomprehensible and vague, which originated in a stream of associations comprehensible only to the artist. Some texts are about loneliness, evoking her yearning and longing for her dead parents, and some are about trauma, the vulnerability of women, the violence against them and how to overcome it. Next to the embroidered clothes stands a chest with many drawers, containing embroidered envelopes and bits of fabric with images executed in needlepoint and mixed media.
The artistic practices described here did not come out of thin air. As a young woman, Shani, a social worker, attended to families and women who had undergone trauma and in some cases sexual assault. Later on, her life took a turn, and she studied art and specialized in needlework techniques at the Royal School of Needlework in London. Art has been her main occupation since then.
Diana Coole, in her paper “Body and Politics,” writes that in the past, personal issues related to the body such as sexual harassment, rape, and pregnancy were not perceived as political, but today is it indisputable that the body is at the core of the political agenda as a signifier of status and power. The body is a potent symbol and a source of social control and privilege on the one hand, and of subjugation and oppression on the other. According to Coole, the corridors of power are designed to fit the attributes of the white male heterosexual body (and the dominant racial and ethnic groups).
A recent ugly reminder of just how political Woman’s body is has been the decision, by lawmakers in several southern states in the US, that makes abortion illegal, even when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. These laws also spell out the penalties awaiting the woman having an abortion and all those who assist her.
In many countries, women are not trained for combat and are not meant to initiate violent actions or to perform them; however, they are marked as vulnerable to violence, as women are the disproportional victims of rape and physical violence. Violence also regulates the boundaries of acceptable sexual relations and the sexual identity of individuals, since deviations from normative heterosexuality, racial hierarchies, and accepted modes of masculinity and femininity are punished by harassment, bullying, and sexual assault.
Shani’s preoccupation with the body is not surprising, in light of her past as a social worker and her way of life. Her routine involves constant wandering, and she is always in motion and in states of change between countries and cultures. The work connects her to herself and the body is her real home, moving with her from place to place.
The body is associated in the public’s mind with the conversation about sexuality and desire. It is an arena of enjoyment and suffering that coexist side-by-side, but Shani chooses to focus on injuring the body, abusing it, through a dialog she conducts between her own body.
and a more abstract, generalized feminine one. By way of her Sisyphean needlework, which wounds but also joins and heals, her toiling body is a conduit for transferring the physical experiences of other women, and so perhaps to deal with and free her own anxieties, lest they become fixed into the body. The length of the thread determines the embroidered image. There are no big bodily gestures. The motion of the needle is very small and close to the body, oscillating between puncturing and drawing the thread, applying force and releasing. The needle’s small, Sisyphean movement is like a concentrated capsule from which the emotional overload bursts out, expressed as visual excess. There is constant movement between release and restraint, surplus and void areas, high-brow poetic texts and quotes from popular culture, English and Hebrew, amorphous shapes and figuration, and between the desire to break out and the fixed habits tending toward what is closed, as evident from the enclosing of some of the texts within a frame.
The exposure of the feminine body to assault, the critical thought process that follows it, and the emotions that stem from it are the foundation of Shani’s work. Therefore, I suggest viewing the works in “As long as the thread will allow us…” not only as an attempt to evoke sentimentality but as a call to activism. It is a call to women to demand and take full control over their bodies, and for them, as well as society in general, to realize that their bodies are autonomous and belong to no one but themselves.
The concern with anxiety weaves through most of Shani’s works. The second-hand clothes installation at the center of “As long as the thread will allow us…” is a visual manifestation of the absent body, which can be viewed as a fetishistic moment immortalizing a reality of simultaneous absence and presence. This produces a unique effect – on the one hand, overcoming the absence and the void, while on the other, a substitute emphasizing the absence and the anxiety-provoking situation, with the constant potential for destabilization and breaking down. The vague phrases and the letters, which come together as meaningful sentences only in some of the works, also hold a potential taking apart. They are volatile and subversive, and as such, they destabilize and threaten the existing order. Apparently, through the repetition of embroidered series of numbers, the artist subconsciously attempts to impose order and logic on the work. The focus on anxiety takes an interesting turn when the issue of the body and its absence is viewed through the lens of the technological revolution. The removal of the body is a unique phenomenon of our times, created by this revolution. In today’s culture, where many interpersonal relationships are conducted and mediated by apps and exist only in the virtual space of the social networks, the value of physical proximity disappears and is absent from the equation. This results in alienation and anxiety since technology affects and disturbs the balance between body and spirit.
The connection between text and body is very much present in Shani’s works. The body gains a political meaning when it is identified, along with language, as the main arena where sex, gender, and power come together.
Post-structuralist analysis views the text as a presence whose meanings spread and connect to other objects, which are, allegedly, extraneous to the singular text. It views the text as a texture, as materiality weaved from many elements that become a network. According to the philosopher Jacque Derrida, ‘text’ is related etymologically to the words ‘textile’ and texture and has the same materiality as fabric. In saying “there is nothing outside the text,” Derrida focuses on the materiality and physicality of language. According to the concept of deconstruction, the text overflows its boundaries since they are under constant change effected by its interpreters.
The fabrics on which Shani embroiders are grounds for contrasts between text and images. The hierarchy is not clearly defined. Which is more important, the text or the image? Are the images mere footnotes to the text, where the real drama takes place? Or vice versa, does the text support the image, which is at the center? In some instances, the text floats on the fabric, and then Shani corrals it as if attempting to imprison it and prevent it from spilling beyond the borders. This struggle, between setting a boundary and crossing it is essential to the understanding of Shani’s work. “The body has a paradoxical existence: on the one hand, it is an object that takes up space and marks boundaries between near and far, between defined and vague; on the other, it is an instrument of knowledge that defines our existence in the space-time of the world, of identification in a space, but also a tool and an object of memory (‘the body remembers’). It is a central metaphore for delineating the separateness of the subject in his mental and physical space.”
“The body remembers” is a common phrase describing the traumas and experiences that are burned and fixed in the body. If the skin is meant to be the body’s protective layer, then the role of the garment – which holds the body’s scent and warmth – is to provide an additional barrier between the private and the public and between concealment and exposure. The embroidered garments in Shani’s works are like the slough of the physical body that is no longer there, and thus, to me, they are like skin that remains as a testimony of the body’s past experiences.
What will not be no hand inscribes, and that which is not of the body will not be remembered.
- The Body and Politics, Diana Coole, The Oxford Handbook of Gender and Politics, 2013
- Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976
- David Gurevitch, Dan Arev, Encyclopedia of Ideas (Babel) p. 232
- Yehuda Amichai, Farewell, Poems 1948-1962, p. 156
Contexts and meanings in Batia Shani’s Embroidery works
“What can Philomela do? […] the walls are built of solid stone. Her speechless mouth cannot relay her calamity. But in grief there is extreme ingenuity, and invention arises in misfortunes. Upon Thracian cloth she interweaves purple threads with white, embroidering her tale of the villainy of Tereus; She gives the finished garment to a slave and begs her, signing, to carry it to her mistress; to deliver it to her sister, the Queen […] The wife of the savage tyrant unfolds the gown, and reads of the mournful fate of her sister […] and she is silent […] ’Tis grief that has sealed her lips; no words avail – horror and dread overwhelm her […].”
Embroidery is naturally associated with innocence, tenderness, domesticity, and warmth. Many of us remember Grandmother’s tablecloths, pillowcases, or bed sheets embroidered with multi-colored threads and decorative patterns.
A fancy tablecloth from China adorned the living room in the house of artist Batia Shani’s parents. The tablecloth was a gift from a relative who had traveled often to the East. The traditional tablecloth had been embroidered with golden plant designs, and it became a memory-holding object for Shani.
Eight years ago, in a surge of longing for her late mother, Shani pulled the tablecloth from a pile of fabrics, and it became a bed for a renewed work with one more layer of memory. She added images of women to the original embroidery of golden-yellow leaves and branches: women as Venus, the mythic goddess of beauty; an ancient plump fertility goddess; and figures of women painted by Klimt, Schiele, and others. This interweaving of women’s images is a song of praise to the woman’s body. Shani also added embroidered images of fancy lampshades and bird cages, as well as ceremonial and decorative motifs taken from a Chinese design book. These additions had changed the nature of the tablecloth, and a new artwork was born, diverting thoughts from the original meanings of the decorations on the tablecloth. Through the act of embroidering the images of women the artist associates femininity with embroidery, an association with poetic precedents in classical mythology.
Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, busied herself with weaving for twenty years, awaiting his return. Penelope used her weaving as a device to ward off her many suitors. When Odysseus landed upon the island of the nymph Calypso, he heard her “singing sweetly, moving to and fro at her loom, weaving with a golden shuttle.”2
Arachne, a fabulous young embroiderer, dared to challenge the goddess Athena, and lost. As a punishment, the goddess turned her into a spider. It should be noted that she has lost the competition not because of the quality of her needlepoint, which had been as fabulous as ever, but due to her pretension to describe the fornications of the gods, exasperating Athena.
Other myths about embroiderers and weavers include that of the Bacchae, the followers of the god Dionysus, who had abandoned their work – weaving and embroidering – and ran off to the mountains to celebrate the god’s rites. Femininity and embroidery are associated with death in the story of the Moirai, the three Fates, weavers of the thread of life, and Ariadne, who had saved the life of her lover, Theseus, by giving him a spool of thread, which helped him find his way out of the Labyrinth after killing the Minotaur. The giving of a spool of thread is, in a way, symbolic of bestowing the feminine quintessence upon the man, since thread, fabric, and embroidery had been close synonyms for femininity in ancient times.
The relationship between embroidery and femininity is evident in another work by Shani – Paper Woman, after ‘paper tiger,’ which was displayed in the exhibition “As long as the thread will allow us…” This work comprises images of nude women in various poses, embroidered on 32 pieces of paper and attached to the collage of fabrics. In this work, the artist states that women are not a threat, an important statement in the singular time of the MeToo movement, which protests against the objectification of women, as well as harassment and sexual assault.
Some of the images of nude women are accompanied by a number, some kind of a serial number. This number might actually suggest objectification of women.
This pair extremes – pleasure and enjoyment of the female body, and the issue of its objectification and exploitation – is a recurring motif in Shani’s work.
Embroidery is a means of expression for women, to negate their ostensibly being incapable of self-articulation. This aspect is evident in a piece of embroidery on a lace handkerchief. This handkerchief reconstructs the handkerchief collection of Shani’s mother, who used to wash, starch, and iron as if they were sacred objects. For Shani, this practical yet fanciful object had absorbed an endless range of emotions and experiences. The embroidery on this handkerchief is an inscription:
“For as long as women have been sewing, they’ve been using embroidery to tell their own stories, often in societies that refuse to hear them otherwise.”
Embroidery, as a means of expression for women in societies that refuse to listen to them, evokes the myth of Philomela. It tells the story of King Tereus’s wife, Procne, and her request to see her sister Philomela. When the sister was brought in and the king, her brother-in-law, saw her beauty, he could not resist the temptation. He locked the girl up in a cabin, where he cruelly raped her. To prevent her from telling anyone what has happened he had cut off her tongue, and the bard further tells us that even after this horrible deed he continued to rape her.
The embroidery pieces described above, together with the myth of Philomela, are an invitation to a wide-ranging discussion of the work of Batia Shani, a former social worker who used to work with families in crises and with women who had been assaulted by a family member or some other assailant, and an artist whose art centers on embroidery.
In addition to the images of women, Shani’s embroidery works, especially those executed on white shirts, are packed full of amorphous, somewhat naïve images, and lots of writings. These might be her own sayings , or quotes from poets. The white shirts are second-hand, having previously been worn on special events, celebrations, holidays, and ceremonies.
The inscriptions often have a context of sexual assault, although Shani’s work contains, as mentioned before, a duality of both viewing women poetically and displaying their vulnerable side, their being subjected to exploitation. I would like to point out an association between the inscriptions, the abstract images, and the images of women, and suggest that Shani’s work is an expansion of Philomela’s words, and, as the exhibition’s title says metaphorically – “As Long as the Thread Will Allow Us.”
For the purposes of this discussion, I shall refer to the works’ message as the “Philomelic Message.” In some works it is loud and clear, while in others it is implied, encouraging further reflection. One work with a clear Philomelic message is a white slip with shoulder straps, which is actually an old wedding gown displaying the marks of time. It includes an inscription: “Hitting is not love; mind games are not love,putdowns are not love; stalking is not love; jealousy is not love; controlling is not love.” Passive-aggressive relationships, characterized by the man’s violent dominance, are often perceived in the popular culture as expressions of love. The artist clearly states in this work that any kind of abuse is not an expression of love.
In this context, famous classical myths of abduction can serve as examples of violent assaults described in art with a gentleness that cancels out their inherent brutality. The myth of Leda and the Swan, for instance, about the girl Leda who had been seduced by Zeus in the guise of a swan, is represented in art in such a tender, refined way, that anyone not familiar with the myth might think this is about a girl petting a swan and not a divine abduction that is actually forced intercourse. In other myths, the violent act is softened by its outcome – the birth of a hero. In another myth, the girl Danae is locked up because of her father’s fear of a prophecy, in which her offspring would kill his grandfather. Zeus penetrates the jail, disguised as a rain of gold, and impregnates her. According to the ancient belief, Fate (the Moira) cannot be avoided, and indeed Perseus, Danae’s son, ends up killing his grandfather, Acrisius.
Abduction of women in ancient myths and art have been interpreted as metaphors of colonization and occupation, or as a manifestation of the desire of women, possessing a low standing in the ancient world, to be abducted by a god or a god’s son, or a handsome hero. Abductions also had a religious meaning, being expressions of the Platonic concept that human beings long to be gathered in by God and be merged with Him. It is important to note that in each case, the overall meaning is also political, since religion too is appropriated by the state. In fact, these are examples of using the woman’s body and entire being to perpetuate male control.
Coping with male aggression is evident in another of Shani’s embroidery pieces, in which words are inscribed onto a wine-colored dress. The inscriptions appear among abstract, decorative motifs and patterns, psychedelic and even naïve. These images float like flashes from a dream or a trip, like a demonstration of the swirling thoughts and feelings and the confusion engulfing the assault victim. There are two kinds of inscriptions – harsh, like as the inscription (in English) saying, “All violence against women starts with disrespect.” Or, “How, and for how long…”, or the straight-forward word: “Fear. “
Conversely, there are naïve poems, like this short one by Leah Naor:
“When the road ends, a path begins. When night ends, morning begins. A tomorrow follows each passing day, a used-up dream is tossed away […] an ending is the start of a new way.” [trans.]
Other lines say (in Hebrew): “What would you do, if you weren’t afraid?” Or, “If you want to bring joy to the world, go home and love your family.”
The dichotomy between the inscriptions and the abstract naïve images can be seen as an expression of the state of confusion that is typical of victims of rape. In this state, the victims sometime cannot distinguish between good and bad.
Another common manifestation of this confusion is a paralysis that overwhelms the raped girl, preventing her from resisting. The inability to resist may stem from shock and helplessness, or an emotional attempt to disengage from the situation. A famous example of such a case (among many) is the case of the rape in Kibbutz Shomrat in 1988, which shocked Israeli society. The victim, it seemed, had failed to display significant resistance, and in the first trial, in 1992, the judge acquitted the accused boys due to reasonable doubt. The judge cast doubt on the issue of whether the girl had actually resisted or not. In his finding, the judge added to the problem by completely disregarding the possibility that the 14.5-year-old girl had been very confused, shocked, and helpless, unable to resist under those conditions, and perhaps incapable of realizing that a terrible crime was being perpetrated upon her. Furthermore, the crime is still the boys’, regardless of her ability to resist, since they had done a deed with force and severe violence. This case is an example of society’s failure to address the issue of rape, which is what Shani points out in her work.
Having been distressed by the Shomrat rape case, Shani included in the inscriptions the lyrics of a song by Yahali Sobol, inspired by the incident. The lyrics are written on the walls in script, as a kind of ready-made.
The abstract images that pile up in the lower part of the dark-red dress may carry other meanings – they could be symbolic of trauma accumulating over the years, shaping the victim’s personality, embedded in her very being, to be manifested in every stage of her future life.
Another embroidered shirt displays this text: “It doesn’t matter how tough you are. Trauma always leaves a scar […] It follows us home, changes our lives.”
Another group of works, white shirts embroidered with a mixture of inscriptions and child-like patterns, conveys the Philomelic message in different ways. The whiteness of the shirt associates it with virginity, which is disrupted by the array of writings and images, an ordinariness that breaches the virginity, invading intimacy and privacy. Such is the case with a white shirt with black inscriptions that praise it, and, as a metaphor, virginity itself, in an overstated manner that becomes intrusive.
Clothing items such as a jacket, a girl’s coat, dresses, slips, and shirts, embroidered with texts that represent ideas, thought fragments, and expressions of pain and anxiety, alongside naïve sayings and colorful decorative images, some child-like and others amorphous.
On a girl’s white jacket with vibrant, child-like images, the inscriptions become fragmented phrases, such as “As long as the thread will allow us,” “Just like that, for no reason,” “Below the belt,” “Based on a true story,” “The body bears witness / The body shows the marks.”
” “ככה סתם ללא סיבה”, “מכה מתחת לחגורה”, “מבוסס על סיפור אמתי”, “הגוף נותן אותותיו”..
They express anxiety and fear that parallel the Philomelic message. The phrases are dispersed among the child-like images, some abstract and others figurative, which in fact are quite harsh and not naïve at all.
The sense of excess and overload intensifies in a dress with mostly green embroidery. The very excess might symbolize the victim’s emotional overload. The images seem child-like and include schematic drawings of nude women, young girls, a masculine figure, pseudo-organic images, amoeba-like creatures, and amorphous shapes. These naive images might be perceived as an expression of existing in another time that had been disturbed by the assault; or an inability to express thoughts eloquently. The occasional phrases may allude to the efforts of Philomela, or other women who had been assaulted, to form and define their thoughts in a manner that would express their suffering. It seems that Shani shows concern through her work for the state of women like Philomela, who had lost their ability to speak and to actualize what they had gone through.
Countless women have undergone exploitation, assault, and sexual violence, and still do. It might be some slight abuse, barely identifiable as violence, but that kind of act leaves scars on the woman’s soul. Many women never consider reporting acts of abuse or violence, keeping them secret their entire lives.
Realizing that many women carry those scars, and that for various reasons they cannot describe their experience, is another step toward raising awareness of the state of women who had undergone sexual abuse, and bringing their rehabilitation closer.
Finally, Shani’s work fluctuates between a refined, poetic perception of women and their association with embroidery in a manner that evokes mythic connections, and targeting the objectification of women and their being an object of abuse. Or, in other words, between the joy and pleasure derived from the woman’s body and an awareness of the pain involved in its exploitation. She wants to shine a light on the condition and status of women today, in the 21st century, when their struggle and their need to be heard still cannot be taken for granted. Every day we witness how easily justice is distorted, and how lacking in understanding the judicial and legislative bodies are; how women who are victims of assault do not receive appropriate care, and are instead being subjected to a harsh treatment by a world still governed by a prejudiced male majority.
It appears that the message in the exhibition “As long as the thread will allow us” is twofold: the imperative to understand Philomela’s story as an archetype of a state typical of women who have found themselves in a situation where all they can do is send out threads to illustrate their experience; and at the same time, to stop the objectification of women while still taking pleasure in their beauty – since every woman is a goddess.
Nava Sevilla Sadeh
- Free translation based on public domain sources [trans.]
- Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved