Art, like religion, is a window into cultures. Women’s stories often find expression in narrative textiles, a medium I have long admired but never quite understood. I encountered the fabric art of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz recently. She was a Holocaust survivor who created stunning needlepoint pictures of her and her sister’s escape from Nazis in 1942. They left their Jewish parents behind and pretended to be Catholic girls from the country in order to survive. In 1977, she began to create 36 works of needlepoint in which she stitched the heart-wrenching episode with power and beauty, color and force, the memory of a child now seared in the heart of a woman.
Her daughters, Bernice Steinhardt and Helene McQuade, set up a foundation, Art and Remembrance, to show the “power of personal narrative in various forms of art to illuminate the effects of war, intolerance, and other forms of social injustice on its victims.” Their mother’s story is now available both in a book and a riveting film as well as in the art itself. These are narrative textiles of the most precious sort.
I first came upon the work at a local art exhibit. I was struck by the artistry—the artist trained as a dressmaker but became an accomplished fabric artist. The colors are stunning and the contrast between the lovely pastoral scenes and the hideousness of children striking out on their own in order to survive, indeed parents letting them go, was almost more than I cared to take in. Once I focused on the events being described, I marveled that anyone, much less a child, could have such total recall of the place where an experience of such painful depth took place. Slowly it dawned on me that such traumas do leave indelible memories. The wonder is that the artist was able to record them in such stunning detail.
It was only on closer inspection that I realized that each flower sewn into the cloth, each leaf and bush is a way for the artist to come to grips with the unspeakable. Each step along the path away from the warmth of a Jewish family toward the mercy of strangers is a miracle now stitched into eternity. The movie (Fabric of Survival: Through the Eye of the Needle) brings it all alive, including precious footage of the now deceased Ms. Krinitz.
At a panel discussion at Montgomery College (Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus, 29 March 2012, “Art, Memory and Healing: A Film and Panel Discussion on One Survivor’s Journey”), I came to see the connection between this work and so many other forms of narrative textiles, most of them the work of women’s hands. There are common elements—the subject matter is traumatic, the artists are self-trained, the work is often done communally, and the results are meant to be instructive.
Chilean arpilleras are a well-known example of this medium. They are burlap rectangles on which women sew stories and experiences from the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. They feature the ollas communes or soup kitchens where people ate; the Vicariate of Solidarity, the Catholic Church center with support programs where families with missing members could gather, is often included. These colorful collages are realist images of funerals and protest marches sewn at a time when the local newspapers carried no such information. Women were courageous just to create them, in some instances the desperate efforts of mothers whose children and/or spouses had disappeared.
Arpilleras were sold to people like me who wanted to help those under pressure. Just getting the artwork out of Chile was a chore; some of the people who did it were detained or arrested for their efforts. But those that found their way abroad helped to spread the word on a dreadful situation of people tortured and/or killed, human rights violated, and yet the strength of the Chilean people to carry on. Most Chilean arpilleras include a sun rising over the Andes, proof of place and normalness despite the madness. I see them in my office every day, a reminder of women’s fortitude.
I learned that Hmong people create paj ndau, which are called “story cloths,” to tell their stories of exodus and home. Many of these Laotians went to Thailand at the end of the so-called Secret War in 1975. They took with them their long history of beautiful embroidery, transferring what had typically been done on clothing to wall art. Hmong men often did the original drawings, which women then transferred onto cloth. Those pieces also found their way around the world, telling stories that the perpetrators of violence preferred no one to hear.
Another example of women’s narrative textiles is the current “Quilt for Change” project at the United Nations. It consists of “20 art quilts from the U.S., Canada and Iran and represents a call for solidarity of the women of the world to defend and protect women in times of conflict and to empower women to be active agents in the peace process”. Quilts are another whole story in the narrative textile world, but making quilts is another typical way women express their experiences.
Many of these projects represent creative responses to trauma. The very act of making something is therapeutic. In Esther Nisenthal Krinitz’s case, creating the fabric pictures was the opposite of the Jewish custom of “rending garments” on the death of a loved one. The handwork has a certain calming influence, a way to bring breath in line with body. Many groups of women sit together to sew, not looking one another in the eye but fostering an open environment for conversation where they can tell some of the more difficult stories. Healing is a process not unlike the unfolding of a work of art, stitch by careful stitch.
The Art and Remembrance project seeks to expose especially children to this kind of art. They want them to “see and feel war and injustice through the eyes and hearts of its victims…to create sympathy and compassion great enough to change people’s perceptions forever.” It works beautifully.
Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D. is the co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. A Roman Catholic active in the women-church movement, she lectures and writes on theology and ethics with particular attention to liberation issues.