The National Museum of American Jewish History's inaugural artist-in-residence program yields a brand new work of art — produced by two non-Jewish artists — commemorating Jewish garment workers.
A new installation at the National Museum of American Jewish History displays a very different type of homage to the history of Jews in the garment industry.
“Hemmed Up: Stories Through Textiles” is a massive work — 10 feet high, 29 feet wide — created entirely out of discarded fabric found by the work’s creators, Ernel Martinez and Keir Johnston, in the Port Richmond building they share with a clothing manufacturer.
Martinez and Johnston are part of the Philadelphia artists’ group, Amber Art and Design, which is responsible for the new Mural Arts Program mural on South Street honoring The Roots. The two artists pieced together their textile creation after spending a month in the museum as part of the inaugural year of OPEN for Interpretation.
The artist-in residence program allowed Johnston and Martinez to spend time with staffers, docents, exhibitions both permanent and special and visitors to the museum, as a way to help them craft a visual representation of Jewish life and history as seen through the eyes of non-Jews. As Josh Perelman, the chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections at the museum puts it, the duo “discovered the Jewish role in the garment trades and a way to repurpose that history in a way that was meaningful to them.”
For Martinez, a California native who came to Philadelphia 12 years ago to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, the opportunity to do the residency opened up a world of new possibilities — and unexpected commonalities. The lithe, effusive dreadlocked 37-year-old said that he and Johnston came up with the idea of creating a code within the artwork. In a nod to both the struggle of those who labored to create textiles and to the Jewish practice of numerology known as gematria, the pair came up with a system whereby each swatch of fabric corresponds to a different letter, so that visitors who take the time to study the installation will eventually be able to translate the message hidden in the fabric patterns.
“They have been exploring the use of color and pattern to morph text into large-scale representational artworks,” Perelman explained.
Indeed, Martinez added that he and Johnston had previously explored the idea of text and color patterns in a project they did using patterns of discarded cans to transcribe poems.
Martinez said the learning curve during the residency was steep at times, but he was able to find common ground between his own history as an African-American and the Jewish-American experience, especially when he walked through the recently closed exhibit, “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges.”
“There were lots of historical connections” between the two groups, he said. “All we could do was lean on each other — there was nowhere else, no one else to lean on.”
It was this shared cultural history that helped influence the final shape of the installation. Creating a work of art made entirely of pieces of fabric that would honor what Jews went through in the textile industry, he said, was “right out of the black experience in the South with quilting. As far back as Africa, quilting has always been a tradition, a way of passing on cultural history.”
Now that history can be a shared one.
“Hemmed Up: Stories Through Textiles” is on display though Aug. 25
National Museum of American Jewish History
101 South Independence Mall East (Fifth and Market Streets)