"Para Humber" by Miguel Arzabe is currently on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
"Para Humber" by Miguel Arzabe is currently on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

Woven artwork at CJM speaks to our broken world

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This essay appears as a part of a collaboration between J. and the Contemporary Jewish Museum to interpret artworks through a Jewish lens. The series features reflections on works in the San Francisco museum’s 2022 Dorothy Saxe Invitational, “Tikkun: For the Cosmos, the Community, and Ourselves,” for which 30 Bay Area artists created new work responding to the idea of repair. 

Entering “Tikkun: For the Cosmos, the Community, and Ourselves” for the first time, one immediately encounters a startling array of approaches to the quandary of fixing a broken world — sculpture, photography, abstract and concrete use of text, sound, textures and space.

I found myself drawn to the textile explorations of the theme, as they seemed to hold both the problem — a fraying world — and its solution, the bandage applied to the point of crisis.

In art, the contents of deliberate structural repair have their own aesthetics, a vocabulary of reconciliation crafted from mediums of sustainability: metal, plaster, fabric, wood and other materials making their interventions at the point of rupture.

As the structural weaknesses of a piece of art is strengthened by these elements, we find ourselves grateful for their interventions, preserving, as they do, a sense of the art object beyond the vagaries of its own fragility.

Ideally, these interventions are as discreet as the severity of the rupture will allow. Turning over a priceless porcelain vessel, sometimes a row of metal rivets will be found running along a fracture, a form of structural repair from a time before sufficiently bonding adhesives existed. In spite of the obvious success of this approach, it is difficult not to flinch inwardly at the revelation of such deliberate interventions.

In the midst of a present beset by pandemics, climate crisis, rising fascism and the casual revocation of human rights, we can no longer afford to flinch at the efforts of deliberate interventions; instead, we cry out for them in a world continually threatened with formal collapse.

Structural repair must increasingly become the object whose beauty is considered, occasionally above and beyond the vulnerable forms it has been summoned to repair.

RELATED: The healing arts: CJM’s ‘Tikkun’ exhibit contemplates our fractured world

In the Book of Leviticus (Vayikra) in the Hebrew Bible, the existence of a mysterious, contagious affliction called tzaraat is outlined: It infects not only the surface of the Israelite body, but also their dwellings and textiles made of leather, wool or linen. A detailed process of diagnosis and treatment is described, involving quarantines during which the affected person or object is carefully observed by a priest for the spread, diminishment or dispersal of the infection.

Concerning the infection of textiles, the Biblical text is as granular as it is with bodily affliction, differentiating between infections affecting a garment’s warp or woof, respectively.

In the Mishnah, the Sages suggest that if there is some diminishment of infection after the required quarantine period, the affected area of the textile should be torn out and burned, after which the cloth is patched and sequestered for an additional week of observation.

If the patch develops the affliction, the entirety of the textile is burned; however, if the original textile is reinfected but the patch is unaffected, the original textile is burned and the patch is saved. If both the original textile and the patch appear free of infection, the cloth is deemed pure after immersion in a ritual bath.

If these ancient processes and prescriptions seem arcane to the modern reader, I invite them to consider the parallel processes of the now-mundane Covid-19 antigen home test, complete with its own comparisons of affected and unaffected samples, observation periods and visual indicators of infection.

For me, finding Miguel Arzabe’s work “Para Humber” in the context of the CJM’s exhibit “Tikkun: For the Cosmos, the Community, and Ourselves” felt as if I was presented with a kind of visual reinterpretation of this Biblical loom of vulnerability and repair, an invitation to perceive warp and woof, patches woven, integrated, tested, persisting — sometimes beyond the textile it had been summoned to repair.

Varicolored strips of linen intersect over a frame from different angles, converging and diverging to create images that waver between angular rhythmic patterns and softer, moody abstractions. Its dispatch of color — sometimes rising out of the warp and woof and sometimes superimposed on top of it — weaves a mysterious tale of its own, its seeming conflicts becoming woven into resolutions.

As a piece, “Para Humber” exists both formally and visually as a complete and discrete work of art, seemingly in reference only to itself.

How can I account for my distant and complicated associations that arise while observing — like an Israelite priest — the textile of Arzabe’s work?

As citizens of an increasingly broken world, each visitor arrives at this exhibit as a living textile from which some vulnerable piece has been torn and burnt; perhaps it is these breaches that “Para Humber” endeavors to repair.

Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell
Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell

Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell is a performer, composer, arranger and essayist working in and around Yiddish language and culture. Formerly of the Bay Area, he lives in Atlanta with his husband of seven years, Rabbi Mike Rothbaum.