Featured artist, Adi Liraz, tells the story of her Greek origins, and the inspiration behind her newest project, “Textured (Hi)Stories”, currently on display at the Kappatos Gallery in Athens.
In the beginning of May, 2018, I arrived in Athens, Greece to install and perform a durational work as part of a group exhibition at the Kappatos Gallery, as the first chapter of a bigger project named “Textured (Hi)Stories”.
In mid-May, after three days of a durational performance and the exhibition opening, I had arrived in Ioannina, a small city in northwest Greece. I was invited by Dr. Esther Solomon, a professor at University of Ioannina Art Department, to work together with a group of art students for the second part of the project. This whole process was curated by Dora Kechagia and Katerina Konstantinou, with whom I have been working alongside for the past year.
My maternal ancestors originated from Ioannina. My great grandmother was born and raised there, a daughter to a very prominent family. My grandmother also spent a long time there as a child. My mother spent most of her childhood in Athens.
The Jewish Greeks from Ioannina are called Romaniotes. This old community arrived to Ioannina, a small city in northwest Greece, almost two-thousand years ago during the time of the Roman Empire, hence the name Romaniotes.
Ioannina, which is the capital of the Epirus and is the center of the Romaniotes, is also the only place which maintained the Romaniote traditions, language and culture. The Jewish population of the city lived peacefully among both Christian Orthodox and Ottoman Muslims until the beginning of the 20th century.
In 1944, when Germany invaded and occupied Greece, more than 90 percent of the Ioanninan Jewish community members were collected at the big square by the lake and deported to Poland. Those who survived the travel, were exterminated at the death camps. Only around 64 people out of 2000 survived. Most of the survivors fought with the resistance and hid in the mountains. Some fled to Athens with false Christian identity papers.
When asked where I am from, after living for more than 15 years in Berlin, I often get very confused and don’t know what to answer. For many years, my mother’s and grandmother’s personal stories, as well as the collective story of Ioannina’s Jewish community have stuck with me. For the past few years, I have been working with this narrative, and found myself often using textiles: knitting, crocheting, sewing and embroidering. Only recently I found out that this type of work was a common practice of my grandmother and the generations of women before her. While men left the house to study and work, the women were expected to stay at home for domestic tasks and to raise children. Every girl learned at an early age the craft of needlework in order to prepare her dowry, together with the other female members of the family. On her wedding day, the bride’s dress would be presented publicly with all the textile work that was being offered, along with the bride, to be taken to her new household.
Among upper class families, the wedding dress would be transformed into a curtain and would be given as a present to the synagogue to use as a cover for the location of the sacred scrolls. The same material from this can be found with other local religious groups – goldensilk thread embroidered on red, purple or blue velvet. On top of the curtain, there often contained local symbols, such as the rose – the symbol of Ioannina, along with Hebrew calligraphy.
Around the Byzantine time, the religious Jewish scripts were all translated into Greek, yet written in Hebrew letters. This practice was temporary but is signified by the use of the Romaniote Jews of the Greek language.
By using similar methods and tools in my work, I attempt to reclaim the craft of textile production as a feminist and decolonial practice, which connects me to an almost forgotten community to which I am a descendent, to their history and stories, and to redefine what we consider as knowledge.
In order to do that, I created what I call “History Dresses”. Currently, I have an exhibition that is showing in Athens at the Kappatos Gallery and tells a more personal story that connects my grandmother’s life to mine. The next pproject was created through a collaborative work with a group of art students from the University of Ioannina in May. The dress itself, which I had sewn in Berlin, uses the recycled material of used bedsheets. This method was common among the Romaniotes and with my great Grandmother. The pattern contains the Ioannian rose and Hebrew calligraphy which is an interpretation of a known Jewish phrase: “If I forget you, Ioannina, may I forget my right hand”. The decision of the pattern had been made through collaborative efforts aftervisiting different museums and the synagogue Kahal Kados, where we observed and recreated patterns that we had seen.
Afterward, we took the domestic work outside to different public locations where we collaboratively embroidered on top of the dress, as a performative act. By doing this, not only was our labor being seen, but we, a group of people who come from different backgrounds and cultural groups, could find much in common, both in our practice and in the symbols we were working with. In that way, we had begun reviving at least a bit of an almost forgotten past.
The project is a work in progress and is still continuing. Additionally, I am collecting audio and visual recordings of women from the Romaniote community in which they share their stories about the practice of textile production through their memories, and by connecting it to questions of belonging and identities.
Current and upcoming exhibitions and performances:
Adi’s work, “Textured (Hi)Stories” is being presented at the Kappatos Gallery until June 24. It is part of the group exhibition, Rooms18. Athina 12, Athens.
On August 25, Adi will take part in a new durational performance in collaboration with Hori Izhaki, “Up.side.Down” at the Jewish Museum Berlin, as part of the long night of museums in Berlin. Begins at 8pm.