Laure Prouvost's installation The long waited, weighted, gathering is on display at Manchester Jewish Museum until 3 Oct 2021; the work premiered as part of MIF21. Prouvost collaborated on elements of the work with groups of local women in Manchester. Rosy Akalawu-Ellman reports.
Following a grand architectural refurbishment that added a large extension to the building, Manchester Jewish Museum (MJM) recently opened its doors to the public for the first time in two years. The reopening, on 2 July 2021, marked not only a significant change in the physicality of the building, but a moment in which the Museum seemed to re-evaluate its purpose and who it wishes to serve.
After consultations with the Museum’s trustees and members of Manchester’s Jewish community, MJM made the controversial decision to start opening on the Sabbath. Opening on Saturdays is a clear indication that MJM is not only a Jewish Museum for Jewish people to visit, but also a creative, educational and recreational space for the wider Manchester community and the city’s visitors to appreciate and embrace.
In another first, upon reopening, MJM became a venue for MIF21. The Ladies’ Gallery of the Museum’s historic synagogue hosts The long waited, weighted, gathering, a film and textiles installation by the Turner Prize-winning French artist Laure Prouvost. (Premiered during MIF21, the installation remains on view at MJM until 3 Oct 2021.) Often giving her work long titles (such as the 2011 Max Mara Prize-winning ‘Farfromwords: cars mirrors eat raspberries when swimming through the sun, to swallow sweet smells’), Prouvost is known for her playful use of language and deeply layered mixed-media installations, which have included sculpture, painting, textiles, film, audio and performance.
The Ladies’ Gallery is on the top floor of MJM’s original building, which was previously Manchester’s first Sephardi synagogue, established in 1874. Inspired by this, Prouvost dug into MJM’s archives for The long waited, weighted, gathering, discovering oral histories about four historic local Sephardi women, who would have been seated in the Ladies’ Gallery during weekly services.
There’s Sarie Salem, born in 1918 in Didsbury, who was a member of her synagogue’s sewing committee; Esther Michael, born in Greece in 1894, who moved to Manchester in 1920 and eventually set up a family farm outside Altrincham; Clementine Altaras, born in Paris in 1885, who was a suffragette and a communist; and Clementine’s sister Sarah, known to the archive as Aunty Sarah, born in Aleppo in 1876, who was something of a South Manchester mensch, working as an unofficial midwife and a marriage broker, and who – unusually for a woman at the time – owned her own car.
Prouvost collaborated with current groups of women connected to MJM to bring the stories of these women to life, in both a short film and its textile framing that make up the installation. The 12 minute video offers a moment of divine surrealism as Prouvost masterfully works with video montage to explore themes of migration, ritual and belonging. Drawing on the symbolism of birds, she splices clips of doves into a scene set above the clouds, capturing a tea party in the sky attended by four contemporary local Sephardi women, their conversations referencing the stories of their forebears from the MJM archives.
Delving into the rich history of the Manchester-based Sephardi community, the short film operates on many levels. There are moments of simple yet intimate comedy – with one woman paraphrasing Aunty Sarah: ‘I was very much an institution, I had a car, remember!’ – and ruminative moments as Prouvost layers video clips with bird song, piano music and sounds from the natural world.
The screen showing the short film is bordered by an elaborate textile frame, created in collaboration with MJM’s women’s textiles group. Formed in 2019, the group meets twice monthly, bringing together Jewish women with connections to the Museum and women from the Hulme-based Ahmadi Muslim community. When lockdown began in March 2020 the group made a virtue of their remote Zoom call sessions, welcoming women from all over the UK and from a range of different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Led by the Manchester-based multimedia artist Jo Scorah, the textiles group has worked on a number of projects since forming, including creating a cover for a Sefer Torah prop used in learning sessions at MJM and a dress exploring themes of identity and family history. Made from panels of fabric collage, the dress featured self-portraits, nostalgic symbols of the women’s childhoods, and hand-embroidered quotes encapsulating specific moments and relationships from different women's lives. The dress and the process of creating it captures the beauty of the group’s dynamic as the women took pride in their differences and individual senses of self, yet equally embraced their coming together – both virtually during their Zoom calls and texturally as the panels were joined together to form the skirt of the dress.
Enchanted by the textiles group’s previous work and the ethos of their gathering, Prouvost asked the women to be involved in her MIF project. She sent the group a series of intricate preliminary sketches, with the four sides of the frame referencing elements from the lives of the four historic Sephardi women from the archives. They had two months to bring Prouvost’s vision to life through their textiles.
Samantha, a disabled stay-at-home mum who practices Paganism, was given the task of making the hands threading a needle on the right hand side of the frame – a reference to an earlier women’s textile group that many women in the museum’s oral histories archive spoke of fondly. Oana, who works in corporate tax compliance and lives in Lytham St Annes, used organza to embroider lettering onto the central sections of the frame. Felice, who lives in Manchester, painted the green silk with organic and fluid shapes, reminiscent of peacock feathers, continuing the theme of birds and migrations.
In a recent Zoom meeting of the textiles group, it was clear how eclectic it is, bringing together women from all walks of life, including a retired deputy headmistress and a speech therapist. ‘The Laure Prouvost installation ... gave us a purpose; something to pull us all together and something to talk about other than vaccinations and infection numbers,’ said one, Diane. ‘It was really nice to have something else to do,’ she added.
The women laughed about late night Whatsapp messages, where they recommended podcasts to one another while working on segments of the frame that needed to be popped into the post to be assembled the next day. They reflected on the experience and their achievement: ‘The work was of a higher standard than I thought I could do,’ said Hilary. There was a sense of harmony in the group's dynamic, even though, to this day, many of them have not met in person. Over Zoom, chuckles were shared and knowing looks exchanged. It is a harmony reflected in the beautiful union of their individual textile pieces in the final frame.
Rosy Akalawu-Ellman is a student and a writer from Withington, Manchester.