Camille Eskell’s beautiful Jewish art

Camille Eskell has always been surrounded by Fez caps. She spoke on this topic, as well as many others related to her art, in a virtual talk on Thursday, April 1. At the event, she was interviewed by Dr. Sivan Rajuan Shtang, a Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI) Research Associate, for about half an hour, before the floor opened up for a Q&A. 

Prior to the interview, the hosts of the panel provided some background information on Fez hats in a PowerPoint. The Fez hat was described as “a cultural object that marks a politically charged cross road” between the Middle East and Africa. According to the PowerPoint, this style of hat was very popular in the times of the Ottoman Empire, to the point where it was outlawed in Turkey in 1925 with the collapse of the empire. The slideshow also showed many pictures of what the hats looked like, a good reminder considering all of Eskell’s art featured them. 

This proved to be good background information to have as Eskell started describing her influences and inspirations. She spoke about how both of her grandfathers dealt with Fez caps. It was “the bedrock of the family on both sides.” To Eskell, it became more than just a Jewish cultural symbol; it was “symbolic of family, of commerce, of life.”

Eskell created an entire collection of art using Fez caps in every single installation. She created this as part of the Jewish Art Salon’s “Silent Witnesses” exhibition about dead and dying synagogues, she said. She recalled being inspired by her father’s synagogue in Bombay, which was being renovated, and created her first piece in the collection, “Red Fez: Boy, Woman, Byculla, Bombay”—showing the synagogue welcoming of the boys, regardless of age, to sit close, while regulating women to the balcony seats. The Fez is a gorgeous dark red with a blue tassel. 

She didn’t only use Fez to tell her story, though. Eskell described using other garments, particularly women’s garments, to continue her collection. Life is a “melding of all these influences,” she said, describing why it was necessary to use more than just Fez hats.

Her piece “Smear Tactics” is practically unrecognizable as a Fez—or, at least, I certainly wouldn’t’ve known if not for this interview. She used a sleeve to make the majority of this work. 

A lot of her work highlights poor treatment of women by men. For Eskell, this is something sadly unescapable. “Psychologically, we are always bonded to them,” she said, before elaborating that “them” included family, patriarchy and control over women. She expressed that she had always felt that she was “being confined, being held back” by men in her life. These themes were particularly explored in her piece, “Marriage Turban Fez: To Have and To Hold.” She explained that this transformed Fez was a play on both a veil and a prayer shawl—traditional symbols of Jewish women and men, respectively. 

The Fez itself is wrapped in blue and white striped fabric, something very commonly found on Jewish prayer shawls worn during prayer and special occasions, known as tallit. From there, there is a gauzy, lacy veil that hangs down to the floor, clearly representing the bride. The bottom of the veil is decorated with smiling women in a blue coloring, matching the stripes on the Fez. At the very bottom of the veil, in the corners, Eskell copied the style of tzitzit, creating specially knotted fringes to parallel the ones found on tallit. This is probably my favorite piece in the collection because she so beautifully showcases the two different sides of her story through very common Jewish symbols. This feels like a very universal piece, one that anyone with knowledge of Judaism or Jewish culture can understand and sympathize with. 

The entirety of her collection can be explored on Eskell’s website or on the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute website. HBI describes the exhibition as exploring “deeply ingrained gender biases in cultural and religious practices through the lens of domestic relationships.” Other exhibition materials include Eskell’s artist bio and further detail on this collection. 
This interview was the second Camille Eskell event at Brandeis. The event was titled “Taking Over the Crown: Camille Eskell’s ‘The Fez as Storyteller’” and ran from two to 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 1. This event was co-sponsored by HBI and the Vilna Shul.

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