Skip Navigation

Elaine Reichek: A Postcolonial Kinderhood Revisited

August 23, 2013 - October 20, 2013

ShareOverview

Elaine Reichek, Sampler (Laura Engel), from A Postcolonial Kinderhood
“exceptionally savvy and elegant” – >The New York Times

In 1993 the Jewish Museum commissioned Elaine Reichek to create an installation that explored her personal identity. She was a natural for the project: her work at the time was preoccupied with marginalized cultures—Irish, Native American, and other threatened peoples. Yet probing her American Jewish identity presented new complexities and paradoxes. Were Jews still marginalized in the United States? Had they not seamlessly assimilated into American culture? What barriers, if any, still limited Jewish inclusion in the American mainstream? A Postcolonial Kinderhood, installed in 1994, probed the fears and embarrassments—real or imagined—that still prevailed among many American Jews.

Reichek’s parents, first-generation Americans, had become middle-class, a cultural transformation that took form in the details of their 1950s Brooklyn home. Reimagining her childhood bedroom, Reichek displayed her parents’ acquisition of the American dream through colonial-style furnishings.

The childhood bedroom became the central metaphor of the installation. This is the room where children sleep and play, where childhood dreams and nightmares merge. Reichek darkened the room and made the furniture slightly smaller than normal, so that visitors feel off-kilter, anxious, foreign.

She used a combination of handmade and store-bought furnishings: a canopy bed, washstand, wrought-iron lamp, fire screen, and braided rugs. These are interspersed with Reichek’s family photographs and her signature embroidered textiles. The decor, with its patriotic overtones of Protestant New England tradition, reflects the conscious yearning of Jews to claim a place in the American past.

In this reinstallation the artist has added several components. These include a video, Bon Voyage, made from a 1934 home movie of her in-laws’ honeymoon. A bulletin board displays documentation of the original installation; another includes information about the process of making the piece, along with family pictures and other personal memorabilia.

Reichek had adopted thread as a medium early on; later, she began to use needlework in her cultural explorations. Here she subverts the moral and religious messages of traditional eighteenth- and nineteenth-century samplers. She canvassed her family and friends for quotes about their Jewish identity. A comment from her daughter reads, “The parents of Jewish boys love me. I am the closest thing to a shiksa without being one.” The bedspread grumbles in Yiddish, “What do you want from me?”

A Postcolonial Kinderhood was created at the apex of American multiculturalism and identity politics. One of the earliest major works to confront the paradoxes of American Jewish identity, it remains resonant in this age of globalism.

Norman Kleeblatt
Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator

Elaine Reichek (American, b. 1943)
Sampler (Laura Engel), from A Postcolonial Kinderhood, 1993
Embroidery on linen
18 5/8 x 20 1/2 in. (47.3 x 52.1 cm)
The Jewish Museum, New York
Purchase: Melva Bucksbaum, Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Shafran, and Joan Kaplan Gifts; Fine Arts Acquisitions Committee Fund; and Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro, Cheryl and Henry Welt, Paula Krulak, Toby Devan Lewis, and Henry Buhl Gifts, 1997-195i
Photo by Richard Goodbody, Inc.

Plan Your Visit

The Jewish Museum - 5th Avenue
1109 5th Ave at 92nd St
New York NY 10128

Hours

close
Elaine Reichek, Sampler (Laura Engel), from A Postcolonial Kinderhood

Elaine Reichek (American, b. 1943) Sampler (Laura Engel), from A Postcolonial Kinderhood, 1993 Embroidery on linen 18 5/8 x 20 1/2 in. (47.3 x 52.1 cm) The Jewish Museum, New York Purchase: Melva Bucksbaum, Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Shafran, and Joan Kaplan Gifts; Fine Arts Acquisitions Committee Fund; and Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro, Cheryl and Henry Welt, Paula Krulak, Toby Devan Lewis, and Henry Buhl Gifts, 1997-195g Photo by Richard Goodbody, Inc.