Robbin Henderson says her grandmother Matilda fought injustice “until her dying breath.” But she didn’t know the extent of Matilda’s activism until the discovery of a memoir, found after her death in 1963.
The 100-page tome details Matilda’s turn-of-the-last-century exploits as a garment and autoworkers organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World — known as the Wobblies — a radical union active in the early 1900s.
“I was very close to her as a kid and I do feel a connection with her,” Henderson said of her grandmother. “She was much braver than I am, and I always really admired her.”
Decades later, Henderson, 73, wanted to honor her grandmother the best way she knew how, so the Berkeley artist created a series of drawings to illustrate the memoir. “Matilda: Immigrant, Wobbly, Feminist” is part of “Chasing Justice,” a new exhibition at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.
The exhibit, which also features works by artists Johanna Barron and Arnold Mesches, explores through art the Torah commandment to “seek justice and pursue it.” The exhibit premiered at the CJM this week and runs through February 2016.
More than 50 of the 160 images in Henderson’s series are included. Done on Masonite scratchboard, the stark black-and-white drawings depict key moments in Matilda’s life, from her Ukrainian shtetl girlhood in the 1800s to her family’s tempest-tossed crossing of the Atlantic to New York’s Lower East Side.
They also include evocative depictions of the harsh working conditions in garment factories and auto plants, striking workers and Matilda standing on her soapbox promoting the union and her progressive vision.
“Matilda’s last name was Rabinovich, meaning son of the rabbi,” Henderson says. “She was an atheist and an internationalist, and not connected to [Judaism] at all. But just being brought up in that atmosphere, hearing her father dispute with his friends various principles of the Torah, that certainly influenced her perceptions.”
CJM chief curator Renny Pritikin assembled the artwork, which he says salutes the longstanding tradition of Jewish political activists in the United States.
“It seemed a no-brainer to represent that tradition,” he says. “Jews throughout the 20th century have primarily been progressives, leftists, sometimes communists. I wanted to touch on that.”
Pritikin first encountered Henderson and her drawings a few years ago when he sat on a jury for art fellowships. Though she didn’t win a fellowship, she made an impression on Pritikin, who wanted her work shown at the CJM.
Bringing in the work of artists Barron and Mesches rounded out the concept of chasing justice. The Portland, Oregon-based Barron, who earned her master’s in fine arts at U.C. Davis, contributed “Acres of Walls,” her smaller-scale re-creations of paintings that hung on the walls of CIA headquarters in the 1970s — art that was inaccessible to the public at the time.
Barron’s display also includes documentation of her correspondence with the CIA, including denials, appeals and redacted pages collected while she sought access to the art through the Freedom of Information Act.
Mesches, 92, whose work has been shown at the Whitney Museum in New York and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., was a left-leaning activist during the McCarthy era, earning himself a hefty FBI file.
Instead of getting mad, he got artistic, turning pages of that file, obtained many years later through the Freedom of Information Act, into colorful collages collectively titled “The FBI Files.” Ten of those images are included in “Chasing Justice.”
Preparing to mount the exhibition, Pritikin and his staff met with San Francisco State University Jewish studies professor Marc Dollinger, who offered his take on the American way of tikkun olam — repairing the world.
“He really challenged us,” Pritikin recalls. “His interpretation of the Hebrew Bible is that all these values, aspirations and goals that make up tikkun olam evolved since Jews came to America. He felt that if you look closely at the older texts, justice was pursued for Jews. It’s been part of the Americanization of Jewish people to broaden that to include all people.”
That evolving ethos opened the door to the secularization of tzedakah and the prominent role Jews played in the progressive movements of the last 120 years.
Henderson says her grandmother typified that activism.
“Women were second-class citizens in the early years of the 20th century, when Matilda became a socialist,” Henderson says. “She chafed against this discrimination as she did against all forms of it. She experienced it both as a Jewish child in Russia and as a woman seeking autonomy and fulfillment.”
“Chasing Justice,” through Feb. 21, 2016 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. Related programs include “Art for Activism” for teens, at 3 p.m. Dec. 6, and a staged reading of Howard Zinn’s play “Emma,” for adults, at 1 p.m. Dec. 13. www.thecjm.org