Camille Eskell and the Plight of the Fez-Maker’s Granddaughter

For artist Camille Eskell, the fez is laden with potent personal symbolic meaning as vast as its far-reaching mix of geographical and socio-cultural connotations. 

“I often use the fez cap,” she elucidates, “as a structural base for storytelling to signify the foundation, and the patriarchal base, established by both my grandfathers.” 

Her grandfathers, resourceful patriarchs of an Iraqi Jewish family, were transplants to Bombay (present-day Mumbai) three generations ago. Trading in the fez caps in their adopted country, the iconic headwear was a major source of income for her family, newly settled in a foreign land. Then, later on, her immigrant uncle and father established the family business in New York where Camille is a first-generation American. 

Baghdadi Jews arrived in India at the end of the 18th century and established large, influential communities in Bombay, Calcutta, and Poona. According to Joan G. Roland, Tamar Marge Gubbay, and Jael Siliman, “Baghdadi Jews came as a business community during the British Raj. The Jewish community,” they explain, “imbibed both Western and Indian cultural impulses,” especially British ones (Jewish Women’s Archive, 2022). In general, Baghdadi Jewish women enjoyed lives that were less restrictive than those of the majority of Indian women although they were still bound by strict, gendered moral codes. 

“The women have commandeered the fez or else they have rendered it purely decorative – or both.”

In Useless Females: Don’t Stand There Like a Decoration from Words of My Father, a mixed media sculpture Camille produced in 2019, the fez figures prominently. In fact, it crowns a pair of disembodied legs covered with elaborate, gold-and-yellow patterning. Elegant slippers on the feet contrast with the bronze tray on a wooden coffee table. The fez is intricately decorated with beads, needlework and crimson fabric on which images of the artist and her sister are juxtaposed with static, female figures and an extravagant golden tree, “excerpted,” notes Camille, from an Indian temple wall hanging.” The women have commandeered the fez or else they have rendered it purely decorative – or both.

Camille explained, regarding Useless Females and its companion work, Don’t Stand There Like a Bloody Momo (a reference completely unfamiliar to her and her sister), “The title is a compilation of hurtful invectives directed by my father to his daughters when he was angry and frustrated.” Her father, she revealed, regarded women as “ineffective,” “dolls, without purpose.” an attitude he “absorbed from the culture.” 

As a proxy for her father and, one assumes, her grandfathers, the fez is the functional head of the body – of the family: contentiously. It would be wholly incapacitated – immobile at the least – without the aid of the feminine legs supporting it atop their ad hoc dais. Meanwhile, the fez-sporting father and husband wears the women of his family like skin, like garments, like trophies, like his very foundation.

Click image to enlarge.

Amongst this plurality of signs and materials reflecting Camille’s hybrid identity, the fez demands constant consideration. “In the Middle East,” she points out, “the hats were worn by Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike.” In stringently hierarchical Ottoman society, headwear styles denoted an individual’s social standing as much as their religious affiliation. The introduction of the fez precipitated considerable and persistent social ambiguity. Scholar of Indian History Margrit Pernau explains, “The choice of headgear – whether imposed by the state, a ruling group or following fashion and individual taste – both creates and expresses an identity, at the personal as well as at the collective level.” 

The origins of the fez are unclear. It takes its name from the Moroccan city, Fez, but is thought to have been either Tunisian, Moroccan, or Greek in origin. It has evolved over several centuries from a brimless cap around which a turban was wrapped to the familiar, red-tasseled, brimless hat. It reached the pinnacle of its popularity during the Ottoman Empire when Sultan Mahmud II initiated extensive, Westernizing reforms of the military, adopting a more Western style for not only the military but also civil officials. At the same time, he banned the wearing of turbans. 

“In her work, the fez tells its stories as a continuously contested symbol “for the cultural and family/patriarchal foundation.”

Hat, fez, or turban, color, method of wrapping or tying, and so forth could signal instantly a person’s community or group affiliation. Pernau emphasizes, “This community may be the Islamic umma, but it may also be regionally, ethnically, linguistically or socially defined.” Above all else, for Camille, the fez has come to represent “what is traditionally male and Middle Eastern.” In her work, the fez tells its stories as a continuously contested symbol “for the cultural and family/patriarchal foundation.”

Camille’s art grapples with her family’s evolving complex of identities and her own struggle to extricate her own sense of self from the tangled threads of inheritance. With her mixed media work, Marriage Turban Fez (2017), the family enterprises coalesce to produce a bridal veil replete with personal and historical references. The veil, wrapped around a fez in keeping with earlier traditions, is bordered with family portraits in blue tones. The bride, explains Camille, is her mother “and her three daughters depicted from infancy to adolescence.” The women are tightly bound by patriarchal constraints “discouraging individual growth and independence, much like the cohesive nature of a tribe,” writes the artist.

The turban features a pattern resembling that of a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl. Its fringes, called “tzit tzit,” are woven and knotted in the Sephardic Jewish style. An evil eye stares out from the center of a Star of David as a “protective amulet.” It is a hybrid garment for a hybrid identity. It surely goes without saying that clothing is not merely functional but, rather, as Lili Hernández puts it, is “worn in appropriation of a value system.”

In Crossing Cultural Boundaries: Taboo, Bodies, and Identities (2009), Camille elaborates: “A particular ‘code of dress,’ is developed over a period of time [and] corresponds to all the potent variants: culture and tradition, values and ideals, religion and rituals, ceremonies and celebrations, profession, gender and space, etc.”

The colors, forms, textures, and materials of Camille’s composite garments constructed and reimagined as family portraits do not merely challenge longstanding biases, whether familial or tribal. Tense allegations, resentments, and refusals – all justified – unfold as adornments as though looking pretty negated the hindrance conferred by a veil, an oppressively weighty robe, or slippers too delicate to facilitate everyday activities.

With her work, Camille draws family and cultural secrets from the fez: hints of violence mitigated by sumptuous textures, colors, materials – visions of great beauty, tales of the exotic “Orient.” 

Cultural assimilation is, to say the least, tricky and extremely contingent on a host of factors such as economic status, gender, religion, the existence of a similar host culture in one’s adopted country, and so forth. With her work, Camille draws family and cultural secrets from the fez: hints of violence mitigated by sumptuous textures, colors, materials – visions of great beauty, tales of the exotic “Orient,” and much more. 

No doubt the fez empowers patriarchal forces, asserts its worldliness (a world of men), and it invites subversion (an incursion of the feminine) as discussed above. In a powerful mixed-media work titled, Dis-Miss: Let Me Entertain You (2022) the fez takes a different form: fetish-object; that is, two of the iconic caps comprise the gilded, tasseled breasts of a belly dancer. Camille provides context for the piece: on special occasions, her family went together to a Middle Eastern-style night club in Manhattan and watched belly dancers perform. “Belly dancing is a time-honored cultural entertainment to be enjoyed. We all loved watching the very accomplished and sensual dancers.”

She found the sexuality of the performances powerful. Yet, she adds, belly dancing “can be looked at as the mere function of a woman – to be a sexual object.” Also featured in Dis-Miss: Let Me Entertain You, are harem women: “Kept women,” Camille emphasizes, “objects to be stockpiled and used whenever the male desires.” A central dancer with a violet skirt that trails between the fez-breasts like deep cleavage might avail herself of the legs from Don’t Stand There. Rather, in place of feet, she perches on a Star of David, seemingly another protective amulet or perhaps, at the least, a coded reminder of her place in this insular world?

Camille’s multi-media sculpture, Useless Females: Don’t Stand There Like a Decoration is currently on display at the CAMP (Contemporary Art Modern Project) Gallery in Miami. It is one of several artworks in a group exhibition titled, This is Not a Doll’s House. Featuring the work of more than 40 fiber artists, it is the fifth annual Women Pulling at the Threads of Social Discourse show organized at The CAMP Gallery. Artworks in the exhibition, which runs until December 29, explore in various ways issues relating to, notes the CAMP, “gender and identity in the 21st century.”

When asked why this work was selected for the exhibition, Camille mused, “I think that the curator may have selected this particular work as it speaks to the condition of women being considered ‘decorations,’ still, ineffectual – the sense of the legs being immovable or doll-like… and the young girls depicted on the fez cap like dressed-up dolls.”

Recently, Camille has been working on another multimedia sculpture, a cape-like garment with “an accompanying crown, inspired by that of the Mesopotamian Queen Puabi.” Combining textiles with digital collage, she has pivoted from the fez to the crown and, pointedly, one conferred on a woman: the ornate royal headdress found in the tomb of Queen Puabi in the Royal Cemetery at Ur. While her status is somewhat disputed – perhaps she was a powerful priestess or else a queen who ruled in her own right or beside a king – the objects and sacrificed servants in her tomb indicate she was powerful. 

Thus, Camille returns to Iraq, albeit to Ur in ancient Mesopotamia where, according to the Penn Museum, which holds the crown (headdress) in its collection, “women filled many roles that brought strength to their communities.” Exploring and mapping her family’s migrations through her work, through the ultimate empowering headwear of an exalted woman, the artist seems to seek a fresh point (and story) of origin, pre-dating the fez, pre-dating displacements, and pre-dating both personal and public anguish in the face of patriarchy.

© Debra Thimmesch (11/28/23) — Special for FF2 Media


Visit Camille Eskell’s website to see more of her work.

Camille’s work is currently featured in the CAMP Gallery’s exhibition This Is Not a Doll House  in North Miami (FL), as part of their the fifth annual Women Pulling at The Threads of Social Discourse series. The This Is Not a Doll House exhibition runs through 12/29/23.

For transcultural background, read Margrit Pernau’s Shifting Globalities—Changing Headgear: The Indian Muslims Between Turban, Hat And Fez in the Translocality Global Studies Journal.

For historical background, read Joan G. Roland, Tamar Marge Gubbay, and Jael Siliman’s Baghdadi Jewish Women in India in the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Learn more about The Headdress of Queen Puabi at the Penn Museum Collection.

Read Lili Hernandez’s work, as quoted above, in Crossing Cultural Boundaries: Taboo, Bodies and Identities.


Featured Photo/Middle Photo: Camille’s Dis-Miss: Let Me Entertain You. 

Bottom Photo: Camille’s Marriage Turban Fez. 

Images provided by Camille Eskell and used with her permission. All Rights Reserved.

Tags: Baghdadi Jews, Camille Eskell, Debra Thimmesch, female artist, fez cap, Interview, Jewish Culture, Jewish Women Artists, Mizrachi Jewish Culture, Sephardic Jewish Culture

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Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in art history and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink, decolonize, and reframe the study and pedagogy of art history. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal.
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