"Delving into a wardrobe is an act of personal archaeology," Barbara Brownie once wrote. But our clothes also tell a larger story of the social landscapes in which they are created, worn and displayed. This understanding inspired curator and writer Rachel Dedman to set out to trace the social and political history of Palestinian embroidery, a craft that has come to vividly reflect a celebration of Palestine and its cultural heritage. Rachel's two-year long research and field work across the region resulted in the exhibition "At the Seams".
Bridal gowns with embroidered chest sleeves, velvet 'taqsireh' jackets, silk shawls, linen dresses, all delicately embroidered in colourful patterns and motifs. Historically, every region and even every single town across Palestine has its own embroidery and costume traditions, with particular stitches, fabrics and designs. A woman's embroidered dress would reveal where she was from, as well as her marital status. Yet in "At the Seams", we are invited to look beyond the regional diversity and specificity of embroidery practices in Palestine.
"I wanted to uncover the economic structures in which Palestinian embroidery is created, and the various social and political meanings that the tradition has acquired throughout the past 100 years," Rachel explains. "Embroidery has transitioned from the private and domestic spheres to become part of a nationalist narrative: revival of the craft became a means of resistance. Also, the Nakba meant that after 1948 women increasingly embroidered for pay."
- You are however critical of NGOs and other professional organisations that employ Palestinian women, whether in Palestine or in neighbouring countries, to embroider for international export.
"Embroidery organisations have a rich history within Palestine and Lebanon: Inaash al-Usra and Inaash al-Mukhayim, for example, were founded in the 1960s with the aim of enacting political change alongside providing social support and relief to refugees. Their revival of heritage contributed to embroidery’s continued presence in Palestine today, and they positively changed the lives of many. The role of Inaash al-Usra in women’s liberation and the resistance is not to be understated. However, I am interested in how embroidery organisations tend to operate today, in a neo-liberal environment. My criticism is structural, rather than personal. I think we need to question the 'empowerment' voiced by NGO rhetoric, usually defined in economic terms, and consider the effects upon women of embroidering en masse, for little pay, without the creative agency to design their own work. Palestinian embroidery’s cultural and financial value is contingent, in part, on notions of its ‘authenticity’. Yet, when one looks at how embroidery is practiced today, it bears little relation to historic practices. This is natural – people’s ways of life are different now. But notions of ‘empowerment’ and ‘authenticity’, which take centre-stage in the sale of heritage objects, can mask the uncomfortable realities of the women that make them.”
Credits: Tanya Traboulsi
- So the authenticity of what is being embroidered today is questionable?
"My point is that the idea of ‘authenticity’ in relation to Palestinian embroidery is constructed. It’s a construction dependent upon ideas of embroidery as something ancient, timeless, practiced by women (the gendered nature of embroidery is important in this), which became associated in the 1970s with the nationalist political project in Palestine.
One irony of organisations’ emphasis on authentic design is that, over time, the richness and variety of Palestinian motifs and stitches have decreased. To take the example of Palestinian women in Lebanon, where most refugees are originally from the Galilee, those working for embroidery NGOs rarely find themselves embroidering the motifs, colours and techniques which their great-great-grandmothers would have used, many generations back. Instead, they copy designs from central and coastal Palestine, such as Ramallah, Hebron, Jerusalem and Gaza. The techniques and styles that originated in the Galilee and the south of Palestine have been largely forgotten. This is in part due to the homogenisation of the thob in refugee camps and the loss of specialist skill, but the perpetuation of this simplification by organisations is problematic and rarely addressed.
I love seeing the things made by women today, outside of NGO contexts, either for themselves or on commission, which use colours, motifs, shapes and forms that are not at all ‘traditional’ or formally ‘authentic’. These pieces are rarely published, studied or shown in exhibition. And yet, they remain, of course, Palestinian embroideries, because Palestinian women stitched them. I think we need to expand our understanding and definition of ‘tradition’ and think critically about the practices carried out in its name.”
- You have researched the process of politicisation of Palestinian embroidery, particularly in the 1970s and again during the first Intifada, and how this impacted the women engaged in the making of embroidered dress.
"From the 1960s onwards, embroidery, along with other markers of tradition and heritage, was seized upon as a way of fighting Zionist claims to the land of Palestine. It became a way of proving that Palestinians existed and had existed for a long time. Textiles are personal, physical and tactile, as well as visually powerful. In a way, they are more permanent and tangible than music, dance and food, so embroidery became a tool in asserting those claims. Taken up by ‘Liberation Artists’, a powerful imagery emerged of women wearing embroidered dresses as one symbol in the attempt to visually represent Palestinian longevity and nationhood. Embroidery was no longer simply a personal affair, it became an emblem of the nationalist project.
Later on, during the first Intifada, women took up a front-line role in protest. At a time when Palestinian colours were banned in public and flags were confiscated, women started embroidering explicit motifs of resistance onto their dresses: the mosque of al-Aqsa, doves holding rifles, or historic cypress motifs reworked in Palestinian colours. These were signs of explicit nationalism, worn in public during the demonstrations. These dresses are extraordinary records of a political moment, and rendered the bodies of the women who wore them sites of political agency. Against the reductive symbolism of the embroidered-women in paintings and posters, these dresses reflected their makers as political subjects.”
- You travelled across Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine to meet and interview Palestinian women that embroider today. What did you learn from these encounters?
"From the beginning of the project I felt strongly that it was important to set at the heart of the exhibition the voices of those women who continue to embroider today across the region. There are many of us out there who like to purchase embroidery and do so in part to support the women who make it. Yet those women remain largely invisible in public life, and are rarely the ones celebrated in shows and books. I am happy the exhibition features so many of their stories.
Though embroidery is painstakingly slow and doesn't pay much, almost all the women we met were proud to do it. Some live in difficult circumstances in refugee camps, while others embroider for NGOs, or independently, from home. For Palestinians in Lebanon and Jordan, embroidery became a way of enacting a connection to Palestine. For everyone, embroidery was considered a kind of resistance.
They changed my perceptions of embroidery as it exists today. For all of the discursive emphasis on tradition and the past, Palestinian embroidery is a living, contemporary activity – women who embroider independently showed me the inspiration they garner from Facebook and Pinterest."
- 'At the Seams' was the first satellite exhibition of the newly opened Palestinian Museum in Birzeit, and kicked off in Beirut in May 2016. What is next on the journey?
"We are expanding and extending the exhibition for a new iteration at the Palestinian Museum’s main site in Birzeit in spring 2018. It will have a new title, new curatorial structure, new design, and different objects. Most of the material we borrowed for At the Seams came from collections in Beirut and Amman, which cannot easily be taken into Palestine. So this has been an exciting opportunity to partner with local collections and museums within the West Bank and Jerusalem, as well as from generous individuals lending us their dresses! As before, we will combine around 100 dresses and embroideries with paintings, posters, archival material, photography and video.”
- So what are some of the novel aspects you've covered for the expanded exhibition?
"This iteration of the exhibition explores embroidery through the thematic lenses of gender, labour, symbol and class. This has allowed us stretch the research in new directions. For instance, I was curious about scenarios in which embroidery’s seemingly fixed gender roles break down. Do men embroider? In which settings? When I asked the women we interviewed, they would often tell me their husbands and sons enjoyed embroidery – but that they would never talk about it in public. However, this shifts in the indisputably masculine space of the prison. Men who were put in Israeli jails as political prisoners produced amazing embroideries as a way of fighting boredom inside and asserting national solidarity. Often they had to improvise materials, sneaking them in and out of the prison through friends and family. The pieces often reflect Palestinian identity – through Palestinian colours and images of national significance – but many also exhibit love and fidelity to mothers and wives. Embroidery became a way of expressing love for the homeland, as well as for their families. But once outside this particular setting, it is no longer socially acceptable for men to publically engage in embroidery."
- Would you sometimes feel that you are on a mission to protect a heritage that is at risk?
"Many people are doing this, in admirable ways. And it seems to me that embroidery is very much alive. I’ve been privileged to work with so many inspiring women. An important lesson for me was to think of Palestinian embroidery as a process, not an end-product. My job is not to record a specific historical narrative, or to uncritically celebrate heritage, but to ask questions and open up understandings about a loaded cultural material. It is important for me to address, for instance, the class divide that runs through the making and wear of Palestinian embroidery. Embroidery is an expensive commodity, which means many Palestinians who embroider cannot afford to buy what they make. The wear of embroidery products becomes something possible predominantly from the middle and upper classes. This isn’t always easy to talk about, but it needs to be discussed."
- What do you want people to remember after having visited the exhibition?
"That is a tough question, as visitors make up their own minds, and I don’t want the show to be didactic. I do hope people will emerge with the idea that embroidery is not fixed. We long to think of cultural heritage as static and rooted, as passing unaffected from one generation to another. In reality, Palestinian embroidery, as with most cultural practices, has shifted and transformed with the realities of the times, and the lives of those making it. For me embroidery’s ability to transform and be transformative is what makes it so fascinating."
Photo credits: Tanya Traboulsi
Find out more about "At the Seams" on the website of the Palestinian Museum.