Palestinian embroidery is replete with tradition and nostalgia. But artist Majd Abdel Hamid uses this slow, meditative form to explore images of trauma, shock and atrocity.
Abdel Hamid, who is from Ramallah but lives in Beirut, is known for his work combining traditional embroidery techniques with references to media images and art history to comment on politics and conflict. “The art world looks down on craftsmanship, yet there’s so much that can be done with embroidery as a medium,” he tells The National.
Days after installing his first European solo show, A Stitch in Times, at La Verriere, the Brussels art space at the Fondation d'enterprise Hermes, he recalls the first embroideries he worked on, many years ago. “I commissioned a seamstress in Ramallah to sew a white square on white fabric, in homage to the avant-garde artist [Kazimir] Malevich’s Black Square,” he says. "But she refused and said it was a waste of time. I had to do it myself.”
Time features prominently in this new exhibition, which was curated by Guillaume Dessanges. It appears in the stitches that the artist has applied to everyday household objects, such as kitchen towels, bed sheets, T-shirts and used tablecloths.
Among them is a tea strainer with the numbers 607 embroidered on the rusting steel mesh, a reference to the time of the port explosion in Beirut. “It’s a reference to the clocks that stopped working after the port explosion. I feel like time has stopped in Beirut since, and we need to know what happened before it can resume again,” says Abdel Hamid, who was injured in the explosion.
A new work by the artist, entitled Double Bed Sheet (2021), is dedicated to Riad Al Turk, the Syrian dissident who spent 18 years in solitary confinement in a Syrian prison. “I’ve long been obsessed with him, and how he drew patterns using grains of lentils on the bed sheets of his cell to pass the time,” says Abdel Hamid.
For the work, the artist filmed himself unravelling the threads of a large bed sheet, with the voice of Al Turk in the background describing his time in prison. The same cloth appears alongside the video as an installation in the exhibition. The cotton threads hang above it, after being dipped in crystallised salt, so they resemble shards of frozen ice or stalactites. The artist had developed this technique using salt and cotton with an earlier commission for the Sharjah Art Foundation’s Spring Projects in 2015.
The show spans the artist’s work since he first settled in Beirut in 2014. “It’s the first time I see my work together in one room,” he says. Among these is a series of embroideries that were based on media images of the conflict in Syria, the world’s most documented conflict to date. These colourful abstract pieces depict barrel bombing and the civilians killed, using motifs from avant-garde and constructivist art. The resulting works contrast with the fast-paced nature of news images, freezing atrocities in time, rather than capturing them for a transient media space.
He has also explored maps of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and satellite mapping of the Syrian conflict. For his series Tadmur (2019), Abdel Hamid embroidered satellite images of the notorious Tadmur prison, which detained political dissidents in Syria, before and after its bombing by ISIS.
The show reveals the artist’s experiments with other mediums, such as video and literature, to comment on time and its passage. His video work Intathirha (Wait for her) (2019) is about a stateless person living in Beirut, who waits for the electricity to return in his building. The narrator repeats lines from Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s love poem of the same name.
Though Abdel Hamid’s work often blends art with politics and conflict, he is uncomfortable with the notion of making explicitly political work. The artist’s parents met as agents of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Syria, and he grew up under Israeli occupation in Ramallah. “But using images of the occupation in my work feels too invasive,” he says.
This, in part, motivated his decision to move to Beirut. “In Ramallah, I felt I was hitting a cement ceiling as an artist. You don’t talk to Palestinians, only about them. I didn’t want to become a spokesperson for the oppressed.”
Today, he finds himself in a new dilemma about Beirut, which is reeling from an economic crisis and recovering from the port explosion. Abdel Hamid was forced to produce part of the show from a hotel room in the city, owing to the extended power cuts in his residential building. “I can’t ignore what happened, and the reminders of the port explosion are everywhere,” he says, “At the same time, if I produce work about it I don’t want it to be a one-liner or to take an angry position.”
Nonetheless, the city and its crises feature prominently in the show, where the artist has embroidered slogans derived from Lebanon’s October 2019 revolution. Using white thread on a white pillow, he repeatedly embroiders the words, “Our Misery Doesn’t Have to be Like This”.
“A protester had painted those words on a wall in downtown Beirut. It kept haunting me,” he says.
Another series is based on Burj El Murr in Beirut, which was known as a sniper’s viewpoint during the Lebanese Civil War. “It’s a site of unbelievable trauma for the city. Anyone who occupied Beirut based themselves in that building,” he says. The works are a collage of embroidery and sewing techniques, where Burj El Murr appears as an unidentified rectangle, floating in an abstract composition of colourful geometric shapes.
For the first time, Abdel Hamid is contemplating leaving the city, like many artists and professionals of his generation. “I’m still not done with Beirut, but all of the bubbles that I crafted here are gone.”
A Stitch in Times is on show at La Verriere in Brussels until Saturday, December 4