Palestine’s famous square, cross-stitched embroidery – tatreez in Arabic – has grown into a symbol of the country and its struggle, transcending its workaday origins.
Tatreez has also been picked up by artists, drawn to its cultural and historical significance as well as its sheer beauty: the complexity of the formal motifs; the symmetry of the recursive geometry; and the variation in patterns, many of which are unique to villages, tribes, and even families.
Now, as part of London art space the Mosaic Rooms’s digital programme, artist Jordan Nassar is teaching others to cross-stitch the Palestinian patterns, drawing on his own embroidery practice.
He has uploaded a PDF document with one of his bespoke designs for others to follow at home, along with a video tutorial of tips he has picked up in his 10 years of embroidery.
In some ways, Nassar is a perfect teacher; he too learnt the tradition of embroidery as an adult, teaching himself after a trip to Palestine and Israel in 2012.
Nassar’s father is Palestinian and mother Polish. He grew up in New York’s Upper West Side as a typical third-culture kid, in a house filled with both Palestinian and Polish knickknacks, English as the main language, and Arabic lessons on the weekends.
While traditionally the art of tatreez is practiced by women, and mostly adorns the fronts and cuffs of their dresses, Nassar’s version updates it to reflect contemporary motifs – computers appear from time to time, and he has likened embroidery to pixelation – and he has shifted its orientation from design to art.
He embroiders his patterns on an unbleached woven cotton cloth, which he stretches afterwards to be hung on the wall as canvases. The simile is deliberate: the works also incorporate landscape elements, embedding postcard-like outlines of mountains and suns among the neat rows of tatreez designs.
“This kind of embroidery was so ubiquitous in my house, that [when I returned] I thought of it immediately,” he says.
“I got a needle and thread and started trying it out. I found some books about it, started learning, and the learning curve was really intense. I started to realise how rich this medium was and the wheels got turning with things to do. This is the only medium I’ve ever worked in.”
The career of the Brooklyn artist has risen quickly since.
After stitching traditional patterns for a few years as a hobby, one day he introduced the form of a mountain. He put an image of the finished work on Instagram, and a director of Anat Ebgi gallery in Los Angeles messaged him "immediately," he says, asking to see more.
Nassar did not go to art school, but had worked in galleries in Berlin and at Printed Matter, an important site for art book publishing, in New York before becoming an artist. The gallery took him on, and the solo booth they gave him at Frieze New York in 2017 – with his brightly coloured stitches, painstakingly sewn – became one of the stand-out presentations of the fair.
Now, in addition to Anat Ebgi, he shows with the galleries Third Line in Dubai and James Cohan in New York, and the Whitney Museum has recently acquired a piece by Nassar.
A side career as creative director for the fashion brand Adish has also taken off. The label’s embroidered designs are sold at luxury emporiums such as Dover Street Market and Galeries Lafayette.
But if Nassar’s rise suggests a familiar – if rapid – uptake of a promising young artist in New York, some of his working methods could be criticised in light of the Israel-Palestine crisis.
Adish, for example, is a joint Israeli-Palestinian partnership. The name comes from the Hebrew for “apathetic” and is inspired, the website says, by “the hope for change”. The cloth used for the Levantine-inspired casual wear is bought and sewn in Israel and sent over to Palestine to be embroidered – a pathway so unusual, Adish has had to create its own supply lines. Suppliers meet, says Nassar, in a parking lot in Beit Jala in Zone B, where Israelis and Palestinians can both go. Then “they exchange garbage bags of clothing that is going to end up at [shops] Opening Ceremony or Dover Street Market,” he says.
Nassar’s art practice also encourages engagement between the countries. Unlike other Palestinian artists who refuse to collaborate with Israeli institutions, Nassar has shown at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, and regularly visits friends in Israel. He is defensive about this decision, explaining that the stance of the BDS movement, which calls for boycotting, divestment and sanctions against Israel, often does not correlate with the realities on the ground. Palestinians and Israelis exist in the same economic sphere and – out of necessity or tolerance – work together.
“I feel confident at this point that I am entrenched enough in both sides that I’m able to have an opinion,” he says. But he adds: “It does not have to be everyone’s opinion.”
The status of tatreez as a symbol of Palestinian resistance gives Nassar’s adaptation of the cultural form particular political weight. While Nassar used to do all his embroidery himself, now that his career has taken off he commissions some of the Palestinian women who do contract work for Adish to also embroider for his art projects. The women generally stitch at home, working with Nassar collaboratively, where they choose a palette or pattern that Nassar later completes, or also start projects on his behalf. This isn't uncommon in the art world, where artists often outsource parts of their projects.
Today, Nassar's works sell for around $10,000 to $20,000 (Dh36,700 to 73,400).
“I’ve talked to them about it, and they are aware that these are artworks that are sold for more money,” says Nassar. “They are not interested in a percentage of the sales price, because for them they need the money [now] – not if it sells in a year. It really comes down to whatever they want to bill me.”
When it returns to New York, Nassar says the embroideries operate as “soft activism”, opening conversations around Palestinian culture that are separate from the cliche of conflict. And the popularity of his practice, as well as his success in adding new forms to the tradition, has made it apparent that the embroidery can exist in other contexts – whether on the art market or, indeed via the Mosaic Rooms, in the homes of non-Palestinians.
“This is Palestinian in terms of the medium, because that is who I am,” Nassar says. “What the work speaks to hopefully is something more universal and timeless.”
The pattern for Jordan Nassar’s design can be downloaded at www.mosaicrooms.org