For Palestinians living under occupation or in refugee camps throughout Jordan and Lebanon, a needle and thread can be potent weapons of political protest.
The history of embroidery is the focus of the newly-opened Palestinian Museum's first satellite exhibition in Lebanon. Curated by Rachel Dedman, At the Seams: a Political History of Palestinian Embroidery shines a light on the personal and political stories stitched onto everything from 100-year-old wedding gowns to Intifada dresses. It is also the inaugural exhibition at Beirut's Dar El-Nimer for Arts and Culture, a not-for-profit art foundation.
“I was very lucky to have been given the opportunity to conduct deep and wide-ranging research and to try to shed new light on traditional material,” says Dedman.
Although Palestinian embroidery has a long and rich history with which most people are familiar, the independent curator and art historian felt it was deserving of fresh consideration beyond, as she puts it, a “purely historiographical lens”.
“Most exhibitions tend to deal with [Palestinian] embroidery in isolation, focusing only on the most spectacular wedding pieces and stopping entirely at 1948,” she says. “I was really intrigued by the idea of extending the story beyond the Nakba, understanding embroidery as an active, living craft today, and as something that is political.”
Dedman travelled throughout the Levant, conducting dozens of interviews with men and women who either embroidered independently or in cooperatives. “I began to see that [embroidery] had also intersected big-picture political events in fascinating and sometimes unexpected ways,” she says. “One great example of this is during the first Intifada, when women began to embroider explicit motifs of nationalism and Palestinian power into their thobes.”
While she said there are different stories about how this politicisation began, Dedman notes it probably started in Qalandiya camp or the villages around Hebron when protestors weren’t allowed to fly Palestinian flags or show Palestinian colours.
“A woman’s dress became the site of explicit political agency. You see then the traditional motifs – the cypress tree, the tall palm – transformed into doves or guns or roses or Al Aqsa Mosque, the silhouette of the country – all in Palestinian colours.”
The foundation is also running workshops for adults and children to encourage visitors to explore their own heritage and the significance of Palestinian embroidery more deeply.
These activities are in tune with the Palestinian Museum’s wider aim to provide a transnational experience accessible to all Palestinians, wherever they are.
Sitting on a West Bank hilltop in Birzeit, 25 kilometres north of Jerusalem, the Palestinian Museum opened last month, empty of exhibits, some 20 years after the idea of a national museum was first discussed. Omar Al Qattan, chair of the Museum Committee of Taawon-Welfare Association, a not-for-profit organisation that funded the museum, believes that satellite exhibitions are an effective way to speak to the diaspora.
“We want to be able [to] reach as many Palestinians as possible, within and outside the country,” he says. “Because of the wall, the occupation and dislocation of refugees... Palestinians are fragmented and mostly unable to communicate with each other.”
The building itself, a pioneering 3,500 square metre design by architects Heneghan Peng, has been acclaimed by architecture critics. Terraced landscaping surrounds the first phase of the museum’s construction, planted with indigenous species that tell the story of the region’s agricultural history.
The museum offers one of the first genuine opportunities for Palestinians to engage in critical and creative dialogue without outside interference, he tells me.
“This is not a museum that belongs to a government or a state. It enjoys financial independence, and as most museum directors will tell you, that’s a privilege that allows for editorial independence.”
He adds that in many other places around the world, the cultural sector is highly tied to political interference and funding is conditional.
The new director-general of the Palestinian Museum, Dr Mahmoud Hawari is reviewing its projects, including its upcoming exhibitions and an open digital archive of all documents related to the Palestinian people, their family life and land issues.
Palestinian Journeys, an online archive produced in collaboration with the Institute of Palestinian Studies, will provide a timeline of Palestinian history and prominent people from the beginning of the Ottoman period.
Hawari hopes that the museum’s first on-site exhibition will open in October.
Back in Beirut, Dedman hopes At the Seams will travel to many other cities in the region and beyond. "For me it was super-important that this didn't become an exhibition that was only visited by the museum-going class, but could be engaged with by young people, by old people, by those who live in camps... for Palestinians wherever they live in the world."
• At the Seams: a Political History of Palestinian Embroidery runs at Dar El-Nimer in Beirut until July 30. For more information, visit www.darelnimer.org
Tafline Laylin is a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in The Ecologist, Brownbook Magazine and several other international publications.