Palestinian thobe gets modern and artistic makeover in social enterprise initiative for refugee women

Naqsh Collective and 81 Designs have collaborated to create a new line to be presented at Abu Dhabi Art

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In A Thobe Story, the traditional thobe has been transformed into a canvas, embroidered with memories of Palestine.

The line of 10 thobes is the result of a collaboration between design studio Naqsh Collective and social enterprise 81 Designs, which employs Palestinian women artisans in Lebanon’s refugee camps to stitch artworks using traditional tatreez.

Part of Abu Dhabi Art’s community exhibitions, the works will be unveiled at Manarat Al Saadiyat in the capital in November. It will be one of a small number of physical presentations at the fair, which will largely take place online this year.

A national attire in many Arab counties, the thobe is a loose-fitting garment worn by both men and women, with designs that vary according to geography. Palestinian thobes typically bear tatreez patterns with florals and geometric figures.

The art pieces will be available for $10,000 each and curated at the upcoming Abu Dhabi Art.
The art pieces will be available for $10,000 each and curated at the upcoming Abu Dhabi Art.

Depicting scenes of everyday life in Palestine, A Thobe Story's designs are more narrative-driven, drawn from the memories of Nisreen and Nermeen Abudail, Jordanian sisters with Palestinian heritage who are behind Naqsh Collective. Together, they developed these new patterns, which have been executed by 81 Designs's team of artisans in Ain Al Helweh, Lebanon's largest refugee camp where more than 100,000 live.

“Our attempt in creating a Palestinian thobe is to imagine living our missing experiences of our beloved Palestine, like jumping off Akka’s cliff and going on a fishing trip by Jaffa’s Port,” said Nermeen in a statement. She is trained as a graphic designer and lives in Dubai, while Nisreen is an architect and manages the collective’s studio in Amman.

Naqsh Collective is known for sculptural pieces that combine Palestinian embroidery with industrial materials, such as marble, solid wood and brass. In their works lies a unique visual language that contrasts traditional patterns often found in textile with the hardness of their chosen materials.

Sisters Nisreen and Nermeen Abudail, founders of Jordanian design studio Naqsh Collective.
Sisters Nisreen and Nermeen Abudail, founders of Jordanian design studio Naqsh Collective.

Nadine Y Maalouf, co-founder of 81 Designs, notes that it is this shared interest in Palestinian embroidery that drew her to the collective. “The synergy between [us] is rooted in our ideal of preserve tradition through the time-honoured embroidery technique tatreez,” said Maalouf, who established the social enterprise with her mother Nesrine El Tibi Maalouf in 2015.

81 Designs run a unique model for their business – rather than paying the artisans by commission, they are paid a monthly wage. Speaking to The National last November, Nadine explained that her background in art history is what led her to conceive of fusing contemporary art and traditional craft, with a more socially engaged outlook. "I always wanted to find a way to work with a humanitarian cause through art," she said.

In previous years, 81 Designs has partnered with artists Hassan Hajjaj and eL Seed to produce works with the women in the camp, and these pieces are then sold at the fair. For Abu Dhabi Art 2020, the thobes will go on sale for $10,000 each.

Abu Dhabi Art will take place from November 19 to 26