New exhibition gets under the stitches of Palestinian embroidery as a national project

Labour of Love, a newly opened exhibition at The Palestinian Museum examines aspects of embroidery in Palestine, with a collection of dresses and other artefacts reflecting themes of class, nationalism, resistance, commodity and more.

The exhibit begins with a selection of everyday, more humble, intimate garments, as curator Rachel Dedman described them. These traditional, everyday dresses have patches in the sides where holes were cut for breastfeeding and then resewn, or on the knees, where the material became worn through housework. Dedman called the dresses mosaic patchworks that reflect the layers of life a woman would have lived during the late 19th and early 20th century.

There are over 100 dresses on display running through the exhibit, arranged regionally, from Gaza or Jaffa, the latter recognisable for its square-necklines. Each dress tells the tale of its context in time and place. There is extraordinary variety for a small country, showing how women adapted their dress for environments, Dedman said.

The dresses from Hebron, jellayeh, were worn open over a pair of trousers, until women began sewing them shut for greater modesty under the period of the British mandate. The Jerusalem dresses were recognised for their silk material and gold florals while the Bethlehemite women were famous for their tahriri couching embroidery, which were often commissioned for wedding dresses.

Most memorable of all are the seemingly-giant Bedouin dresses. These were scooped up in big layers with folds, making vast pockets within which women could carry fruit, vegetables and other items.

Dedman explained the exhibit traces a historic thread from ‘village dresses’ to ‘camp dresses’ following the Nakba [catastrophe of 1948] when women were divorced from their relationships to agriculture and from their previous life, and yet embroidery did not die out, it changed and developed in concert with women’s lives.

One dress from Ramallah changed hands between women when it was given to a newly arrived refugee in need of clothing. Stitches on the dress show where the new owner adapted it for size, using an UNWRA flour sack as extra material. The very materiality of this object speaks to the urgency of the situation and the generosity and resilience of one woman to another in this time, Dedman evaluated.

The exhibit shows the artefacts as much more than a piece of cloth, said Dr. Mamdouh Aker, supporter of the museum. It narrates the story of beautiful times before the Nakba; it narrates the Nakba and life in the camps; the need for the dresses to become a commodity and be sold for food on the table rather than decorating the body, he summarised. Finally it represents a symbol against occupation. A prisoner [who is] away from the eyes of prison authorities.

Anyone familiar with Palestinian history and culture will have encountered embroidery as a political symbol. Labour of Love highlights the conscious effort of political bodies like the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to disseminate their message around the world of rural women as resistance. Events displaying Palestinian embroidery even became a backdrop for political meetings in the 1970s and therefore played a role in soft diplomacy, Dedman said.

On display are the striking Intifada dresses, which mix traditional motifs with imagery of rifles, slogans and the Palestinian flag. Dedman contextualised for visitors how Palestinian colours and flags were banned from the public during this time, so stitching such symbols onto their clothes rendered their bodies sites of active political resistance.

The exhibition also addresses links between embroidery and masculinity by including embroidered artefacts made, in Dedman’s words, with great pride by male political prisoners in Israeli jails. These objects embody resistance and resourcefulness � using cardboard from cereal boxes, avocado seeds and old lighters. At the same time they reflect a caring love and sweetness and relationship for the mothers, wives, sisters and daughters in their lives, Dedman said.

One of the most important lenses through which Dedman has examined embroidery is its modern incarnation in Palestine and the darker side to its commodification. What problematics are at play?, she asked. In curating the exhibition she studied over 100 embroidery-producing organisations, an industry which exploded post Oslo.

While Dedman recognised the potential these organisations have in offering women independence and empowerment, the large uptake in embroidery organisations saturated the market with supply and, Dedman noted, the labour structures are also embedded within a nexus of social and economic inequalities. Embroiders in Gaza, for instance, earn just $40-50 a month.

What kind of services or support are these women being offered? she added.

Embroidery is still belittled as women’s work, [which] does no justice to the realities of female labour, Dedman told a press conference at the event opening.

Dedman, a British curator living in Beirut, was invited to curate this exhibit four years ago. She undertook years of detailed fieldwork and held the exhibit’s first incarnation in Beirut, before being hosted in the artefacts’ homeland. Transporting the pieces to Palestine from Lebanon or Jordan was met with inevitable logistical difficulties and Dedman was forced to carry particular items with her in her suitcase.

Aware of her positioning outside of Palestinian and Arab society, she approached her research as sensitively as possible. Building relationships with the women, particularly in Lebanon, some of them even ran workshops at the Beirut exhibition.

Dedman concludes the exhibit with a modern dress created by Raja Al-Zeer in 2008. To her it represents new lines of enquiry within embroidery today. Despite having very little that is traditional about it � the cut nor the colour nor the design � by virtue of being made by Raja and worn by her it is as much a piece of Palestinian embroidery as anything else in this exhibition, Dedman said.

For Dedman this shows Palestinian embroidery will continue to endure and adapt in step with the women who make it, just as it always has.

The exhibit opened to the public March 18 and will close August 25.

Beside the physical exhibit, The Labour of Love programme will involve school visits, a summer camp, lectures, panel discussions, family open days and art workshops.

Source: Palestine Monitor