Virtual reality museum showcases Palestinian embroidery in Beirut
BEIRUT - “L abour of Love: New Approaches to Palestinian Embroidery” is an exhibition recounting the history of Palestinian embroidery and its evolution from an individual practice to an industry and a marker of national identity.
The virtual reality exhibit is at Dar el Nimer Centre or Arts and Culture in Beirut, the second stop after Amman.
Staged in the Palestinian Museum of Birzeit in the West Bank, the exhibition explores Palestinian embroidery through the lenses of sex, labour, national symbol, capital and class.
At the heart of the exhibition lies a “forest” of 100 old embroidered dresses and accessories, drawn from every region of the Palestinian territories. These range from everyday attire to peasant and extravagant garments and militant, nationalistic ‘”intifada dresses,” which rendered women’s bodies active sites of political resistance during the first intifada.
“The show basically traces embroidery’s shift from a creation produced on a family scale to a powerful symbol of national heritage, then a product circulated in international markets,” said Omar Thawabeh, communication officer at Dar el Nimer.
“Traditionally, women produced embroidery for wedding dresses and special occasions but the dramatic developments in Palestinian modern history took its toll on how embroidery has evolved.”
After the Nakba in 1948, Palestinian embroidery took on conceptual and constructed symbolic meaning, representing Palestinian heritage, longevity and power. Images of embroidery and women wearing embroidered dresses circulated widely on political posters within the Palestinian territories and abroad.
“This marks how embroidery, which was probably very extravagant at different points in the history of Palestine, has evolved into something else,” Thawabeh said. “For instance, in the first intifada, when the Israelis prohibited the display of the Palestinian flag, it was embroiderers who incorporated it into dresses with certain slogans in Arabic.”
“The evolution of embroidery was closely connected and influenced by political and social developments,” he added.
Traditional motifs were combined with Palestinian flags, doves, guns and the Dome of the Rock — symbols of resistance stitched into the fabric of women’s dresses.
“Embroidery reflected the woman’s personality, as well as her wealth and status. The cut, colour and form of garments differed between regions, making for rich and diverse clothing traditions; designs even varied from one village to another,” said virtual tour guide Fatima Abdel Jawad.
“Some dresses on display are 100 years old, from the early 20th century. We see dresses that were donned by peasants and others by rich and prominent women. Light coloured, sun-bleached dresses reveal female labour working in the field wore them.”
One dress that dates to 1915, which was donated by a rich woman to a peasant after the Nakba, is patched with cloth from a sack of UN refugee agency flour. Other dresses carrying indigo embroidery at the bottom were worn only by widows.
“Each dress is about identity and a record of Palestinian presence in every corner of Palestine. They have different patterns and colours. Those made in the north carried less embroidery than in the south where the colours used are darker,” Abdel Jawad explained.
“You could tell from which area the embroidery came just by looking at the colours and patterns. Embroidery experts can tell you this is from Jerusalem or this one is from Tulkarm, this from Gaza, et cetera.”
While embroidery has been traditionally a craft practised by rural women, the exhibition showcases pieces embroidered by Palestinian male prisoners.
“In periods when crafts were banned by the Israeli authorities, men would embroider secretly inside their cells. Cloth and threads were smuggled inside the prison,” Abdel Jawad said.
Today Palestinian embroidery is largely available on the market. The Nakba significantly altered the structure of embroidery’s production. Embroidery organisations were founded to provide support and employment for refugee women and their families.
In addition to the dresses and accessories, the exhibition features archival photographs, posters and paintings by Palestinian artists inspired by Palestinian embroidery and incorporated it in their work.
“It is a beautiful exhibition and we are glad to bring a piece of Palestine to Beirut and share it with the audience here,” Thawabeh said.
“Labour of Love: New Approaches to Palestinian Embroidery” is the second exhibition by curator Rachel Dedman for the Palestinian Museum. It expands on the museum’s 2016 satellite exhibition, “At the Seams: A Political History of Palestinian Embroidery.” It runs through April 30.