Historically speaking, embroidery has always been perceived to belong to the domain of women and femininity along with darning and sewing which is considered to be synonymous with domesticity. A time-consuming, meticulous art producing intricate renditions, contemporary women artists such as Tracy Emin, Ana Tereza Barboza and Kirstie MacLeod are now reclaiming embroidery and presenting it afresh in multiple and often radical modes; Eliza Bennet’s particularly provocative work, A Woman’s Work is Never Done, for example, had her embroidering the upper layer of her palm to challenge the pre-conceived notion that women’s work is light as well as literally embody the hard work arising from women’s employment in low-paid jobs.
These artists’ works render embroidery as a legitimate art form in its own right as opposed to being dismissed as merely utilitarian “women’s work” along with demonstrating the important role embroidery and its practitioners have played in art’s fight for women’s rights.
A 3,000 year-old cross-stitch Palestian embroidery form, which is practiced exclusively by women with mothers passing it down to their daughters, the tatreez is also now becoming the focus of revival and re-interpretation. The initiative — appropriately enough of another mother-daughter duo, Nesrine El-Tibi Maalouf and Nadine Y. Maalouf, the Dubai-based social media enterprise, 81 Designs — embarked upon reviving the tatreez through collaborations between refugee women in Ain El Helweh camp, South Lebanon and artists from Middle East and North Africa in 2015.
Tunisian calligraffiti artist eL Seed was the first artist who participated in the collaboration. His works were displayed at Art Dubai last year while this year witnessed Morroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj working with the tatreez artists. Co-founder Nadine identified him as a “perfect partner, [being] an artist who shares the same values.”
While eclectically weaving together strands of photography, performance, installation, fashion, furniture and interior design, Hajjaj accesses both his Moroccan heritage and his London upbringing to produce vibrant, maximalist and pop-art-soaked works, which have earned him the moniker, ‘Andy Warhol of Marrakech.’ Hajjaj and 81 Designs showcased the works at Art Dubai on March 21 this year.
Within itself, tatreez contains significant stories of Palestinian women and their lives: what has it come to mean to them in the present?
Jordanian-Palestinian photographer Fatima Abbadi addressed this question when she worked on a series documenting the tatreez as part of her photographic project to produce work reflecting her roots and personal life.
“I wished to provide an alternative representation of this embroidery technique which is on the verge of extinction. Documenting it means preserving it for future generations,” the Italy-based artist says in an email interview.
Growing up in Abu Dhabi and subsequently moving to Jordan, she herself began embroidering along with other women who practiced it in tandem with their neighbours. “Everyone would have a dress or some handmade tatreez accessories at home like cushions or table runners, for example,” she says.
It was many years later though that she brought together photography and her desire to document tatreez in daily life; she began her project during her visits to Jordan from 2007 onwards, observing how women’s centres were reviving the art and various procedures of conservation and restoration of various textiles and threads used in embroidered dress. “I also wanted to document the handiwork skills of older women in refugee camps,” she says, adding that one of her biggest challenges was to find women in everyday life continuing to wear tatreez-embroidered garments.
Like poetry which encodes a wealth of meaning in each line, tatreez embroidery too is a storehouse of details and information, the specificity and colour of style revealing much about the wearer.
“For example, the geometrical patterns found on the dress symbolise good health, prosperity, protection or even marital status and that too varies from region to region,” Abbadi says.
She also emphasises how embroidery occupied a special role in a village woman’s daily life up until the exodus and creation of the state of Israel in 1948. “After a long day’s work in the fields alongside men, women embroidered with friends and daughters all afternoon and until evening. Tatreez was not just a craft, it also forged an intimate bond amongst the women,” Abbadi says.
However, what had historically been an intersection of function, craft and women’s kinship subsequently and significantly transformed into a symbol of Palestinian identity and source of economic revenue post-exodus. “In refugee camps, women found themselves in need of employment to financially support their families. They began running embroidery agencies and projects to gain employment as well as teaching it to pass down the legacy to younger generations,” Abbadi points out.
Over the decades, while the state of Palestine has undergone multiple changes in its representation in physical, political, and emotional and memory maps, tatreez too has acquired an agency of its own vis a vis both reiterating the idea of Palestine as well as being employed as a tool of resistance.
Abbadi talks about the time of the first Intifada in the 1980s when it was not even permitted to display the Palestinian flag; Palestinian women then played an instrumental and courageous role in the political resistance by creating a new form of visual code through novel avatars of the tatreez-embroidered dress. “They created the ‘Intifada dress’ by combining traditional motifs with rifles, maps, flag, and political slogans or just embroidering the word ‘Palestine’ onto their dresses in protest and solidarity with the events of the period,” she says.
Abbadi contends that tatreez is nevertheless thriving in new reincarnations, spotted on embroidered shoes, mugs, lamps, bags and garments. “Contemporary Palestinian fashion designers are introducing new contexts to the tatreez by combining it with western silhouettes,” Abbadi says of the latter.
She points out that the tatreez which was earlier hand-stitched is now done by the machine, which threatens to erode both the technique and its heritage. The situation does make the survival and authenticity of the tatreez a concern during a time when present generations are finding it difficult to recognise uniquely Palestinian patterns and motifs or even distinguishing between the machine-made and hand-stitched patterns.
Given these questions surrounding the future of the tatreez, it then appears that the project that 81 Designs has embarked upon clearly strives to return the tatreez to what it once was in the past. A Skype conversation with the tatreez artists at the camp provides some insight as to how this traditional technique is enduring while nonetheless fully inhabiting the contemporary times. The group of artists includes Faten Miari, Latifeh Al Assadi, Najah Al Fares, Amal Shabaita, Nada Hadba, Mariam Abbas, Faten Marshoud, Kifah Kurdieh, Rima Al Rifa, Soha Dawali, Fatmeh Shkontana, Fairouz Hindawi, Nour Ibrahim, Mounira Alasadi and Mariam Abbas.
Having been born and lived all their lives in the camp, they chuckle when I ask them their ages. “We grew up here, after all, we don’t look that old!” they say in unison, framing their responses as a collective unit, rather than individuals.
Reiterating that they learned the techniques from their mothers, these tatreez artists are intent on conveying their pride in participating in the project, focusing on preserving Palestinian heritage and transmitting it to future generations. “We went to a training session to learn it by hand, as it was originally done, with no machine in sight,” one of the ladies pertinently remarks, adding that more and women are now in the process of being trained.
The works that they crafted were re-interpretations of 14 of Hassan Hajjaj’s works from the 1990s, Graffix From the Souk, which in turn graphically re-presented Moroccan pop-culture iconography that permeated his childhood.
It is evident from the conversation that it was a rewarding experience to both work with him as well as engage in a dialogue with his works through the language of tatreez. “It was a new twist on the works that we had been creating all this time,” they say. “We were earlier not used to modern designs so it was very challenging. We made mistakes along the way but it has ultimately been a huge learning experience.”
Apart from the creative challenges, they also point out that their experience working with 81 Designs has taught them to be more organised and disciplined, particularly being aware of budgeting their time. “The presence of a regular income and work to be completed in a specific time-frame also made a big difference to our approach to work,” they add.
Another significant and subliminal change which has occurred is the way they perceive the tatreez; what was earlier functional, a source of economic revenue, and inextricably entwined with identity, resistance, and heritage has now also become about them. Seeing their works being framed has made them feel acknowledged and appreciated, no longer unrecognised, suggesting that they too perhaps are re-claiming the tatreez for themselves and seeing it as art, like other contemporary woman artists working with embroidery.
Each artwork they worked upon became a part of their identity. Commenting that their families were hugely supportive as well, they also mention how their children perceive them as beyond just providers and homemakers, recognising the value of this artistic labour which they earlier may have been ignorant of or inattentive to.
In the course of the collaboration, Hajjaj meanwhile had been contemplating making the tatreez artists the subjects of their own work. “I hadn’t wanted to show my works in Dubai without even having met them. It was very important to make a tangible human connection with them, meet them, see how they lived and so on,” he says over the phone from London.
It was then that he decided that he wished to make his collaboration a two-part project in which the second part would focus on the women themselves.
A master of envelope-pushing portraiture, Hajjaj photographed the women in traditional Moroccan outfits during his visit to the camp. “I wondered if they would turn up, agree to being photographed... and they did. I remember photographing one lady on the roof her home, it was raining yet she nevertheless was still happy to pose,” he says, describing the experience of engaging with the ladies as one full of great energy.
The whole experience incorporated elements typical of Hajjaj’s ouevre, marrying theatre and performance, of play and escape, and the ladies’ self-awareness of being subjects of their narratives.“We hope to show the works they have done of themselves both in Dubai and Beirut, especially the latter for they can travel there,” he says, “It is my dream to see them seeing themselves.”
It was crucial for Hajjaj to imbue the project with the presence of the human touch. “Their work is of such of amazing intricacy and detail, it’s only when you come closer to the works that do you realise that it is embroidery,” he says. Yet, it is not just the technique which matters to him: “The human contact made in the embroidery, each person investing so much of herself in it, all of that has been so important.”
For the tatreez artists, the project has encouraged them to see themselves in a new light. “We are relaying a message to the world that we are here, we exist, and we are preserving our heritage,” the ladies state, adding that they look forward to working on newer projects, “gaining more visibility, being seen on the map.”
And indeed, the tatreez artists’ work is both a map and coordinates of one, locating their individual selves, heritage and of the Palestinian nation upon it.
Priyanka Sacheti is an independent writer based in Bengaluru, India.