One wonderful aspect of being Palestinian and living in Palestine is that there is never, ever, ever a dull or quiet moment. Even global pandemics take on a new sordid meaning here. The incessant drip-drip-drip of horror, which is occasionally interrupted by a burst of disaster, is the order of life. One such droplet came crashing down at the start of last month when I became aware of the ongoing digital exhibition, Let’s Tatreez (let’s embroider) by Jordan Nassar at the A. M. Qattan Foundation’s Mosaic Rooms Gallery in London.
Nassar’s unique embroideries are without question beautiful and sensitive. I certainly do not doubt his creative sincerity or commitment to Palestine. But sincerity alone does not justify neglect, nor does it excuse opportunism, and especially not normalisation. Beyond the formality of the craft and the beauty of its composition, I cannot help but point out the complacency of his work. I am articulating my opinion as a critique of Nassar’s work in my capacity as a Palestinian designer who has worked with embroiderers and embroidery from Palestine since 2006, and because I take his work very seriously. My experience in this field has shown me that very few actors, myself included, are innocent or beyond reproach. Despite our intentions as creatives, it is always the case that we are the primary benefactors in our so-called collaborations with Palestinian craftspeople and artisans. This in turn must justly expose us to sound political and economic critique that the vast majority of Palestinian and international artists have conveniently avoided for too long.
Techniques of Dispossession: Normalisation, Labour and Gender
Normalisation might be trendy and lucrative in the world’s last remaining elite liberal enclaves of London, Dubai and Tel Aviv, but it is certainly not cool, queer or progressive. All the more reason to be suspicious of these endeavours and ask why would someone like Nassar choose to mediate his experience with Palestinian embroidery through Israel? Normalisation work and collaborations with Israeli establishments, not private individuals, undermine and endanger the Palestinian struggle for justice and self-determination. Normalisation falsely presents the issue of colonialism and oppression as one of cultural misunderstanding wherein both the oppressive Israeli coloniser and the dispossessed indigenous Palestinian are seen as equals who simply misunderstand one another. It conveniently ignores and masks the severe imbalance of power and historical and current context of our life as a colonised people. Not only is this deceitful, it is insidious and fundamentally complicit in entrenching injustice and obscuring the root cause of our struggle against racist colonial domination. Normalisation is a trap – one that exploits the weak and keeps them reliant on the original dynamic of domination which vilifies, dehumanises, and shames them for refusing to take part in it on the false grounds of blind misunderstanding and bigotry. Such that if you are unwilling to engage in a normalisation dialogue, however skewed against you, you are subsequently framed as the undeserving and victim blamed for your own refusal.
New Yorker Nassar’s Palestinian descent is drawn upon to give legitimacy and a veneer of authenticity to the exploitative work and endeavours of the Israeli design firm, Adish, in Tel Aviv and other Israeli galleries and establishments that conveniently take advantage of his heritage to accumulate more cultural and humanitarian capital in their ultimate aim to possess more wealth, recognition and prestige. At this point in our history one might think that normalisation is no longer stylish or useful, but Adish and Nassar’s success prove otherwise. It is ironic that a brand, whose name literally means apathy, reflects such deep-seated and willing ignorance towards the field they work in, and the people they economically and politically exploit. Adish has managed to secure international buyers and global recognition, whilst Palestinian artists, designers and embroiderers are still trapped and struggling to sell their products locally due to the crippling restrictions Israel imposes on every aspect of life for Palestinians throughout historic Palestine.
Israelis, Zionists and international opportunists, like Cecile Copenhagen, Dodo Bar Or, and Aviad Arik Herman have been illegitimately and deceptively stealing and commodifying our Palestinian cultural heritage shamelessly without serious pushback or accountability. Danish fashion brand Cecile Copenhagen recently launched a fashion line using the Hatta/Keffieh on articles such as bathing suits. But never has there been such a high profile Palestinian artist in my generation so flippantly willing to legitimise the exploitation and subversion of our most celebrated and historic means of Palestinian popular visual creative expression and resistance. What’s even more worrying, but no longer surprising, is that ethics of this sort are being, wittingly and unwittingly, endorsed and in effect further normalised by Arab and Palestinian institutions and their audiences like the Mosaic Rooms Gallery in London and the Third Line Gallery in Dubai. This uncritical celebration of dubious choices is not acceptable. I do not suggest or believe that Nassar should, or could be silenced or deplatformed. Quite the contrary. Instead, there needs to be a critically conscious curatorial endeavour to challenge artists, especially when their work derives its value from the suffering of others, and whether intentional or not, enables certain political agendas of the military occupation in Palestine. This situation puts us face to face with the question of our collective role as creatives, journalists and hosting organisations in the creation of meaning, extraction of value and setting of standards for ethical practice. Nassar’s work, whether we like it or not, is now part of the history and traditions of Palestine and its embroidery.
The embroidery work on Adish’s clothing and Nassar’s artworks is actually done by displaced and dispossessed women in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. The very same women whose families were themselves dispossessed during Al-Nakba (the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948) and indeed find themselves in this inescapable vortex of death and dispossession, forced to sell their embroidery work as labour to local Palestinian charities, and in some cases to Israeli firms and companies, like many other Palestinians in historic Palestine and the diaspora, with no access to freedom or economic welfare except through menial and exhausting labour. The charity and humanitarian cover deflects the fact that embroidery work here, is again, disempowering labour. With the added layer of normalisation it is all the more difficult to redeem.
The economic, political, humanitarian and cultural value of this very embroidery is fundamentally reliant on the women remaining in that precarious imposition as part of the free/ununionised labour force that conveniently serves the local Palestinian neoliberal and Israeli markets, which, to a degree is possible because of normalisation. In fact most Palestinian labour is free labour for the Israeli market as there is no way Palestinian workers from the military occupied territories can organise or unionise to demand better pay or democratic representation. Except for a few exceptions, refugee women are socially and politically the weakest in Palestinian society and they are the most exploited across the board. The false assumption that there is some kind of collaboration between the powerless workers in the camps and their benevolent employer in Tel Aviv or elsewhere is mistaken. Even in a free independent state gendered worker rights, if there are any, have been eroded to the point where individuals have become more disposable than the very machinery they are hired to operate. Like all forms of labour, embroidery work is a self-generating one, and indeed more so in this case. In a nauseating Forbes article on Adish, one commentator claims, “all parties are on equal terms.” If so, why is it then that we never really know who these women are or hear their voice in the text? Why is this article, written by a woman, only giving voice and representation to the men leading this endeavour? Erasing workers and labourers just like the erasure of colonialism and context is the hallmark of normalisation, and more generally of capitalist exploitation. Normalisation or otherwise, if Palestinians and their counterparts are sincere about positive change, they must factor in serious economic action and analysis in their struggle against oppression and injustice. Anything less is simply disingenuous and will not work.
Reified Practices and Commodified Identities
Nassar’s aesthetic might be idyllic and utopian, but its effects and affects are neither. His ambivalent stance on normalisation is certainly not part of “the vision of the displaced constituents that comprise the region’s diaspora” as the Mosaic Rooms Gallery webpage claims. The use of discrete and unnecessary transliterated terms like tatreez, which literally means embroidery in Arabic, betrays the tendency within capitalism to fragment, classify and mystify in a drive towards commodification. It also reflects the trend, especially amongst Palestinian diaspora practitioners who work with Palestinian embroidery and the pressure they face to reconfigure their own culture so that it might suit the taste of the liberal metropolitan elites that consume these sterilised interpretations. This reified and discursive term conveniently carves out a new depoliticised and exclusive field out of an already long-established tradition by expunging undesirable and unmarketable aspects of Palestine and Palestinians from the embroidery.
Embroidery from Palestine has deep, personal, and collective roots as well as individual meaning that is imbued with explicit cultural, political and activist traditions since 1948. For hundreds of years before that it was a dynamically developing technique of dressmaking for the construction and embellishment of one’s personal day-to-day clothes. The flattened style we are familiar with today is a superficial interpretation of a once living multi-dimensional tradition. Social, stylistic and spiritual characteristics and sensibilities differed from area to area throughout historic Palestine. The intimate and erotic implications of this embodied and very personal craft also varied, whereupon individual uniqueness and creative skill flourished. This all gave way to a more uniformed, fragmented, diluted and especially disembodied surface work that is now largely confined to cross-stitch on etamine and embroidery canvas. As a metaphor for Palestine and the Palestinians, this superficial, asexual and sanitised descendant of a once functional and dynamic women-led tradition reflects the sterility and detachment with which the vast majority of Palestinians today relate to their own history and selves. Colonialism, modernity and capitalism, which are different aspects of the same disaster, have alienated and dispossess us from our self and home, so we collect and reproduce these fragments of what remains to relegate them to the ossified world of museums, galleries and private collections. In our aim to revive and conserve, we have further removed this once quotidian craft from our immediate lives. Worse, Palestinians and others have willingly commodified it, thus alienating it from the very women who create it. “Commodification of items that belong to a communal culture—whether spirituality, food or clothing—in order to gratify the self are at the very core of modern capitalism,” explains Benay Blend in her recent article on commodification, normalisation and colonialism.
According to the cryptic text on Nassar’s website, it seems his more recent embroidery work is no longer made by him, but is outsourced to women in the Hebron region of Palestine whose only creative input, besides actually making the work, is the choice of colours. Another uncritical source corroborates this but instead locates the workers back again to the Dheisheh refugee camp and Adish. These workers remain nameless and invisible, dislocated from their work just as they have been from their ancestral homes. Nassar’s imagined and disembodied golden age, removed from the world as it exists today, is signified by empty landscapes with names like the Distance from the Sea or a Sun Ultra Brave. Like the outsourced and overpriced tatreez, these are contrived and empty metaphors that erase people and get caught up in romanticised art-speak jargon that few pretend to decipher or comprehend. The thin veil of activism and representation does little to hide the inconsistencies of the work and the wealth inequality it reinforces. Despite the claim on the artist’s website that he “does not import or decontextualize Palestinian traditions” it seems that he altogether misunderstands our traditions and priorities as he proceeds to both contextualise and decontextualizes his identity and his work in whatever context that seems to suits his audiences and their topical flavour of the month.
In an ideal world, what one does in their life and what identities and politics one assumes in pursuit of financial and material success would be an entirely personal one. In an ideal world identities should not matter at all. But this is not an ideal world, despite what some wish to believe. In fact identities matter because of the inherent and structural racism and inequality in our world. We all live in a racist and ruthless corporatized global capitalist economy. No one is innocent, except those at the very bottom, and no one is spared, except those at the very top. In this world, identity is not such a luxury to be curated, or switched on and off whenever it suits one’s artistic, political or economic fancy. George Floyd could not suddenly stop being black or claim white heritage to elude death. Palestinians in Gaza and the refugee camps around the world cannot suddenly become or un-become Palestinian and leave. We don’t choose to “woke” up or re-fashion ourselves whenever it suits our career priorities. Like the many racialized lives around the world, our lives in Palestine are dictated to the very last detail based on these identities; these are not pleasant discoveries or convenient choices we make, these are political and racist entrapments we manoeuvre around with great difficulty and little success, often to a bitter and frustrating end. In our family alone my father, mother, my siblings and I each have a different political status and collection of identity papers set by Israel that articulate the limits to our freedom. If Nassar is genuine about not wanting to “fit into any particular mold,” as he tells Haaretz newspaper, why does he think it’s acceptable to use the one we’ve been forced to fit into ourselves? To sweep in and commodify one’s identity, which draws upon the collective resilience and suffering of others, in order to legitimise and promote one’s work without reflection, responsibility or restraint is unethical and offensive. Either of which I don’t think the artist has consciously chosen to engender, but all the same, one cannot help but wonder.
Furthermore, to uncritically set up, host and promote such endeavours, at the cusp of annexation and a time of global meltdown, disease and destruction, is unacceptable. It reflects the condescending detachment with which these neoliberal art institutions, curators, newspapers and so-called journalists conduct themselves. These all too powerful entities must be held accountable and treat art and its political implications with the seriousness that it demands and not simply as fodder to fill up columns, timetables and hollow digital galleries. The zoom-held talk with art historian, curator, writer, and newly anointed white-woman expert on Palestinian embroidery, Rachael Dedman, did not go far in the way of challenging the artist or his work. Considering Dedman’s very original ideas on labour and exploitation, which she showcased in the exhibition Labour of Love, one would have expected some serious questions from such a critical and ambitious voice on all things embroidery politics from Palestine. Having mildly articulated her disagreement with Nassar, Dedman merely grimaced with polite incongruity as he proved he was quite confused about our realities, history and culture in historic Palestine altogether.
The lack of serious pushback or art criticism, much like this, has allowed creative expression to become a mechanism of oppression and coercion that proceeds to exploit otherwise impenetrable resources. Despite our ideological stance on the matter, and how we see the world, normalisation of injustice, however profound or transient, has actual lethal power over our lives and must be seriously challenged, dismantled and critiqued in all its forms. Its discursive impact in a world obsessed with decontextualized images, symbols and commodities is critical.
Reflexive Solidarity Not Duplicitous Gossip
Just as it is silly to believe that normalisation will lead us to a lasting and just solution, it is no longer sane to think that there is hope in anything less than a one state solution with justice for everyone – no matter their identity. This solution, however, will not present itself through normalisation, or colonial and capitalist mechanisms that rely and generate inequality and fundamentally exploit the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our societies. Nor does it come through the conscious erasure of context, history and politics. Achille Mbembe aptly points out that “in a world set on objectifying everybody and every living thing in the name of profit, the erasure of the political by capital is the real threat.” In order for us to live in that ideal world we all strive for we must question our methods and positionality, as well as all the mechanisms of oppression and exploitation that enable us to fulfil our careers whilst glossing over the continued oppression of people around the world. If anything, we can learn from similar struggles around the world, like the Black Lives Matters movement, and especially Black feminists since the late 1980s, that all struggles are intersectional and that we are all capable of revolutionary as well as repressive action no matter how small or irrelevant our choices.
Jordan Nassar is still Palestinian and his work and approach, however unpalatable, do not undermine any of his identities. It is therefore important to stress our solidarity as Palestinian creatives and be open about our disagreements, however fundamental. I do not reject him, but cannot accept the implications of his choices. More importantly, I don’t think he should be silenced, ignored or cancelled out. His work is without question important. It is in the public domain and therefore must submit to public scrutiny; especially that it draws its meaning and value from our shared and collective experience as Palestinians. At a time like this what we need is reflexive unity not dogmatic fragmentation or individual superstars. Indeed, no one is less or more Palestinian and our struggle is one dedicated to elevating the value of life and making sure that we do not recreate the same patterns of tyranny that we have been bitterly resisting for more than a century now. The fundamental question that we must ask ourselves as Palestinians, and as creatives at large is, why do we do this? Who are we trying to impress that we are so willing to commodify our identities in our global pilgrimage from one art spectacle to the next, all the while furthering our suffering and that of others in that pursuit? If we are unwilling to go beyond futile gossip about choices we reject and disagree with and seriously question and speak up with integrity and openness, nothing will change. We will keep simmering in toxic indignation and corrupt hypocrisy. We will remain indentured to the incumbent hierarchy of oppression that has brought this world to the brink of this seemingly inevitable abyss.