Beginning with the intricacies of identity and cultural participation, as a Palestinian-American, I aim to approach traditional craft – in my case, Palestinian embroidery – more as medium than topic, examining subjects such as cultural heritage, ownership, exchange and absorption; emigrant nostalgia for the ‘homeland’ and its generational repercussions; geography, politics, and orientalism; symbology, codes and language systems; superstition and religious belief; post-internet visual language; and representational and geometric abstraction.
The foundation of my work, and the original catalyst for taking up the medium of embroidery, was an urge to participate in a cultural tradition that would connect me with my Palestinian heritage. It is very important for me to do the embroidery myself, as the crux of my work is an examination of the Palestinian diasporic experience and my relationship to Palestine and Palestinian-ness as a second-generation Palestinian-American. That being said, I have also worked with Palestinian women in the West Bank to produce certain special projects, and continue to do so.
I travel often (at least once a year) to Israel and Palestine and, of course, a good amount of the inspiration and research happens there. My work comes mostly from the feelings I experience there – feelings such as that of being alien to that place, whether in Palestine or Israel, which conflicts directly with my self-image as a Palestinian, which is how my family raised me to identify; feelings of contradiction over my perspective of the conflict on many levels, but most pointedly on interpersonal levels; feelings of guilt as a Palestinian who, in many ways, feels more comfortable in Israel, as a flamboyantly gay man; feelings of relief while there because of the nuances and complexity of the conflict as it is lived and discussed by both Palestinians and Israelis there, as opposed to the simplicity people often perceive of the conflict from afar, such as in New York. All of this fuels my work and traveling there to spend time is very important to my practice.
I originally started making work, not having gone to art school, as a young adult. Once I met my (now) husband, who is Israeli, I think I went into a crisis of sorts, ridden with guilt as a Palestinian for falling in love with an Israeli, and thus felt an overwhelming need to connect with my Palestinian-ness, which is a subject I avoided in my youth, being raised in a very pro-Palestinian household, in the Upper West Side of Manhattan where my peers were Jewish and my education was rather pro-Israel.
My early works examined possibilities of minimalism and the application of minimalist sensibilities to this craft tradition which is usually quite decorative and detailed. The primary application of those ideas was with an extreme tightening of the color palette. Most of the colors were done in “blocks” that went along with the natural grid of cross-stitch embroidery.
Eventually I began to experiment with “breaking the grid” and forming figurative shapes, mostly abstracted and minimal landscapes, and that’s really when the creative floodgate opened. In a sense, the years and years of embroidering before this breakthrough was technical training, getting to become somewhat of an expert in this type of embroidery in general, and the dexterity I developed with the medium allows me to, for lack of a better word, paint using this medium. I sketch compositions but mostly execute the color work, while completing the geometric patterns, as I go, and am able to make decisions and changes to my sketches on the fly, which I feel was an important ability to achieve.
I love the notion that my landscapes are images of a dream-land, utopia – a Palestine that only exists in the mind of diaspora Palestinians. I feel I was raised hearing so much talk of the homeland as this magical, perfect, beautiful place, and I realize that this is still how my father and other diaspora Palestinians talk about it. This conflicts with the reality there as I’ve experienced, of course, because it’s just a place like anywhere else, and so my paintings of this idyllic land is a comment on that, as well as a depiction of that beauty, while also being a touch bittersweet, as this place, that so many long for, does not exist.
I have also developed a practice in making zines and self-published artist’s books, and recently have been making one to go along with each solo exhibition. Having worked for years at Printed Matter Inc., I of course am passionate about artist’s books and recognize the power in easy and cheap production and distribution of ideas. For me, making these zines for a show is a way to approach the same concepts as the body of work in the show, but from a different angle. The zines tend to be conceptual, they’re artworks in themselves, but I like to think that between the zine and the show, the viewer is led in direction I’m going for, but still have room to think for themselves.
I plan to continue to address the issues above, with an optimistic message, a message of peace and togetherness. My experience in Israel and Palestine has been one of realizing similarity in the opposing sides, from cultural elements, food and music and so on, to ways of life and attitudes. I think it’s a hopeful way of bringing people together on the ground, as opposed to trying to change looming government policies directly. I think of my family in Israel and I think of my family in Palestine and I focus on the human elements to this conflict, all of the innocent people on both sides who were born into this mess, and try, in my way, to bring this conversation up as often as possible, especially in America and Europe.
With regards to the future of my practice, this medium has simply become the way I paint, and I feel like a painter, always dreaming of compositions and works that I want to make. In addition, the tradition of Palestinian embroidery is so full of conceptual material, I imagine I’ll be working with it for years to come. Within the patterns, symbols and colors, all sorts of information and ideas are embedded – from geographic location and village association of the embroiderer, to her marital status; notions of dowry and luxury; straightforward aesthetic decoration; geometry and patterning; superstitious symbols of protection; and so on.
I’ve also begun working with women in the West Bank, and plan to continue learning from them, collaborating with them, and making work with them. I love the ideas of authenticity it brings up, because in a way, works I make are more ‘authentic’ because I’m the artist, whereas at the same time, anything they make for me is more ‘authentic’ because they are Palestinian women who learned this craft from their mothers and grandmothers as a living cultural practice. I feel that this speaks directly to my personal issues of belonging, and my search for what it means to be Palestinian, American, and so on.
The overarching goal, for me, is to communicate the sheer complexity of the situation there, and in the diaspora around the world, more so than having a specific ‘statement’ about the conflict. My statement is, in many ways, that there are many facts about this situation that are in direct opposition to each other, yet both are true, and that, when part of Palestine and Israel, one has to live with that. I try to make work that speaks to how to live with that.
On a technical level, I’m always pushing myself to try things I haven’t before – more ambitious works, bigger, more detailed, and so on. I think inevitably my practice will keep growing in this way, the more I embroider the better I get at it!
I would also love to research and learn other traditional Palestinian/Arab crafts, down the line, such as other forms of Arab embroidery, traditional olive wood carving, soap making, tile-making, and weaving.