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Material Power: Palestinian Embroidery

Start Date 08 July 2023
End Date 29 October 2023
Venue Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge
Location Cambridge, U.K.
Curator Rachel Dedman

Kettle’s Yard is delighted to present ‘Material Power: Palestinian Embroidery’, an exhibition exploring the historical life and contemporary significance of Palestinian embroidered craft. This ancient practice is characterised by exceptional beauty and intricacy – some of the finest dresses, known as thobes, carry over 200,000 stitches. It remains an important living tradition, and the most prominent cultural material of Palestine today. More than 40 dresses and other embroidered objects, loaned from important collections in Jordan and the West Bank, will be on display for the first time in the UK.

‘Material Power’ will map Palestinian embroidery’s evolution over the past century: from rich village tradition, transformed by the advent of modernity, to its politicisation and critical re-interpretation by contemporary artists. Based on research by curator Rachel Dedman, the exhibition will explore the ways in which embroidery embodies female labour and resilience, and reflects pivotal moments in Palestine’s history.

‘Material Power’ will offer audiences in Britain, for the first time in more than 30 years, an opportunity to engage with Palestinian cultural heritage through the intimate lens of clothing. Throughout the exhibition, historical objects will sit in dialogue with rarely seen archival material and artworks by contemporary artists Bilab Bi Delo, Mona Hatoum, Khalil Rabah, Mounira Al Solh, Aya Haidar and Majd Abdel-Hamid.

‘Material Power’ will demonstrate how embroidery has been connected to the changing social, economic and political landscape in Palestine over the last 100 years. It will open with two early 20th-century ‘everyday dresses’, which women wore to work in the fields and to look after their families. Such clothing carried women through their day-to-day lives, acting as material testaments to female labour. A 1930s dress from the Gaza region will be an early highlight in the exhibition: its darns and patches attest to the embroiderer’s work in the fields, while holes on the chest indicate how she adapted the dress for breastfeeding. Like many everyday dresses, it is a multi-generational mosaic, bearing the traces of older
garments inherited from her mother or grandmother.

Alongside these everyday garments, excerpts of interviews filmed by artist Maeve Brennan – commissioned by Dedman for the Palestinian Museum in 2016 – will share the experiences of women who practice embroidery today. Their sewing stories, passed down through generations, will echo throughout a dense display of richly embroidered historic thobes, created for special occasions such as marriage and market days. A split-front coat-dress, or jellayeh, from Hebron, made between 1900 and 1915, demonstrates the impact of the British Mandate (1918-1948) on ordinary clothing: the slit down the skirt that was traditional in this region was sewn closed to conform to changing modesty standards. Examples of embroidered clothing from Bethlehem and Galilee around the same time show the vast differences in local styles: the former embellished with intricate, swirling patterns of embroidery, known as tahriri (couching), and the latter favouring sparse geometric patterns cross-stitched into indigo-blue or rust-red linens.

A pair of Hair Grid (2001) works by Mona Hatoum will sit in conversation with these historical garments. Created on small looms, they are lattices made from long filaments of hair, each row and column looping into the next, bound by tiny knots. Inherently delicate but deceptively resilient, the works trouble the rigidity of the modernist grid form with the intimacy of their material, and attest to the power of a single strand. Alongside stitched tapestries by Mounira Al Solh, which act as monuments to important women from Palestine and the Arab world, the contemporary works in this gallery will speak to the narrative potential of the thread.

A dress from Ramallah will then mark a shift between older traditions and more recent events in Palestine. Embroidered in the early 20th century, it was donated to a woman who had to flee from her home during the Nakba of 1948 (‘Nakba’ means ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic), and who arrived in Ramallah as a refugee, carrying perhaps little more than the clothes on her back. The dress’s new owner must have been broader and taller than its original embroiderer, as the dress has been visibly enlarged by stitching into it a section of material from a UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency)-issued bag of flour. This extraordinary garment speaks to the solidarity among women in the face of displacement and occupation. It will sit alongside Aya Haidar’s ongoing series Safe Space, in which she uses embroidery to document her memories of growing up during Lebanon’s Civil War (1975-1990), and the simple gestures her family took to stay safe. In one embroidery, a woman sits on a sofa with an iron pot on her head, protecting her from sniper bullets, while an assortment of furniture piled against the window absorbs a shattering of glass from an explosion. Like the dress shaped by the Nakba, such contemporary work speaks to embroidery’s ability to capture the experience of conflict and to embody resilience.

The 1970s saw the development of Palestinian embroidery as a cornerstone of the revival of heritage and articulation of nationalism. In paintings and illustrations from this period, the fellahi (peasant) woman in an embroidered dress is made synonymous with Palestinian endurance. Images of idealised rural Palestine and the ‘embroidered woman’ as mother, wife and carer for the land began to circulate as posters, which were increasingly militarised in the 1980s as part of the Palestinian resistance movement. During the First Intifada (1987-1993) – a Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation – a new kind of embroidered dress emerged. Alongside familiar patterns, explicit symbols of resistance, including flags, doves and guns, were embroidered into dresses: a means of protest more difficult to seize than placards and banners. Accompanying the works in this section will be Khalil Rabah’s Defeated Geographies (2017-2019), a series of fragmented, embroidered pseudo-maps exploring embroidery’s intimate connection to a ‘Palestinian pastoral’, and its ties to the struggle for territory.

The exhibition will further consider embroidery’s role in the construction of gender norms and ideals. Although embroidery in Palestine is considered a feminine practice, it also offers a creative outlet for Palestinian men held as political detainees in Israeli prisons. Despite embroidery and other crafts being frequently banned in prisons, men use them as an opportunity to express their resistance to circumstance, and to create gifts for their wives and mothers. On display will be a selection of embroidered objects – a bag, prayer beads, book and pen – made by prisoners with the tools at their disposal: threads from their own clothing, dye from medicines and cardboard from cereal cartons.

‘Material Power’ will close with an examination of embroidery’s commodification in recent years. As the Nakba eroded traditional, economic and social structures for embroidery’s making, the practice shifted from a labour of love, embedded in village life, to labour for pay in refugee camps. This dramatically altered the nature of production; embroidered objects and clothing now exist predominantly as a commodity produced by NGOs, which circulate in the global marketplace. As a result, many craftspeople cannot afford the objects they make. On the other hand, embroidery-producing organisations play a vital role in sustaining the traditions of tatreez (embroidery), while enabling its creative evolution. For women for whom it is their livelihood, embroidery is meaningful work that connects them to their heritage. The exhibition will take a critical look at these dynamics, and Brennan’s film The
Embroiderers (2016) will spotlight the women and families who sell their work out of refugee camps in Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan. Meanwhile Majd Abdel Hamid’s ongoing cross-stitch series, Son, this is a waste of time, will call attention to the complex relationship between embroidery’s abstract value and the labour it demands.

Visitors to the exhibition will be able to learn more about the history and contemporary relevance of Palestinian embroidery in the Kettle’s Yard Research Space, with films, audio interviews and books.