Completed with studied, machine-like precision, each of Jordan Nassar’s stitches can arguably be regarded as a knotted, sealed wish to find peace with his place as a Palestinian-American far removed from Palestine. Worked into the dense framework of traditional embroidery, Nassar’s landscapes introduce a new symbolic language altogether—depicting a knowingly idealised homeland of sunsets, miraculous topography, and verdant valleys.
Although it’s a craft passed down through generations and typically practiced by women in casual social settings or quiet domestic moments, Nassar taught himself the art of Palestinian embroidery in relative isolation. Traditionally, the complex coded language of patterns corresponded to and celebrated various Palestinian villages, but also communicated the maker’s beliefs, wishes, and even marital status.
For Your Eyes, Nassar’s first solo exhibition at The Third Line, presents a new body of work which came about as the result of an experimental, collaborative practice with a group of amateur female artisans in the West Bank town of Hebron. He said, “For me, a lot of the initial impulse to do this kind of embroidery work was to connect with my background.” The work signifies a real departure for Nassar, who has previously completed all of the stitching himself in his Brooklyn-based studio.
His earlier landscapes were set on stiff, dyed backgrounds of factory-produced Aida cloth. But these new works are stitched onto a simple raw cotton fabric locally made in Israel/Palestine, which Nassar discovered at a longstanding store in the fabric markets of Tel Aviv/Jaffa in 2017. At the time, he was in Jaffa for a residency at Airport Tel Aviv, connected with a group of women in Hebron and decided to attempt an initial series of compact landscapes literally rooted in the land.
The women, who are associated with Families Forum—a bereavement center for Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones to the protracted political conflict—adroitly tinker with embroidery as a kind of ‘living cultural practice’ rather than an entrepreneurial business. As a result, their work isn’t perfect—and that’s what Nassar appreciates the most. “Their part has quirks. You could call them mistakes. They leave a little missing or some ‘off’ stitches,” he says.
Pulling from the established coded language of Palestinian embroidery, Nassar first creates the patterns on his computer in stark black and white, leaving chunks of blank space for the landscape portions he will later stitch himself in an unforced, freestyle process that he refers to as ‘painting’. The women print out the patterns and are given agency to interpret colour schemes and make other creative decisions with their embroidery. The work they mail to Nassar inevitably contains elements of surprise. He explains, “I get the pieces back and they are missing a chunk, so then it’s my turn. I have to react to their colour choices. I have to be sensitive to play off their choices, and that part makes it really collaborative.”
Nassar says, “I like to draw from other Arabs in what is my heritage.” He has previously adoringly riffed off Lebanese-American artist Etel Adnan’s poetry and masterful visual art practice, and that influence continues to be evident here too. His show’s title borrows from the legendary Egyptian vocalist Umm Kulthum’s song Men Agl Aynayk—however, when literally translated from Arabic to English, the phrase, “For Your Eyes,” loses all of its cultural relevance.
For Arabs living in the Diaspora who are perhaps non-native speakers of Arabic, the meaning may be easily muddled. The show’s title seems to ask, What are the ramifications of failing to fully grasp a lived translation of your own culture? “The literal translation can deprive you of the poetic meaning,” Nassar explains. And this carries over to the collaboration itself. “They are embroidering and I am embroidering, but in a lot of ways I’m doing it wrong or in an outsider’s way, and they are doing it the real way but all on one piece [of cloth].”
The resulting work, which feels so intimately rooted in the land, is very simply installed on the gallery’s flat white walls. The reflective setting provides striking contrast to the manner in which the bright art of embroidery is typically seen—on dresses at weddings, political protests, and on tablecloths, throw pillowcases, and other decorative accessories in the more formal, public areas of Palestinian homes. And perhaps, that is Nassar’s point. In the gallery, the viewer looks through the lens of traditional embroidery as if parting thick foliage, able to survey a utopian vision of Palestine but unable to step fully into its geographical embrace. And that painful distance is soaked in longing.
Jordan Nassar’s For Your Eyes runs at The Third Line until 27 February 2019.