The crossovers of culture, identity and tradition resonate within artist Jordan Nassar. A second-generation American whose Palestinian family immigrated to New York in the early 1920s and quickly assimilated into their new home, Nassar admits internalising a pronounced struggle about political and cultural perspectives. “I felt conflicted because I grew up in a Jewish neighbourhood with specific understandings, but at home, my father, a psychiatrist, had been doing human rights work dealing with PTSD in the West Bank since the 1990s,” he says. “I was confused because I had two sets of information presented to me and it was hard to navigate.”
Nassar’s concept of Palestine was formulated by his father, himself informed by inherited nostalgia: “My father internalised this Palestinian identity and is very attached to it, but it isn’t real—it’s romanticised nostalgia of this Utopian homeland.” Nassar’s subsequent time as an adult spent in Palestine and neighbouring nations revealed a juxtaposition of the imaginings of his father alongside attempts to identify with America or Palestine as a mixed culture individual. “It’s exciting to learn about my history but I’m such an alien there—tattooed, pierced, a New Yorker, so not an Arab, but in America I’m always hanging out with Arabs and listening to Arab music. I’m not comfortable in either place,” he admits. “I realise more and more this is one of the ripple effects of the Diaspora across generations.”
Jordan Nassar. Courtesy of the artist
Interested in inherited nostalgia—while avoiding political debate—he translates painterliness into embroidery. Adopting the female generationally learned tradition of Palestinian tatreez, Nassar’s take on the symbolic, geographically specific embroidery mirrors his hybrid existence. “They’re about colour and composition, and in interrupting the cross-stitch grids with landscapes, its creating dreamy places that don’t really exist,” remarks Nassar. Influenced two-fold by Lebanese poet and artist Etel Adnan, “Her paintings are gorgeous, she’s a genius colourist, and I read how events in her life led to the work she made and using it to address difficult internal struggles,” he explains. “She inspired me to break the natural grid and patterns and my first piece worked in one of her landscapes, but I didn’t want to take too much of her visual language because I wanted to develop my own way.” Adnan opened his mind to bending the rules. “I always felt like a fake Arab, but she also struggled with ownership over an Arab identity, so many things I was feeling. It made me think, ‘hey, I’m Palestinian, just a different kind’, and that I should own it because it makes me more unique. The floodgates opened.”
Jordan Nassar. Memories. 2018. Hand embroidered cotton on cotton. 85.09x91.44 cm. Courtesy of The Third Line, Dubai
It was from this point Nassar deviated from subdued, minimal and mathematical interpretations of tatreez towards the unconventional. Collaborating with Palestinian women in Bethlehem camps to produce sensitive, colourful works, he joined the likes of Algerian Calligraffiti artist eL Seed and Moroccan photographer Hassan Hajjaj, who likewise partnered with refugee embroiderers for projects under the philanthropic arts organisation 81Designs. Nassar’s embroidery-as-painting differs in that he sews as well, an unorthodox tactic supported by the women after they examined his stitching, a talent they attributed to his “Palestinian blood”, thus allowing his gender to be overlooked. With recent examples in For Your Eyes at The Third Line, Dubai, Nassar’s technique reconfigures tatreez into symbolically liberated forms that reference, rather than reside in, tradition.
The women—of whom his projects financially aid and empower—add another twist by implementing their chromatic choices onto Nassar’s predetermined patterns. “I remove a part of the pattern so that when I get it back I fill in a landscape, but usually the women use whatever and however many colours they want in their own style,” he explains. “I want them to do what feels right and makes sense to them because I want it to be traditional. I respond to their choices, and my sense of colour rubs off on them so they choose new more contemporary combinations. It’s a back-and-forth, always a surprise.” It also means that their organic approach—wherein imperfect stitches don’t impede the larger whole—“is beautiful,” says Nassar. “It’s charming and what makes it handmade and special. The Arab geometry suddenly cut by an overlaid landscape painting, where we’re doing the same stitches but in different ways, it’s crazy to look at! But it’s funny because in the art world, the fact they’re made by others for me means it’s less authentic, but in the real world, employing their inherited living traditions and craftsmanship is what makes it authentic.”
Jordan Nassar. You That Keeps Me Awake At Night. 2018. Hand embroidered cotton on cotton. 30.48x86.36 cm. Courtesy of The Third Line, Dubai
Of exhibiting in the Middle East to an audience more intimately familiar with the practices and nuances of Palestine, Nassar says, “I always talk about the region with my work but showing in America is a different conversation because the views are less informed. It’s my goal to talk about and teach people the nuances of this really crazy, intricate situation and the identity of Palestinians in and outside of Palestine, and how it’s much more than Palestine versus others.” He elaborates on his perception of contradictions in and outside of the region, where many of his regional acquaintances have defied traditional political viewpoints. “I don’t want people to be polarised, I’m all about sharing, and aside from the obvious philosophical rights and wrongs, there is something to be said about the reality, how this is just how it is, and that people need to live their lives, follow their dreams. It’s important to be active and vocal about the situation, but you can’t let it ruin your life.”
Nassar illustrates this perspective by channeling Palestine through its aesthetic canons, sprinkled with East-West visual tropes, rather than engaging in the political themes embraced by his Palestinian artistic contemporaries. He’s adamant that revealing shared elements between Palestine and its neighbour, rejecting preconceptions, and highlighting his experience of how “on the day-to-day people are living together and sharing their lives”, will help alleviate notions of an atmosphere of mutual hatred. “I’m intrigued by Palestinians who live in Jaffa and how they navigate it, because they were just born there, that’s what they know, and they’re happy with their lives, but many other Palestinians have issues with that happiness. It’s nuanced and complicated.”
Jordan Nassar. Hope Of My Life. 2018. Hand embroidered cotton on cotton. 87.63x91.44 cm. Courtesy of The Third Line, Dubai
Nassar’s means of navigation include his behind-the-scenes activism in financially aiding his craftswomen collaborators, as well spreading a broader philosophical message. “When the political situation seems so hopeless, it feels good knowing that I’m doing good for the lives of some people, especially since my message isn’t just ‘Free Palestine’—its more about understanding and exchange and trying to live together and get on with our lives in peace.” He adds that there’s a distinct idea of Palestine for Palestinians in the Diaspora, and that “it’s interesting to see what impressions they have, and how this Palestine only exists in their mind. Palestine’s amazing, but it isn’t Utopia—it’s a real place with real people. I grew up with it being the dream you’re yearning to return to, but I’ve learned not to idealise it.” Nassar is curious to see what conversations arise regionally as an American-Palestinian male producing tatreez, exhibiting in vastly different contexts to audiences with various levels of personal connection to Palestine. However, his practice begs the question of whether it’s a step towards a more genuine understanding of an evolving Palestinian identity, or a step away towards a growing form of distanced globalisation.