81 Designs

Recreating graffiti through embroidery

Palestinian artisans in Lebanon’s Ain el Hilweh refugee camp produce embroidered renditions of eL Seed’s calligraphy.

A new Dubai-based social enterprise is working on collaborations between Palestinian women artisans and artists from the Middle East to create an international platform which will amplify the artisans’ creative voices and showcase the artists’ talents. 81 Designs’ debut project witnessed the artisans re-interpreting the acclaimed Tunisian calligraffiti artist eL Seed’s unique works through the medium of traditional Palestinian embroidery, creating a visually stunning and texturally interesting rendition of his signature style.

The recently concluded Art Dubai witnessed the launch of a new social enterprise vehicle. 81 Designs, the brainchild of Nadine Y Maalouf and her mother, Nesrine El Tibi Maalouf, collaborates with Palestinian artisans in creating a platform for artists to share their talents and enrich the art scene in the Middle East. Each project will collaborate with a different artist from the MENA region.

Nadine’s interest in studying social enterprise gave birth to 81 Designs, which took two years to be set up. “I am half Lebanese and American and I wished to create something which would contribute to the society,” she stated over a phone interview from Dubai prior to the launch. “I wanted to find a way to bridge art and humanity.”

The goal was to both give artists the opportunity to showcase their art in a different medium and amplifying the voices of Palestinian women.

Hand embroidery is an important part of Palestinian cultural heritage.

Nadine elaborated that the goal was to both give Middle Eastern artists the opportunity to showcase their art in a different medium and amplifying the voices of Palestinian women, allowing them to present their work on an international platform. “This initiative allows them to receive the support that enables them to showcase their skills,” she said.

Nadine’s journey of collaborating with the Palestinian artisans occurred when she visited the largest refugee camp in Lebanon, Ain al Hilweh in the city of Saida. With the population now estimated to be over 122,000 in a space designed for 20,000, the situation reflects how challenging it has become for Lebanon’s Palestinian camps, already overcrowded and suffering from neglect and strained infrastructure, to accommodate the recent arrivals of Syrian-Palestinian and Syrian refugees in the recent years. It is in these circumstances that Nadine encountered the artisans and eventually identified her desire to work with them.

The practice of embroidery suffered much decline following the Palestinian displacement after 1948, although it has witnessed a revival over the years.

Nadine decided to work with Palestinian women’s embroidery skills and liaised with someone at the camp who introduced her to the most experienced practitioners of the craft.

In the past, after completing their house chores, Palestinian women would often gather in groups, chatter to one another, and practice the art of embroidery, al-tatreez. Older women created articles for their daughters or their son’s dowry while younger women worked upon personal items for themselves and their families or future homes. The practice of embroidery suffered much decline following the Palestinian displacement and exodus from their homes after 1948, although it has witnessed a revival over the years and has proven a valuable vehicle of financial empowerment for Palestinian women.

Craftspeople in Ain el Hilweh, Lebanon’s largest refugee camp for Palestinians, work on embroidered renditions of eL Seed’s art.

“The group consists of ten artisans of which the oldest is 63 and the youngest is 23,” Nadine said, remarking that their circumstances have changed due to higher wages and a steady job. “There is a welcome perception that this project is a long term one, as opposed to a temporary.”

Apart from being a means of financial empowerment, embroidery is also a skill the craftspeople can pass on to their daughters and ensure a viable source of future income for them as well, a crucial development in a climate where job opportunities are scarce and limited in scope.

While present political circumstances did not permit the women to travel to Dubai for the launch, Nadine showed the artisan’s journey through the medium of a short documentary, allowing the audience to hear them speak about their experiences and how they came to be involved in the project. “We want to create a connection both with them and the art that they have created,” she said.

The first project that 81 Designs conceived was of the artisans interpreting the renowned Tunisian calligraffiti artist eL Seed’s designs through the myriad textures and hues of their distinctive embroidery.

“I was both an admirer of his work and drawn towards how he brought together the strands of art and humanity through his work,” Nadine says. Focusing on recreating the art in a different medium, the artisans rendered his signature style in eight tapestry canvases, making it an exciting marriage of visuals and textures.

“This project was an unusual departure for the ladies who were accustomed to working with traditional stitching; it allowed them to retain their traditional legacies nonetheless while presenting it in an entirely modern context,” she says, indicating a cross-pollination of ideas, traditions, and concepts.

“I was both an admirer of eL Seed’s work and drawn towards how he brought together the strands of art and humanity through his work.”

Pieces of eL Seed’s art, recreated by Palestinian artisans.

“I greatly admired how they reproduced my art work in their own way,” eL Seed said when asked about his experiences collaborating with the artisans, adding that he was also drawn towards the fact that he was engaging with and helping a community of craftspeople to articulate their art. “I appreciate the recognition and trust that 81 Designs has given me to be the first artist they collaborate with. I truly hope to make a difference to the lives of these women and their families through this meaningful initiative,” he said.

While eL Seed could not directly interact with the artisans, he did connect with the awe he experienced of seeing the intersection of his art and their embroidery on the canvases. “It made the project real for me, it was the kind of collaboration that has meaning and pushed me to do something different,” he said.

Nadine mentions that 81 Designs are doing an open call expressing interest in artists who would like to join the initiative. “We are definitely working on another project and are looking forward to connecting with other artists,” she said adding that her ultimate goal is to employ as many Palestinian artisans as possible in the future.

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