Contemporary Palestinian costume and embroidery (post 1948)

The last 50 years: the situation in the Palestinian region

The last 50 years: an example of the situation in the Diaspora - Palestinian costume in Australia

See also Refugee camp embroidery projects - history, products, museums, where and how to buy


The last 50 years: an example of Palestinian culture in the Diaspora - Palestinian embroidery and heritage material in Australia

Throughout the world, far from home, Palestinians are attempting to survive and assimilate cultures very different from their own.  In many countries the third generation is now coming to maturity, and it is this third generation that is now exploring the possibilities of the past.  At the Archive it is this new generation that makes up the bulk of our public enquiries, requesting information and images of their family's village and traditional costume.  Enquiries come from all over the world but it is the Australian situation that we are most familiar with.

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Wedad Boutagy, grandmother of Australian textile artist Laurie Paine, dressed as a village girl in a Jerusalem photographic studio. (Photo courtesy of the Boutagy/Paine family, Sydney)

Until recently Palestinian cultural heritage has remained a somewhat obscure phenomena in Australia. This is in no small part due to the fact that Palestinian communities in Australia invariably keep a low profile. The 1992 Atlas of the Australian People states that Sydney is the focus of Middle Eastern settlement in Australia with almost 70% of the Arab population residing in either Sydney or NSW. According to existing documentation there are approximately 15000 Palestinians in Australia at this time. Palestinians remain, however, one of the most invisible of all ethnic communities. The Australian government’s original refusal to allow "Palestine" as birthplace on official documents and its refusal to accommodate Palestinian refugees under any special entry programs - forcing many to adopt Jordan and Lebanon as points of origin - has accelerated their general fade from view.

Many Palestinians feel that even in Australia they are subject to various forms of discrimination - ethnic, religious and political - once experienced in their homeland. This has led in many cases to withdrawal from the community so as to avoid political confrontation or declaration of ethnic origins. Research by Christine Asmar has concluded that the Palestinian community may be reluctant to fully identify with their adopted country because of dissatisfaction with Australia’s official line of the Palestinian issue - the end result being a sense of continuing alienation and exile.

As in most refugee situations very little Palestinian cultural heritage made it's way to Australia.   There are two pre 1948 taqsireh jackets (one in the crusader style), several thobs, and fragments of various headdresses held among families in Melbourne that are known to the Archive; there is even less in Sydney.  And even when items have been preserved in many cases very little other than the region from which the garment came is known.  In one case the family was not able to identify the use of a specific piece (an embroidered hairband panel from Hebron) although they would not have parted from it for the world. The cultural link between heritage material and contemporary life is missing.

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Children from a Palestinian family now resident in Melbourne in contemporary costumes provided by their grandmother who still lives in the Middle East.  Both costumes are examples of the shawal style that became popular in the 1980s

The costumes held by Palestinian families in Australia are often examples of contemporary shawal and ‘6 branch’ styles, Sinai bedouin garments or Syrian village costumes. In the case of the shawal and "6 branch" styles, these have either come with the families when they moved to Australia or have been supplied by female relatives still in the Middle East, representing contemporary Palestinian styles popular over the last 30 years or so.  On the other hand, the Sinai and Syrian costumes have often been acquired by the male members of the Australian based families at the request of their wives and daughters while on business trips to the Middle East.  There have usually been purchased in good faith from costume dealers in Jerusalem or Damascus as representing "traditional" Palestinian costume.  As recently as 1994 Sydney’s Macquarie University’s Question of Palestine exhibition displayed southern Syrian styles as pure "Palestinian". The owners of the costume exhibits were unable to provide the curators with any specific costume identification other than that the garments were purchased as Palestinian.  There are also several examples of Palestinian style pre 1948 headdresses brought to Australia as treasured historical Palestinian material during the 1980s that again are dealer constructs and thus defy attempts at clear regional or stylistic identification. 

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Poster for Palestinian Cultural Exhibition, Melbourne 1991 featuring a Syrian/Palestinian dress from the innovative ANAT workshop in Damascus, sold at the Palestinian Cultural Exhibition as a traditional Palestinian design.

This loss of cultural knowledge was also seen during a 1991 Melbourne commercial display of material which had been acquired from friends, relatives, and dealers in Syria. The costumes were either purely Syrian or refugee camp styles amalgamated with Syrian village styles. An example - the pride of the exhibition, a beautiful dress from the innovative ANAT Workshop in Damascus, was displayed on the exhibition’s poster: the fabrics are Syrian, the designs themselves are from Es Sukne village in south Syria, but the dress is modelled on the Palestinian style with a square qabbeh. This was sold as "Palestinian" heritage material for a serious amount of money. To an isolated community with no access to heritage material this mixture of Syrian and camp styles had become representative of "traditional Palestinian costume".

This situation is aggravated by the almost complete lack of Palestinian cultural heritage or costume within Australian museums.  There is one 1930s Hebron thob in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra (donated by former Australian Ambassador to Jordan Robert Bowker in 1991 when Jeni Allenby, the current Director of this Archive, was employed there), two thobs, including a 1930s Jerusalem 'dress of pieces', in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, and several contemporary thobs in the National Museum of Australia.  However none of these have ever been displayed, nor conserved (nor was the Archive allowed to borrow them for the exhibition Portraits without names: Palestinian costume).  While there are some excellent examples of pre 1948 costume held by Australian private collectors, these are not of course readily available to the local Palestinian community.  It was for this very reason that the Palestine Costume Archive was established.

As is the case with Palestinians scattered worldwide, the most common Palestinian cultural tradition found within Palestinian Australian homes is embroidery.  Embroidered cushions, originally produced by the various refugee camp embroidery projects, are a common feature in Palestinian Australian  - and Arab Australian - homes, in all their myriad designs and colours derived from traditional Palestinian costume.  Some come to Australia as gifts, purchased through the refugee project outlets, others come embroidered by relatives in similar styles, all beautiful, all evocative of home.  Many other products of aid organizations such as Sunbula (formally Craftaid) and World Vision which are regularly imported into Australia and exhibited at a variety of church venues as well as through ethnic stores and organizations, are also popular.  Embroidery samplers, table runners and small embroidered wall hangings,  featuring traditional or nationalistic motifs, are all commonly found in Australian homes.

Some Australian Palestinian women continue to produce embroidered pieces, despite difficulties in obtaining what are seen to be suitable materials: good canvas and cottons from Jerusalem are still preferred to Australian products. Designs - similar to those produced in other areas of the Diaspora - are often a mixture of old and new, with traditional colourings and border layouts. Red on white embroidery (the Ramallah style) remain popular. Layout recalls shinyar panels with some echoes of contemporary shawal elements, adapted for table runners and wall hangings. Most are influenced by products from aid programs such as Sunbula .  Locally produced Palestinian embroidery has even featuring recently in an Australian government publication on ethnic crafts within Australia. 

Complete dresses are produced more rarely in Australia. More often than not dresses brought into the country are gifts from relatives still living in the Palestinian region, either embroidered by the relatives themselves or bought readymade. One Australian example was embroidered by Ibtisam Abu Duhou: a tiny garment of black linen, shawal in style, embroidered with Abu Duhou's own mixture of traditional designs - riders and heart-like patterns, cross stitched in red thread and fine silver cord. The use of silver cord cross stitched, rather than couched, marks the piece as an innovative design. Another Australian example was originally begun by Soumeya Seedah in Jerusalem and completed by her daughter Reeda Kassis in Sydney. Motifs, and their actual placement are new, although the colours are recognizably Palestinian in style. The garment - slim and elegant, with a beautiful drape to its linen form - has been worn with pride at various functions, including an Ethnic Communities Council parade of costume at the Hilton Hotel in Sydney during the 1980s.  Both dresses by Ibtisam Abu Duhou and Reeda Kassis were displayed in the Archives exhibition Portraits without names: Palestinian costume and were much admired by the Australian public.  

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Laurie Paine Untitled ( detail ) 1985 (Artist's Collection)

Palestinian influence can surface through the most intricate of connections. Laurie Paine, a textile artist trained in Canberra, used without any conscious awareness saru and other motifs drawn from her Palestinian motherís collection of embroidered cushions, many of which were embroidered by an aunt in Jordan. "I did not consciously turn to the distinctive Palestinian handiwork for inspiration" she wrote in 1992, "[but] indirectly my cultural background has influenced me". While her auntís cross stitched cushions are favourites with private collectors in the Middle East, Paineís weavings are held within Australian museum collections. Her graduating work of 1985 was an installation of five black pieces of silk weaving with multi-coloured figuring decorating the surface. Her motifs - such as the saru - dance along silk panels, stylized, and yet still recognizable: a language that we recall but can no longer read.

That language is also preserved within the Archive's Portraits without names: Palestinian costume exhibition project, which began touring Australia in 1995.  Originally conceived as a means of bridging the widening gap between Australian Palestinians and their cultural heritage the exhibition has attracted significant praise from the Australian artistic and multicultural community.  The exhibition received huge support from the local Palestinian community while on display in Sydney, where it was extended for an 18 month run due to popularity.  Many Palestinian women made time in their busy schedules to sit embroidering within the exhibition space, not only to assist with public enquires but because they liked the ambience of feeling surrounded by Palestinian cultural material, something they had not felt for many years. There have also been cases where women have vocally reclaimed their nationality proudly within the exhibition space, causing worry to museum security guards who cannot understand the emotional Arabic and the reason for tears.  

Australian artist Christine McMillan thob and burqa inspired by Palestinian costumes seen at the Portraits without names Sydney exhibition.

Portraits was originally planned to tour only to Australian cities with Palestinian or Arab communities, however word of the beauty of it's material spread so much that many regional galleries and museums in Australia and Asia requested the exhibition on loan.  In 2002 it will be seen, with the Archive's second exhibition Secret Splendours: women's costume in the Arab world at the Museum Victoria's new Immigration Museum in Melbourne for six months, where a full interactive educational program will accompany it, aimed at promoting many different aspects of Palestinian culture.  

When Portraits was first proposed as an exhibition, it was hoped that it would be the first of many such projects, and that the cultural language of Palestinian costume would continue to be preserved and maintained within Australian communities.  This, slowly, is being achieved.  Examples of Palestinian inspired art work are beginning to appear within the general Australian visual arts community, such as artist Christine McMillan's recent indigo dyed thob and matching burqa, created after seeing Portraits on display in Sydney.  This production of garments derived from Palestinian heritage can also be seen in American artist and dancer Lauren Grover's work (see www.qamarfrangi.bigstep.com) , in particular her recreation of thob 'ub or double thob designs.  Palestinian traditions continue to inspire wherever they are found.

For further information on Portraits, including installation images, reviews and public comments, see Archive exhibitions for loan.


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