Art

Invoking Palestinian Embroidery Tradition Only to Unsettle It

Buthina Abu Milhem’s art represents not only the pain of dispossession, but also the urgency and solace of art-making, its potential to give form to experience and vision.

Buthina Abu Milhem, from the series The Needle Vanquishes the Tailor (2018), textile, pins, thread, and needles (image by the author)

UMM EL-FAHEM, Israel — Eighteen years ago, Buthina Abu Milhem cut apart an embroidered dress belonging to her deceased grandmother and began incorporating the fragments into garment-like forms roughly cut from linen. She continued working with dresses purchased in other cities throughout Israel/Palestine. Three series resulting from her ongoing exploration are displayed in her solo exhibition, A Lamentation of Threads and Pins, at the Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery, located in Wadi Ara within the Green Line (the Armistice, or pre-1967, border drawn in 1949 demarcating the de facto borders of the state of Israel after the war).

Abu Milhem’s tactile and allusive works invoke the tradition of Palestinian embroidery only to unsettle it. Her first series, evocatively titled The Needle Vanquishes the Tailor, consists of small shirt-shaped forms stained with coffee, tea, and spices; pierced with pins and needles; stitched with colored threads; collaged with dress fragments; and penciled with Arabic words and phrases. The title is reified in the art as a host of disturbed material relationships: needles and pins escape their utilitarian functions to multiply and form unconventional patterns that track asymmetrically across the fabric. Their exposed points suggest pain, as well as the patience of the hand that pressed them through the cloth. The discipline of stitching has given way to a wayward, irregular line akin to drawing. In some pieces thread coalesces into patterns suggesting the Palestinian keffiyeh; in others, the meandering lines recall landscape trails or patterns on leaves; in yet others Abu Milhem has abandoned the stitching midway and let strands hang unrestrained across and below the garment.

Installation view of works from the series Maps in Buthina Abu Milhem: A Lamentation in Threads and Pins (image courtesy of Buthina Abu Milhem)

In the second series, titled Dresses (begun in 2008), Abu Milhem enlarged the cloth supports, released them from their frames, and began dipping them in wax. Traditional Palestinian embroidery associates dress patterns with specific regions and their communities. After the Nakba of 1948, embroidery became a national motif in Palestinian resistance art. Abu Milhem’s art follows these visual histories, but instead of idealizing the struggle, it performs a rhetoric of unmooring and disorientation, with the disrupted patterns and evocations of ghostly bodies hovering between corporeality and absence within the clothing. By collecting dresses from locations far from her family’s hometown of Ar’ara, deconstructing them, and embedding the fragments into new unruly compositions, she transforms them from emblems of known places preserved by regional embroidery communities into intimate symbols of dispersion.

Buthina Abu Milhem, from the series The Needle Vanquishes the Tailor (2006), textile, pins, thread, and needles, 62 x 82 cm (image courtesy of Buthina Abu Milhem)

The pieces in the series Maps (begun in 2008) move beyond Dresses to abandon the contours of clothing, re-imagining the textiles as hangings, coverings, and sculptural forms. Their stiffened surfaces resemble topographies or skin — with folds and ridges suggesting scars.

Abu Milhem’s works reflect an acutely lived awareness of circumstances impacting Palestinians under Israeli governance in different ways on both sides of the Green Line. During the war of 1948, leading to the establishment of Israel, Palestinian society experienced massive losses of land, homes, lives, and a shared culture secured by its statehood. Ar’ara, where the artist still resides, borders lands formerly owned by its inhabitants, including her family, but expropriated by Israel after the war and distributed to surrounding Jewish kibbutzim and towns. As she told me, crossing the Green Line to visit family and friends entails hours spent navigating checkpoints and other infrastructure designed to inhibit Palestinian mobility.

Although the artwork references the stresses imposed by the Israeli government on citizens it views as a fifth column, it is the convergence of collective national trauma with the complexity of an individual’s life — of stark political realities with nuanced personal commitments and aspirations — that makes the works reverberate so powerfully. They represent not only the pain of dispossession, but also the urgency and solace of art-making, its potential to give form to experience and vision.

Installation view of Buthina Abu Milhem: A Lamentation in Threads and Pins (image courtesy of Buthina Abu Milhem)

The exhibition’s presentation at Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery, located in the largest Arab majority city within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, is integral to its sociopolitical resonance. Director Said Abu Shakra actively brings Palestinian art and identity into the Israeli art establishment, which still largely adheres to Zionism’s conceptual frames. This is no small challenge. The Israeli culture ministry, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is virulently hostile to art it regards as undermining the state’s Zionist ethos — an attitude that culminated in November 2018 in a narrowly averted proposal for a bill promoting “Loyalty in Culture.” But, as the Israeli government subjects Palestinian non-citizens in the Occupied Territories beyond the Green Line to systemic dispossession and crushing violence, cultural critics, including historians of Palestinian art such as Bashir Makhoul, have argued that the minority who managed to remain citizens in the state after 1948, though often sidelined in discussions of the conflict, are uniquely positioned to challenge Israeli ethnocracy from within. Abu Milhem’s works, on the walls of the Umm el-Fahem Gallery, participate in this effort. We’d do well to listen.

Buthina Abu Milhem: A Lamentation of Threads and Pins continues at Umm el-Fahem Gallery (P.O. Box 174, Umm el-Fahem, Israel) through December 17. The exhibition is curated by Professor Haim Maor.

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