Gray Area

Gray Area

In vivid embroideries, Jordan Nassar considers how divergent cultures overlap and coexist.
Jordan Nassar working

Jordan Nassar

Michael O’Neill

Jordan Nassar wants to make beautiful art, but he also wants to talk about his identity, his marriage, and his diasporic experience. An American artist with an international sensibility, a man of Palestinian descent weaving tight bonds with Israeli society, a man doing so-called women’s work, Nassar crosses many boundaries in both his art and his life.

The 33-year-old New Yorker grew up in Manhattan’s Upper West Side with a Polish mother and a Palestinian father. His childhood was steeped in Palestinian culture at home, and in Jewish-American culture outside the door. But it was only after marrying Israeli artist Amir Guberstein that Nassar began exploring his own heritage through art – and with it, his connection to a society whose fabric has been frayed by the strain of protracted exile, civil conflict, and military occupation. His embroideries, which resemble hazy dreamscapes, reside firmly within the storied tradition of Palestinian tatriz embroidery while breaking the grid of its conventional form. But the embroidery is just one part of his mission; the artist is also devoted to conversations that might well stitch together his many divided communities. We sat down in his cozy Brooklyn studio among brightly colored spools of thread and piles of embroidered cushions to have one such conversation.

I see that media coverage of your work tends to focus on your identity, your history. How does that feel to you? Is it fetishizing?
No. I grew up feeling not Arab enough, fake. But what dawned on me very recently is that there’s basically two kinds of Palestinians: There’s Palestinians in Palestine, and the Palestinian diaspora.

The fact that I’m removed and that I feel uncomfortable in the West Bank and feel like an alien there is because I’m part of the diaspora. It’s not because I’m not Palestinian enough; it’s because one of the costs of a diaspora is that you are told, “This is your culture.” You embrace it, you like it, you’re used to it; but also, when you’re actually there, which should be your happiest time, you feel out of place. So this is a big part of my work, sharing what that experience is like and educating people.

Many children of immigrants claim their culture through food and dress and music, but claiming Palestinian identity is often about engaging with its political history. Was it that way for you?
I grew up half-Palestinian but totally a New Yorker – born and raised here and really feeling American, most of the time. But my father raised us to call ourselves Palestinian. I think it was politically important for him to make sure we were aware of what was going on there and that we felt an attachment to it.

At the same time, I grew up feeling conflicted about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, because I grew up in New York, where the status quo was support for Israel. I went to Palestine with my family when I was 15, and I’ll never forget telling some of my girlfriends what I’d seen in Hebron [a divided West Bank city with one part governed by the Palestinian Authority and the other under Israeli military control]; some of them got mad at me and said I was being anti-Semitic. And that, I think, was really scarring for me.

I read that Palestinian embroidery originally only featured abstracted, geometric symbols, but ultimately started incorporating Eastern European flower patterns.
What I ask is how long until these patterns are just considered Palestinian? Because they’ve been used in Palestine for 200 years now, so are they Palestinian patterns yet? Women I work with don’t see a difference. They’re like, “I love this rose pattern. My grandmother taught me this.” And it’s like this is clearly from Europe. But that doesn’t matter to them; it’s a Palestinian pattern, for them. This pattern in this book says it’s from the Ramallah area, but obviously is European. Tree with lions? This is from England. Traditional Palestinian embroidery is abstract representation. … This is cultural absorption, passive accident.

You describe cultural absorption as one culture taking on, transforming, and dispersing the products and practices of a proximate culture (as opposed to cultural appropriation, which is exploitative and oppressive). But what if the “absorption” of cultural traits is precipitated by profound violence and trauma, like forced migration, colonization, occupation?
Well, I think that, for me, it’s more about the future. With my work, it’s not that I’m ignoring the harsh realities, but it comforts me to think about all of the similarities and the moving-forward trend [of cultures growing] closer and closer.

When I married Amir and started going to Israel often, I learned that much of the country is Arab Jews, what they call mizrahi, primarily from Morocco, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, but, really, every Arab country. So the Arab culture that’s present in Israel is not just Palestinian. Jachnun [a kind of pastry] is Yemeni, and couscous is Moroccan. Mimouna is a festival that happens at the end of Passover in Morocco, and it originally came about because communities there were very mixed, but for the week of Passover they had to be separate; when they came back together they had this big hafla [get-together]. Now it’s an Israeli thing.

Going there as an adult has really opened my eyes to how much is shared. I definitely just spend a lot of time exploring the nuances of that, because it’s complicated, and I also think it is a hopeful trend.

Israel recently passed a controversial law declaring Israel a Jewish state and removing Arabic as a national language. Do you think “cultural absorption” could mend the divisions brought about by such a government policy?
It’s something that we’re seeing everywhere in the world right now, and some people say it’s a dying breath of this kind of mentality. I think it’s more complicated than that. Of course, it has a lot to do with colonialism and a lot to do with people in power wanting to stay in power, and rich people wanting to stay rich. And there will be many victories on their part. In Palestine, there’s no way around it. Palestinians are living under military occupation. It’s a form of apartheid. There’s really very little to talk about and argue about with what is going on in the West Bank. But what’s going on in Israel, for me, is where it gets interesting.

Going there makes me feel better, even though it’s so overwhelming to be in Israel, and so hard, every day, because you see things that are not fair and that are not true. But then, you also see all of the crazy nuances and all of the people who are very aware and passionate and active and trying, even though they’re supposed to be on the Israeli side. And for me this is hopeful.

Gender is another thing that can either bring people together or separate them. As a man working in a traditionally feminine craft, do you think about that?
I grew up really flamboyantly gay and just being teased my entire life – called a girl until everyone learned worse words for gay people – so I grew up sticking out without a choice. That made me comfortable not fitting in. There’s something freeing about that. I just do what I want, and I don’t worry about if it’s masculine or feminine, because that ship has sailed a long time ago. Gender isn’t something that the work addresses; [it does] in its essence – you can’t get around it – but what I’m much more focused on is the diaspora experience, Israel and Palestine, shared culture.

I recently started working with some women in the West Bank on collaborative work. I met them through this Israeli-Palestinian foundation at their office in Beit Jala. When I showed them my work, they were shocked that I was a boy. But then they were like, “Oh, it’s because your blood is Palestinian.” That’s what they told me. It’s more important that you’re Palestinian, to them, than that you’re a guy and you shouldn’t be doing this. 

These interactions seem central to your practice.
At first, I started working with this embroidery as a way of connecting with Palestine and because I was looking for something that meant “Palestine” to me. But now it’s really becoming about just having these conversations.

My plans for 2019 couldn’t be more exciting because I’m having one show in Dubai and one show in Tel Aviv. And that, to me, shows I’m managing, somehow, to talk with both sides and not close off people.

I’m kind of doing a switcheroo, where people are like, Oh, what a pretty embroidered thing. It’s so detailed and has such pretty colors.” And then, they want to know more. In a way, it’s disarming. It’s not in-your-face explicit “Free Palestine.” It’s about conversation.

I sometimes feel self-conscious that I could be accused of being ambiguous with my political statements or something, because I’m not out there being an activist. I just feel like the conversation is so much more complicated than that.

There’s something really powerful about helping people with different beliefs learn how to trust and engage with one another.
If people can take one thing away, I want them to take away that I’m Israeli-related, and I’m Palestinian, and that I exist, and that I like being in both places, and that I defend both places at different times. My mission here is to show how complicated it is. There’s no way to cut it where there’s a good and a bad, or a right and a wrong. Of course, yes, the occupation is wrong. But that doesn’t mean Israel shouldn’t exist or it should. You can’t extrapolate these firm anythings.

It’s really hard, I think, talking about “trying to change the world with your work.” It feels so impossible.

You’re just trying to share your perspective.
This is just my life, all the time. Even when I give my husband a hug. That’s also part of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict.