The Jameel Fellowship programme invites contemporary artists and designers from the Middle East to spend time in residence at the V&A, as part of the Middle East section in the Asia Department. Focused on investigation rather than making, the Fellowships support the development of new lines of enquiry in the Fellows’ work, facilitating artistic research in conversation with the V&A’s extraordinary collections.
You never really know what you’re signing up for when you start a new experience in a new place. When I moved to London in 2016, I had never set foot in the UK. I didn’t know what the air would feel like when I stepped off the plane, how the streets would smell, or what my accent would sound like to the people I met. Moving from Lebanon to the UK was a leap of faith. I thought I would learn new things about myself in this new country, but I never expected I would also learn old things.
In the years since I arrived, I’ve called the UK home; I’ve become British. But I have never stopped being curious about where I come from. When I was offered a fellowship at the V&A it felt unreal, in the most literal sense. I could not understand how it had happened, and I couldn’t quite comprehend that it was going to happen. Not just because of the enormity and generosity of the opportunity, but because I also didn’t know what to expect. I have never been a part of a major cultural institution; I have never really been a researcher outside of the confines of my own design practice.
The first time I entered the cavernous V&A rotunda, I had no idea how to be a ‘Fellow’. Through the guidance of Rachel Dedman, Jameel curator of contemporary art from the Middle East, I understood that the 9 months ahead of me would be about taking time to think and understand my practice better, as I navigated the shift from design to art. It is so rare, after the initial freedom of art school, to be offered so much space to just … think. To daydream. Imagine being asked to come daydream at the V&A South Kensington while you look through the collections! This was certainly not what I was expecting when I reached Heathrow 5 years earlier.
In that incredibly generous space to think and learn, I found myself attracted to all kinds of things. At first, it was the shiny stuff. I obsessed over jewellery from the Levant. I took every opportunity I could to look at the collections and photograph things. Then, naturally for someone who had been a clothing designer for a decade, I gravitated towards the ornate fabric and embroidery from Palestine.
Eventually, as the months went by, I started to realise my real interest lay in looking into supernatural and divine protection in the Levant and the wider Middle East. I had grown up in Lebanon surrounded by familiar blue talismans to ward off the evil eye, but had never really thought about them. They were just part of my life. As was the neighbour who fumigated the hallways of our building with incense. It was only when I was confronted with these incredible objects at the V&A that I connected these things, which seemed so mundane to me growing up, to something much larger.
My interest in the subject was sparked by a section in an incredible book, Threads of Identity: Preserving Palestinian Costume and Heritage by Widad Kawar. I initially picked up the book from the National Art Library and thought I would deepen my knowledge about Palestinian embroidery. But I was soon drawn to something else altogether. I discovered a type of amulet widely worn in the Levant region. These amulets were nothing like anything I had seen before. They were made from all these different types of beads, coins, seashells and stones that came from different parts of the world. They were the remains of empires that had passed through the land, which had been repurposed into objects that had new meanings, and protective powers. I started seeing these protective elements in all of the objects I was looking at. They were always there, but so embedded into my everyday life that I never actually looked at them.
Some of the textile objects I focused my research on had very specific, obvious details that were designed as protective elements. The most striking of these for me was an embroidered Palestinian dress from Ramallah. This ceremonial robe, intended as a wedding dress, features a fully embroidered chest panel. Observing the intricate embroidery, you notice a sudden and unexpected change of colour in the design. This asymmetry was believed to deter the evil eye and, due to its placement on the chest, it was meant to protect the bride’s torso – the heart and the lungs. The second item that has stuck with me is a Palestinian veil from Ramallah. The embroiderer here has also created an asymmetry by mis-matching the design and colour, so subtly that it took me a while to notice it. What I also noticed on certain items, such as another veil from Ramallah, is that the un-named embroiderer sometimes finished the piece with a little stitch, or embroidered patch, on the edge in indigo blue. Blue, especially indigo blue, was considered to be the most protective colour against the evil eye.
In spending time with these pieces that were over a century old, I found a bridge to my own upbringing. How odd it was to reconnect with myself during this fellowship with one of the UK’s most treasured institutions. I had expected to find something new, but instead I found explanations for something old. I spent the following months immersed in the meanings of every colour, every smell, every intention attached to divine and supernatural protection in the region I was born in. I connected my modern-day practices to those that took place hundreds of years ago. It was a gift. I have since started integrating this research and knowledge into my art practice, in both textile and digital forms.
Fellowships like the one I received are an unparalleled opportunity. Free from the pressure to immediately create or respond, one’s mind can wander. Days spent in a building so rich in history, filled with the world’s greatest curators, create a recipe for finding amazing things. Especially those that were hiding in plain sight.