At OmarJoseph Nasser-Khoury’s Silk Thread Martyrs exhibition in London’s Mosaic Rooms last year, the relatively unknown Palestinian artist was surprised to welcome a packed house for the viewing of his first show. The exhibition, comprised of 22 individual garments designed by Nasser-Khoury, 23, in collaboration with traditional Palestinian embroideries was a delicate, subtle vehicle that spelt out his country’s painful memories and rich historical past through traditional costume.
A fresh break from the more naive and obtuse art works dealing with the complexities of the Middle East so commonplace in Europe, Nasser-Khoury puts much its success down to one factor: ‘That is what very good PR does, and the Mosaic Rooms did a very good job in getting the word out.’
Despite such modest expectations, the Silk Thread Martyrs did enough to wow both art and fashion critics and saw coverage from the British broadsheet The Daily Telegraph and the BBC. ‘There was a clear stress on being Palestinian and I think that was a huge selling point,’ he says. ‘The bait was Palestine, not fashion, which in retrospect, I think, was far too easy. I think the work ought to carry the cause, not the other way around.’
At only 24, there is a huge amount of maturity and emotional connectivity in Nasser-Khoury’s work and this can be seen at his latest exhibition Mvsevm-Seat of the Mvse, which opened in May at the Birzeit University in Ramallah, Palestine. Again he delves into his Palestinian roots, highlighting the relationship between creative individuals, institutes of learning and international creative industries.
His medium is again fashion and costume design, albeit in a very different form. ‘We will be looking at the techniques employed in their manufacturing and making, abstracting them and using the information found in the collection to create our own fashion capsule collection,’ he says.
Craftsmen work, surrounded by spectators, on Palestinian costumes and pieces from local ethnographer Tawfik Canaan’s amulet collections. The audience not only act as spectators but interact with the subjects. Nasser-Khoury likens the environment to a zoo, where the habitat is the workshop and the designers are the animals. ‘Here, however, you are able, allowed and encouraged to interact with the designers, who themselves are on display. The team in the workshop will also be at liberty to talk to the audience and invite them into the workshop itself.’
Such interaction, Khoury believes, fosters an environment of ‘idea gathering.’ He also hopes it will bring ‘lots and lots of discussions.’ Such dynamics, he points out, will also lead to a constantly developing art piece where the space will never look the same on any two visits. ‘The entire museum space is transformed into the curator and designer’s sketchbook,’ he adds.
Part of Mvsevm’s success lies in its situation at one of Palestine’s academic hubs. He points out: ‘I think what is good about the university besides having a very large young audience is that it is decentralised and away from cultural centres like Jerusalem, Ramallah or Bethlehem.’
It has managed to present Palestinian identity without the clichés and this approach, Nasser-Khoury says, has made the designer something of a reactionary figure in local fashion. ‘I think at the moment, I find that my greatest motivation is to have a go at messing up the whole notion of cultural heritage. The pervading discourse when it comes to Palestinian costume is that of identity, protection, nostalgia, revival, tradition and folklore.’ He is clearly not impressed with this approach. ‘Yuck,’ he adds, ‘slogans upon slogans, void of nuance or any experiential knowledge, which never fail to condescend.’
It is a mindset which Khoury hopes to change and armed with an art and design degree from Camberwell College of Art in London, he looks set to spread the message outside the region. Still, the young designer and artist does not foresee himself ‘anchoring anywhere specific just yet,’ and instead is concentrating on his work and not his location. ‘I think a new collection has been long overdue. Silk Thread Martyrs has already been resurrected far too many times.’
Photography: Rula Halwani