Jordan Nassar visited by Nick Naber

Jordan's Gowanus studio is a narrow light filled space covered in embroidery. Many works from his various series can be seen on the walls, at his desk a larger scale landscape in the works. After taking a look around we sat down and started our conversation. 

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When you’re making one of these larger embroideries how do you map them out?

I should start with the fundamentals - my work is based in Palestinian traditional embroidery, most of it is on dresses and in the home, where it's on pillows and wall hangings. Most cultures around the world have cross-stitch traditions, but Palestinian cross-stitch is recognizable for its density and recognizable composition.  On dresses, it’s mostly seen in rectangular shapes around the neck and then an upside down triangle on the chest. It's decorative, but it's also full of social information and superstition. There are little flourishes, and the most important thing about that in terms of how it leads to what I'm doing, is that each pattern is traceable to a specific village. Each symbol has a name and areas that it is found in. 

It's almost like a way of saying, “Hey, I'm from there.

Exactly. Early on, the first time I did one, I was playing around with some of the traditional patterns, but soon after I thought, “Wait, I’m not from Ramallah, not from Bethlehem or Jerusalem, I'm from New York but I'm Palestinian; so how do I participate in this traditional medium?”

I've invented 20 or so symbols based off of similar things that the Palestinian symbols draw from - daily life things, local geographical and topographical features, flora, fauna. Their naming of these symbols is in a very representational abstraction kind of way. Meaning, it's cross-stich, which is basically pixels, right? So it's a grid and it's not at all figurative like the traditional style in the West. You'll see a zigzag and it represents a valley or you'll---I mean it's a lot of rectangles or lines or triangles or whatever and they're named all sorts of things different flowers and stuff but it's really just rectangles and triangles.

Do you think it’s coming from religion?

I don't think it's religion. I think that it might have been a little bit affected by that, but it's organic to the medium. They didn't try to be figurative because of that. It’s a grid-based system, it’s not natural to draw organic forms with it. 

So it becomes a sort of shorthand in a way?

It's hard to know, but for example, a rectangle with little “teeth”coming off one edge is called 'graves' [looking at a book of Palestinian Embroidery] and it could be anything but you're just calling it graves. Now I’m assuming that that represents a grave. Actually it's just a kind of geometric abstract shape. There's an interesting thing that happened in Palestine--there's a line in history where in the late eighteen hundreds or mid-eighteen hundreds Europeans came, obviously they’d been there before. At this time it was right before the Balfour Declaration. I think at that time they brought their wives and their wives brought pattern books with them from Europe. This is when you start seeing figurative motifs that appear pixelated, in the european style, showing up in Palestinian embroidery.  So you see these organic things in a grid, and the older stuff you still see looks like Islamic geometry.  That's a big difference.

The Rose pieces are about that moment where these european rose patterns, that are designed in red and black on white, enter the Palestinian embroidery vocabulary. In these pieces I replace part of the red with green, making it the four colors of the Palestinian flag, and the flags of many other Arab countries. Here I'm thinking, “When are these floral patterns Palestinian? How long does it take for them to become Palestinian?” Nowadays you see them all over the dresses, wall hangings, etc. You might consider them not really Palestinian, because you know that they came from Europe – but then again it’s been in the medium for over a hundred years. It addresses cultural exchange and identity... and in my mind, this European-Palestinian is a historical example of a lot of what I see happening between Israelis and Palestinians – sharing of culture, as time goes on, growing closer.

Antique Palestinian Rose Patterns 1-3, 2015, Hand-embroidery in cotton on Aida on canvas, 24 x 20 Inches

You've created your own language, like in Palestine, would they understand the symbology of it?

What I imagine is that if you were a Palestinian who does this kind of embroidery you would see mine and say, oh it's Palestinian embroidery. Then you would look at it again and say, wait, I don't recognize any of these symbols. The point is more that these are the symbols coming from New York, the way that they would see a dress and be like, oh this person is from Nablus, I can see the symbol and the symbol is a classic Nablus symbol. For me in a way it's more about participating as a Palestinian-American in this tradition. 

That's why in my landscapes there are two layers. First I do the pattern, which is what I print out like this one [Illustrator sketch] and then as you can see, where I draw lines on top is the painterly moment. I like to mess around and I change things. The pattern is the part I'm counting when I start the work. After, I follow these lines and work with the colors. 

Is there someone that influences your work in any way?

I love to consider, with these works, that I am in conversation with Etel Adnan, the Lebanese painter, poet, and writer. She's in her 80s, and her work and life has had a big effect on me in this past year. I'd seen her paintings here and there at art fairs, and as time went on I learned more about her biography and I felt some sort of shared experience with her. She was born in Lebanon and I think in the 30s into a middle class family. She was raised speaking French, she never really spoke Arabic. She was raised around Arabic in Lebanon, but she spoke French, and she writes a lot about how everything was about Paris, that Paris was the center of the world. She made a lot of her work about being from a colony of this great power. She leaves in the 50s and goes to California, over this period of time she travels back and forth between Paris and America. Later on she ends up teaching at a university on the west coast.

A lot of her writing is political, about colonization. Adnan considers herself in exile from Lebanon, since the civil war in the 70s. A lot of her work has to do with identifying as Arab, but then not feeling Arab enough in other contexts. In her earlier work, making artist's books, she would copy famous poems in Arabic, but she did not really understand them. But the kicker is that she didn't try to understand every word, she just understood what she understood, and so the work became about her exploring her Arabness, and maybe exposing her not-arab-enough-ness, via her relationship to the language and poetry. She also draws all over these artist's books, they're beautiful.  One thing that she said that has stuck with me forever is that she writes in French and English, but but paints in Arabic. Her paintings are abstract landscapes -t there's no language, right – and I just thought that was really damn beautiful. I know how she feels.

For me that's important because it's something that I've experienced, where in making work I was always shy about the fact that I'm really very American, even though my father is Arab. I was was raised speaking English, and yes, I learned Arabic, I got a tutor in high school and then studied Modern Standard Arabic in college. But my knowledge of the Arabic language is not first hand or lived. In the past I would never use Arabic script in anything because I though it was fake. Instead of shy away from that she made me realize that mine is an uncommon perspective and that I shouldn't hide it, but I should use it. I should explore that and, I should poke at that and take advantage of that.

Why did you choose her landscapes to 'respond to'?

I think place and land always has an important role, especially with the Middle East and especially with Palestine. Lebanon too. Etel will sometimes focus on a certain mountain by her house and in the in the Bay Area or whatever, but mostly her landscape paintings are abstract shapes and colors they're not a real place. 

When I'm admiring one of her paintings I'm looking at the colors and the shapes and the pairings of colors. I enjoy the surprise of a tiny bit of this or that color that you wouldn't expect, and how exciting that is and all that kind of stuff that has nothing to do with the fact that it's a landscape or not. By making it a landscape, by having a slope and including a horizon, maybe even having a sun, I just think that, in the realm of abstract paintings, you're giving the viewer a point of access, a starting point.

I like how it locates the viewers’ body in space when there's a horizon – I think that's really important in terms of the viewer accessing the work. You could turn any one of her works or my works on its’ side, and it's not a landscape anymore, it’s just shapes and colors. But you wouldn't have that same fundamental access point. 

Even with these landscapes, once you look at a ton of them it's like some of them are very vaguely landscapes, like they're just a couple of horizontal lines of color. In the larger context it is clearly a landscape, but in any other context, or alone, you wouldn't necessarily think that it was landscape. There are different levels of abstraction that she goes to and some of them are crazy and some of them are simple. She's prolific with them. I felt like there was so much to respond to with those visuals. I like how minimal the visuals are. I like the use of color, the playing with color. It's an exercise that's fun and there is something visceral where you look at these colors, I think is universal. 

Obviously, it's more than borrowing her visuals. I do feel that even though it's a bit cheeky of me to say I feel that I am in conversation with her, but I fancy that idea because in a way, though she has experienced what she's experienced in terms of being in exile in terms of the war, the fundamental things are about being Arab versus not being Arab enough, and fitting in, and all that kind of stuff - and I have experienced exactly that. My family is made up of immigrants and I am a second generation Arab-American so similar, but different too. Issues of nostalgia versus reality, and this made-up homeland versus the actuality in that place, and what it means to be Arab in that context versus what it means to be Arab in that context, etc. I was coming up against similar issues in my life, under a different situation.

With my work of course there's that second level, it's not just about these landscapes, it's also the fact that I’ve overlaid these geometric Palestinian embroidery patterns. 

You identify with her because there are similarities between the two of you. It opened something for you in the work that you make.

It's like without her knowing me, she’s a mentor. 

It sounds like a good gift to learning from her.

Her biography and seeing what decisions she has made is empowering for me. To claim my Palestinian identity even though even though I'm American. I pass for White, which is how I'm thinking about it now, whereas growing up it wasn’t a thing. It's very current - before 9/11 Arabs in New York were just considered White. There was never a “Middle Eastern” option. Then suddenly people start to differentiate Arabs way more than before. And all this talk lately of privilege and passing and all that kind of stuff has made me think, because I have family members that are light-skinned, and family members that are dark-skinned, and I forget that I could have come out totally “Arab-looking”. Like we call Obama Black, because he looks Black, but he's half Black. I look white but I'm half Arab. I completely understand that I enjoy the privilege of passing this way and walking down the street as a white man, but that's passing, which is different than identity. But for me it's also that when I'm among a bunch of Arabs from the Middle East or in the Middle East I feel very white and very outside of that. I think that's actually the more difficult side of the coin for me.

And does that translate any way into the work?

A lot of the zines I make are much more explicit, because I don't want to be explicit in my visual art but in the end I thinkzines are a way for me to be a little more direct. I don't plan zines really, I have an idea and I collect a bunch of stuff and print out a bunch of stuff and then one crazy night I stay up a couple of hours and cut and paste and copy. It's definitely a way to expend a lot of energy because typically I sit for hours and hours working on one embroidery piece. The zines have a lot more direct imagery in them. There is Arabic writing and Hebrew writing along with pictures and other stuff. What I like about making zine work is there's definitely a community element to it - whether that means just seeking out other Arab Americans and trying to develop relationships, especially gay arabs here. I'm interested in building up my “family”; this is something that is also a part of it where we discover shared experience. It's special and our conversation is always about the food that we want to eat because we haven't had it since we’ve been with our families, or whatever. We'll cook together and we listen to the Arabic pop divas and watch Arab Idol.  We embrace the fact that some of us speak Arabic some of us don't, some of us read it and some of us can't. 

The point is, that first push of not sweeping it under the rug, but embracing it, was Etel Adnan for me, and that's why I can't ever manage to talk about my work without mentioning her in some way or another.  She's changed my life. 

I made this this body of work for this show in London I had a year and a half ago [gestures to the work on the floor] those white and blue ones. I like them a lot, but they do feel academic to me. They're very planned, they're very calculated. Every element has a reason and it's all tied up, which is great, it's strong work or whatever. Between then and now it's like this floodgate has opened. Now I'm making these landscapes. I think it also was a matter of practice, where I've now been embroidering like this for six or seven years, so now I’m technically at a point where I can freestyle more and I can just wing it. I'm basically painting. Many times I'm sitting here on a sheet and the color looks weird so I change whatever I planned. It's much more... it's not being processed and thought-out and everything accounted for; it's emotional and it's what's coming out and that has been hard. It's exciting, but it's more, I just feel more honest. 

interior page from: WHEN IT'S NAKED, 2015 - ZINE, EDITION OF 50

It feels like it's just more from your heart. 

Or it’s because I'm not thinking it up and I’ve been thinking, “this makes sense conceptually and this you know references this and this references that.”

You're not solving this weird problem, you're really making work about something. 


Can you talk about these patch works?

These are like a Western version of the Palestinian dresses, they're like wearing patches on your jacket. They identify your team or location basically. It's similar functions of identification, but it's also a cooler more punky aesthetic. I made them a year ago when I was in L.A. for a month and a half for work and I couldn’t bring my studio, so I brought some of this fabric and one ball of yarn and that's all I needed and I would make little patches and just keep them in a bag and then when I got back to New York, I put them together, arranged them conceptually. Each one has a theme and those patches are made based off of all things that I saw around, and took pictures of and turned them into patterns. Again, that's a similar function of how Palestinians get their patterns - it's also from their surroundings. Mine are a bit more obvious, like there are even logos and stuff like that. 

Damascus Gate, 2016, Hand-embroidery in cotton on Palestinian hand-woven cotton on canvas, 24 x 20 Inches

What about these on the colorful background?

They're based off of ironwork that I've seen around NYC, that I take pictures of, turn into embroidery patterns, and then manipulate in Illustrator. They're mirrored and abstracted as though they were reflected in a puddle or pool of water. 

It seems like a far throw from Palestine, but in my head there's this conceptual connection with these. In Israel there are a lot of cities that used to be Palestinian cities, and I think a lot about them. For example, in Israel there is a city called Ashkelon, it used to be a Palestinian city called Majdal, where they invented this type of weaving called “Majdalawi Weaving”. This weaving was specific to that area. As I said before similar, types and weavings happened in other places but their weaving is all about the warp and then the weft is just a tiny little thread holding it together. The colors are on the warp, and this technique as they did it there doesn't really exist anymore. What it ends up being is these kinds of greens and gold and reds.

The point is, now it's Ashkelon, but maybe in some parallel universe Majdal is still there. Like, you know on TV shows, Grey's Anatomy for example, when someone dies and then they appear in the same room but everyone is gone and it's the same place, but it’s a parallel alternate universe or plane or whatever? I have this imaginary thing like that Majdal is still there, and remnants or clues are even visible in our universe.  Specifically in these pieces though, the imagery of the 'reflection' comes from C.S. Lewis, in “The Magician's Nephew”, where there's all those puddles in the forest, and they jump in one and come out in a different place, a different world. 

So these pieces, even though these don't look like it, they're still very much about Palestine-Israel for me, but just in a very abstract way. 

Why do you refer to your work as grandma style?

It's a woman's thing [embroidery] and it definitely has to do with dowry, classic daugher-marrying-off stuff, like “look at her fine handwork – marry her!”

The fundamental things are conceptual – the NY/Palestinian symbols are mine. But then it's like I just get to decorate the canvas, basically, because that is a traditional function of the embroidery.  Embellishment. It has social functions. It's decoration. It's supposed to be pretty. 

Is 'prettiness' something you look for in artwork?

I guess it comes down to the idea that with visual art, the point is to communicate visually. If you're not getting something visually, that work is failing. I don't get off on reading a press release in order to try to figure out what I'm supposed to be looking at. I want to at least see something and be like that's beautiful, think, what's going on here?, and learn more about it. You don’t need to understand everything about the work from looking at it, that's impossible. But there should be an idea. I like a lot of smart work that has many levels. One of which is beauty - and that can be ugliness, it can be that it's violent looking or scary or dark. It doesn’t have to be like flower or something literally 'pretty', but just... something to look at. 

Yeah. It's the best way to put it. 

For more information about Jordan please visit his website, or check out his Instagram @jordannassar

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