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Exposition ‘Migrating Heritage’

Migrating Heritage: Embroidery practices as a way to narrate ideas about (in)justice

Sofie Verclyte, Researcher at KASK & Conservatorium (school of arts HOGENT) and the Human Rights Centre at Ghent University

Disruptive life events, devastating experiences of loss and harm, and human rights violations often spark a need to narrate and share these experiences. Yet, because of their painful and overwhelming nature, these experiences can simultaneously impede expression and communication when conveyed solely through spoken or written language. In Shatila, a refugee camp in the South of Beirut, the language of embroidery has been present since its establishment in 1949, to host Palestinian refugees. Embroidery is a day-to-day gendered activity rooted in the region’s rich textile tradition. When the war in neighboring Syria generated an influx of new refugees into the camp, embroidery practices gained popularity, as a means to generate an income for the family, to foster a new social network, to cope with trauma, but also to narrate stories of harm and violence, but also of hope for a better future.

Although these functions are intertwined, the exhibition ‘Migrating Heritage’, originating from the artistic research with the same name, predominantly focuses on artistic practices as a narrative in the context of conflict and displacement. Through a methodology of ‘collaborative making’, and in a manner analogous to the language of embroidery, a conversation emerged between the Syrian embroiders and the researcher that intertwined visual and verbal vocabulary. This methodology of ‘collaborative making’ explored the characteristics of this practice through which the makers developed a space and language of their own to voice their stories.

The first part of the exhibition ‘Unraveling Stories’ includes individual embroidered narratives of these artisans. While these stories are personal and highly diverse, overarching narratives can be identified. These embroidered pieces contain recurring visual elements and common themes that express ideas about (in)justices, such as past and ongoing experiences of harm (e.g., the disappearance of a family member, lack of access to education) or aspirations for a better future (e.g., the return to their land in the presence of the family, being able to move freely).

The second part of the exhibition ‘Ongoing Conversations’ includes co-created embroidered collages. It foregrounds how artistic practices can provide an inclusive way to engage in participatory research about these issues. Rooted in the agency of the women involved, an exchange developed among individuals from diverse backgrounds who shared a common interest in this skill. The embroidering became a search for multivocality and showed how participatory design processes eventually led to developing a shared (visual) language to talk about notions of (in)justice.