Majd Abdel Hamid's hand-stitched images of Syrians killed in the conflict are somehow more horrifying and real because they are abstract.
Lately, Majd Abdel Hamid has been collecting images of death and turning them into embroidery. The 27-year-old Palestinian artist has dabbled in sculpture and painting, with exhibitions at London's The Mosaic Rooms (2013) and Poland's Laznia Centre for Contemporary Art (2011), but fabric and thread is the medium Majd returns to time after time.
Born in Damascus to Palestinian parents, Majd moved with his family to Amman, Jordan, at the age of three before they permanently resettled in the West Bank's de facto capital, Ramallah, when he was seven. Today he splits his time between Ramallah and Beirut, undecided where he wants to be based, in part due to his habit of "never planning further than two months in advance," as he told me over Skype.
The images he picks—all of people dying in public—are collected from the media, photos from top-images-of-the-year-style lists, and hundreds of video screenshots from the early months of Syria's revolution. Using colors he describes as "not sexy, but pop," he then recreates pixelated embroidered versions of horrifying images from the country's five-year crisis.
Along with his willingness to create art that addresses matters outside of Palestine, an act he says can make you feel isolated or marginalized, he's a pioneer of sorts amongst young artists in Palestine. Earlier this year, he was listed as Ramallah's "Best Local Artist" in a city guide published by The Guardian.
"The criteria is mostly about this performativity of death in public space and this idea of the spectacle, whether it's in a demonstration or an execution or, you know, barrel bombs," Majd said of the images in his embroideries. "It's not about political discourse or who's committing the crimes. I'm not trying to showcase the Assad regime to the people in Syria—I don't think that's my role. But I also have a political opinion about what's happening in Syria."
In the final images, the dead are removed from their contexts, made almost abstract. Majd spends roughly 80 to 100 hours per piece, stitching together both identified and anonymous deceased persons. Despite their morbidity, he finds the hands-on process to be soothing. By April, he plans to have completed a 25-piece series for an exhibition in Sweden at Krognoshuset.
"It's this horrifying image of death, but without really capitalizing on the blood aspect," he says. "When you do embroidery, it's not very visually clear what's happening—the blood or the setting—but when you see a dying child you see the image automatically. You get upset. I'm also experimenting with these images, and what it means to embroider them and how people react."
The project is partly a response to the work of the Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who has debated the ethics of using images of victims of war and violence. "In order for future generations to be able to get over this, we need to document these images, document brutality," Majd said.
Embroidery is not normally used to create a window onto this sort of pain, but Majd's representations of death are somehow more harrowing because of the sense of unreality the medium imparts. It could also be seen as a commentary on the illogic of war, the Syrian war in particular—on how such a horror can be allowed to exist.
"You can either say this is all a conspiracy, the world is washing their dirty laundry in Syria, or you can actually face the monster," Majd told me. "These people did not fall from the sky, they are not aliens—people enjoying death and killing and mutilations. So how do you deal with that as well? How do you deal with this imagery?"
Majd attended the International Art Academy of Palestine and graduated from the Malmo Art Academy in Sweden in 2010. In Palestine, he learned about the pioneers of Arab art, who he says are all modernists, in classes focused on local art history. For Majd, embroidery is a reaction against this.
"It's not about me being a man and doing embroidery," he says. "It's about the medium itself being, I wouldn't say maternal—I really don't like this word—but it's really not patriarchal. The structure, the way you produce it, how it's produced, historically as a cultural production, it has this quality which I really admire. It's this autonomy, and it's really postmodern."
For Palestinians, the hands-on craft is deeply embedded in the culture, and historically has acted as a form of resistance. In the 1980s and early 1990s, during Israel's ban on the Palestinian flag and artwork using its four colors, women embroidered the flag and iconic images, such as the al-Aqsa Mosque, into traditional dresses.
Though his work prior to the embroideries featured sculptures made of painkillers and sea salt, the artist prefers to use textiles, seemingly less exciting material, to address complex issues in the Middle East. His first embroidery project was centered on four military figures who lashed out after completing their service, such as Nidal Hasan, the army psychiatrist who killed 13 in the 2009 Fort Hood shooting rampage, and explored the "system of soldiery." But it was his next stint with cross stitching that would garner international attention.
Working with eight women from Farkha, a small village in the West Bank, Majd curated a nine-piece pop art series of portraits of Mohammad Bouazizi, the Tunisian man who set himself on fire and is often credited for jump-starting the Arab Spring.
"After [his death] you could see the changing of the pop figure," Majd said. "The pop figures I grew up with in the Arab world were Mohamed Aboutrika, the Egyptian football player, and Nancy Ajram. And then suddenly Bouazizi makes headlines and his picture is everywhere—spilling out."
Majd added that with Bouazizi, "it's not only the over-romanticizing of the revolutions... it's also about this really significant moment in history. In a way, Bouazizi became part of the generational change."
Majd hopes to expand on the practice by experimenting with larger-scale pieces and how people interact with them, although he worries that could detract from the intimacy that his smaller embroideries possess. But to his admirers, the artist's delicate work already packs enough of an emotional sucker-punch in a way where any anxieties about the future of his practice feel unwarranted. Experimenting with the medium of embroidery, giving it a new face, is a way to ensure that the traditional art practice won't become stagnant enough to eventually be killed off.
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