Al Mirsa Collective uses Tatreez to celebrate Palestinian culture
Cross-stitching is a form of art that has been practiced in many cultures for hundreds of years. It is a language of expression and in many ways it serves as a tool to preserve and pass on traditions from generation to generation.
In Palestine and all across the diaspora, cross-stitching is known as tatreez. Women in rural villages in Palestine typically practiced Tatreez, but after the Nakba in 1948, it became an important symbol of not only Palestinian culture but Palestinian resistance as well. Tatreez is deeply rooted in the fabric of Palestinian identity which can be seen in the different symbols and patterns used by different villages all across Palestine.
For Palestinians living in exile, Tatreez helps them feel connected to their homeland and preserve their identity and traditions. Palestine in America had the pleasure to sit with Annan Shehadi, co-founder of Al Mirsa Collective in Chicago.
Palestine in America (PiA): Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
Annan Shehadi (AS): I am a graphic designer and an artist from the Chicagoland area. I graduated with an MA in Visual and Critical Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Much of my personal, creative work centers around themes of contested space and the reclamation of narrative and history, with a focus on the Palestinian diaspora. I am Palestinian and grew up in the Palestinian community here in Chicago.
PiA: What is Al Mirsa Collective, its purpose and mission?
AS: We are a collective dedicated to cultivating a community space where Arab arts and culture can flourish. Chicago has long been a hub for Arab immigrant communities in the United States. Today, as more people from the Arab world continue to immigrate to the United States (often fleeing war and occupation,) new generations are finding it increasingly difficult to stay connected to our roots. Al Mirsa serves Chicago’s Arab community by providing opportunities to reconnect to our heritage, using culture as a way to resist colonialism, oppression, cultural appropriation, and Zionism.
We do this through:
EDUCATION: Providing insight into the historical context and present-day reality of the Middle East through a cultural lens.
COMMUNITY OUTREACH: Creating a community space that harbors artistic talent, creative thought, cultural engagement, and provides access to art and cultural resources within the Chicagoland Arab community.
CULTIVATING TALENT: Promoting Middle Eastern artists within a variety of Chicagoland artistic communities.
We aim to accomplish these goals through an intergenerational approach that is inclusive of all ethnicities, nationalities, religions, and gender identities throughout the Arab world. Our approach is anti-Zionist, anti-Islamophobic, anti-racist, and independent of any political parties.
PiA: How did you get involved with it?
AS: Well, I am a co-founder, but this requires a bit of background information. As a designer and artist, I enjoy attending exhibitions and other artistic performances, but there wasn’t a lot of art I could relate to and the environment was often too pretentious. At my time at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), I was able to create work that reflected my identity and was politically charged, saying something more than what personally affected me, but there wasn’t a lot of that at the school; the school was very white.
After my time there, I wanted to create artistic spaces and exhibitions that challenged our society, that reflected the struggles of people, whether they be Arab, Muslim, Black, etc, and was welcoming and friendly.
My friend, Leila Taha, and I had discussed creating an Arab cultural center in Chicago and our first step to building something like that was putting on exhibitions that showcased some of the community’s work. We collaborated with Chicago Danztheatre and put together a visual exhibition that focused on challenging the notion of borders, whether they be political, social, perceived, etc., that complimented the theatre performances challenging the same ideas.
A lot of time passed after that exhibition, but a few of us women finally got together and ended up forming Al Mirsa Collective.
PiA: What does Al Mirsa Collective offer the Arab community in Chicago?
AS: Al Mirsa offers a space to catalyze, nurture, and promote our local artistic talent as individuals and as a community. We aim to offer a variety of classes and workshops of different artistic mediums including those specific to Arab cultures, as well as creating spaces for showcasing artists’ works and providing them with more opportunities.
What do you think the role of Tatreez is in preserving Palestinian culture in the shatat/diaspora?
AS: Traditional practices that are art forms, like Tatreez are huge in preserving culture, precisely because they are visual—it can be seen by so many people. The same thing applies to traditional forms of music, which can be heard by so many people. I believe that it is easier to keep a tradition alive when it is tangible in some way, so something like tatreez plays a big role in preserving culture in the diaspora.
PiA: How important do you think art is in uniting people from different cultures?
AS: Art has the potential to cross boundaries—political, social, personal, etc.—so I think it is very important in bridging cultures and opening the door for more conversations and sharing of ideas that can help unify people from different backgrounds and cultures. Art isn’t going to unify people on its own, but it can play a large role by being an impetus for change.
PiA: What are some of the goals of the collective and how can people especially the youth get involved?
AS: We want to create a space that is successful in being inclusive and promoting local Arab artists and their work and provide more opportunities to the community. Youth is one of our main audiences, so we would love for them to get involved by contacting us whether in person, through email or Facebook, or by attending our workshops. We want everyone who is interested in this collective in any way to let us know, especially youth!
For more information on how to get involved and to find out about the upcoming workshops email Al Mirsa Collective: email@example.com