PODCAST: Gallery Girl Meets Joanna Barakat

In this episode of the Gallery Girl podcast we are joined by Joanna Barakat, an artist, embroiderer and founder of The Tatreez Circle, a platform promoting and preserving the art of Palestinian embroidery. We discuss the tradition and symbolism of Palestinian embroidery, how she created the Tatreez Circle and incorporating embroidery into her paintings.

Heart Strings
Heart Strings by Joanna Barakat, Acrylic, spray paint and dmc thread on canvas (36x24in/91.5x61cm)

It’s best to start off by explaining that “tatreez” is the Arabic word for embroidery, but it is most often associated with Palestinian embroidery, notably the cross-stitch, and specific Palestinian embroidery motifs. “Before 1948 [the year of the Nakba, where Palestinians were forced to flee their homes] it was the farmers and villagers who wore embroidery”, explains Joanna, “Now we have an emotional connection to it.”

Joanna and American Nakba painting
Joanna Barakat and her painting American Nakba, Spray paint and dmc thread on canvas (30x40in / 76x101cm)

Born in Jerusalem, Joanna grew up in the United States, and didn’t start to embroider until after she was married, when she learnt from her mother-in-law. And then she subsequently incorporated tatreez into her paintings. “My family were city folk”, she explains, “I didn’t have family members who wore embroidery.” But, when she started to read about it, she began to feel an emotional connection. “The more I researched and understood tatreez as a language…I started seeing it as an indigenous language of the Palestinians”, explains Joanna, “When you’re dealing with people who are being ethnically cleansed, one of the first things the occupied force will do is get rid of their culture.” And, learning about the art of embroidery, has helped Joanna connect with her culture and also understand the lives of Palestinian women. “I have a completely different understanding of how they lived. Before 1948 the dresses would communicate a localised identity. You would know what village a woman was from, whether she was married, unmarried, widowed, remarried. From her dress you would know her economic situation”, she explains, “After 1948 there was a shift. It started representing a collective identity. It started becoming political, it became a commodity. All of those things I find fascinating.”

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Joanna Barakat giving a tatreez workshop

The formation of the Tatreez Circle platform started with a phone call from a friend Dina Yazbak, who was worried about how the next generation would connect with tatreez, and wanted to build a community around it. And so, the Tatreez Circle began with workshops, and then came the Instagram page. “It was a great way to also showcase different social entrepreneurial projects, different people working with refugees, different people embroidering…it become a community and a platform”, explains Joanna, who also promotes the history of the artform, “Understanding the history of the embroidery was also important for me.”

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Joanna Barakat embroidering on her painting

In terms of her own personal art, Joanna is currently working on two series, one focused on portraiture and one on embroidery. One such project includes a painting of her daughter in a large thob (the traditional Palestinian dress), who wears the weight of the history of what it means to be Palestinian. 

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Water Spring by Joanna Barakat

Joanna is also working on a book about tatreez in art that will be a collection of different Palestinian artists who use Palestinian embroidery in their work. “There are so many different ways that embroidery is represented…in my work i use it as a symbolic language…i tell the story”, explains Joanna, “Different people use it because they are representing different parts of the language of liberation art or they’re representing different ideas and concepts using the language of tatreez but not using the stitches…there’s so many different ways that it’s represented, but there’s a gap in the narrative.” Thus, each artist will talk about why and how they use tatreez in their own words. 

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Heart Strings by Joanna Barakat, Acrylic, spray paint and dmc thread on canvas (36x24in/91.5x61cm) Photo by Sueraya Shaheen

And what about Joanna’s favourite tatreez artists? She counts Jordan Nassar, Samar Hejazi and Naqsh Collective among her favourites. “I love seeing embroidery in paintings, not necessarily stitched…for example in Nabil Anani’s work, when you see the embroidery represented, it carries so much meaning”, she says, “It’s so nice to see how much it varies…not just in the meaning, but visually, how it’s represented so differently from one artist to another.”

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer and curator. She is the founder of Gallery Girl - a London-based curatorial platform and website dedicated to modern and contemporary art from across the globe. Her work is primarily focused on supporting emerging female artists from the Middle East and the Caucasus. She has written for Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, Suitcase and Vice Arabia among other publications. Her exhibitions in London and Armenia have been featured in Vogue Arabia, The Art Newspaper, The Art Gorgeous and numerous other news outlets. Gallery Girl has also spoken in the UK, UAE and Belgium about the contemporary art scene in the MENA region, and is planning further events in London and Amman.

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