To visit The Ceremonial Vniform, on display at the Birzeit University Museum until 20 June, is to walk through a unique experience exploring cultural history, identity politics and gender within Palestinian society, seen through the lens of clothing design.
The exhibition leads viewers through Jerusalem-based artist Omarivs Ioseph Filivs Dinæ’s processes and prototypes for designing a uniform for an imagined Palestinian state. Made in response to the Palestinian Authority’s 2012 United Nations statehood bid, the artist’s garments for male officers seek to reflect the “frenzied campaign” for statehood as well as subvert its masculine authority.
The critical themes of the show, which deconstruct notions of gender, identity and power in the Palestinian context, are thought-provoking and subversive, albeit slightly overbearing at times. Despite this, the show highlights the artist’s stunning craft and extensive research processes in creating his works.
The exhibition is unique in its complete deconstruction of not only the artist’s process, but also of the space of the gallery itself. A lowered ceiling and walls painted imperial blue create a space that feels less like a gallery and more like a workshop.
Adding to this ambiance are acrylic boards covered with taped-on images and notes which accompany each section of the exhibition, divided by time period or specific project.
The visualization of the research offers unique insight into the diverse sources that influenced the garment designs, ranging from Palestinian textile designs to iconic images of Leila Khaled to ornate military uniforms.
The artist describes his initial research as concentrating on the masculine framing of the Palestinian male, manifest as “martyr, prisoner, fighter, worker, farmer, ‘terrorist’ and politician.” This is juxtaposed with the image of the Palestinian woman, often visualized in traditional embroidered thob (long dress), merely a reflection of her “male-derivative role as sister.”
In the most developed prototype of the designed uniform, the artist addresses these two motifs, using the bright colors of traditional female garments in a male outfit that appears grand and Elizabethan-inspired.
In a continued effort to display the undertaking of creating the works, behind the uniform hang textiles and garments that were formative to the final uniform. Some are traditional Palestinian garments, including the traditional female thob, and some are created by the artist. The garments are intermixed to blur the distinction between the two.
The exhibition features two ornately framed photographs, both named “The Official Portrait: Abu Zahair and Abu Saleh.” Each photograph features a man adorned in garments created by the artist and wearing traditional medals and ceremonials, such as a British General Service for Palestine Medal and a United Nations Medal for Palestine. Stylized in reference to European portraiture, each man sits amongst ornate decorations and wears the same set of women’s heels.
While visually stunning, the photographs’ subtlety are undercut in part by the verbose wall text accompanying the work. The work is described as a “mockery and derision of the inept Palestinian political establishment” for its mimicry of European models.
The outfits the men wear deconstruct the need for status symbols in places of power. The heels critique the notion of masculinity as central to the Palestinian struggle for sovereignty, a theme present throughout the show. The arguments are subversive and interesting but heavy-handed descriptions leave little room for personal interpretation.
One of the most impressive pieces of the show is “The Talismanic Shirt,” a silk-screened garment that references both a traditional thob and traditional Islamic talismanic shirts worn for protection from evil. Printed on the garment is text from addresses at the UN by both Yassir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, as well as symbols of the nation and militarism.
Interlaced in a delicate geometry, the logo of the Palestinian Authority is patterned with icons of guns, tanks and helicopters to create an intricate design on the garment. The shirt visualizes the mainstream political discourse in Palestine, its redundancy and its ritualization. Printed on a talismanic shirt, it questions its efficacy as “protection” from evil.
Also on display are the screens created to print the shirt, made by hand in a three-week process. The screens, along with the other visualizations of the creative process, allow for an appreciation of the artist’s craft and technique.
In addition to its extensive references to and use of Palestinian fabrics and techniques, the artist sourced materials from local craftspeople who are thus collaborators in the work. This includes shoemakers from Ramallah, mother-of-pearl carvers from Beit Sahour and embroiderers from Yatta and Beirut.
Impressive in its depth of exploration, The Ceremonial Vniform is made of visually stunning, beautifully crafted works. Beyond this, the body of work’s powerful criticality can be appreciated.
In challenging the power structures and status quo of contemporary Palestinian society, it forces viewers to deconstruct and rebuild an imaginary world, all through the lens of clothing construction.
Daryl Meador is a graduate student studying media at The New School who recently lived and volunteered in Nablus. Follow her on Twitter: @yalladaryl.