Wafa Ghnaim is an accomplished author and curator and will start as a Senior Research Fellow for The Metropolitan Museum of Art later this year. She is also the first-ever Palestinian embroidery instructor at the Smithsonian Museum and has been the subject of a Vogue profile. Now, she’s adding curator for the Museum of the Palestinian People to her growing list of bona fides. Her curatorial debut, Tatreez Inheritance, explores Palestinian embroidery in the United States through a diasporic lens.
“I have been talking to Bshara Nassar, the director, since before the museum opened and I’ve been establishing a relationship with them,” she tells me. “When I moved to D.C. in 2019, we started to build an organic partnership. The museum was the right home for the work I’m doing in the community.”
She was an artist-in-residence in 2021 and then later that year, moved into a collection specialist role, which suited her expertise as a researcher. Now, through Tatreez Inheritance, Ghnaim is educating new audiences on the legacy of Palestinian embroidery in the United States owing to a Palestinian diaspora of over 255,000 people. More than just adornment, tatreez is a means of preserving the artists’ and wearers’ national identity—reflecting generations of artisans passing the skills to their kin.
The need for that connection runs deep, Ghnaim explains. Palestinians living in exile encounter very few opportunities to connect with their cultural heritage and identity.
“For many, there are specific laws barring them from entering Israel and the occupied territories, so they can’t even access their homelands,” she says. “What you’ll find is that there’s a thirst, a hunger, to connect with our history and our ancestry: mothers, grandparents and great-grandparents. This art form has been practiced for centuries and there’s a muscle memory in our hands.”
Ghnaim is quick to point out that she means that literally. When she’s teaching Palestinians how to stitch tatreez (which requires both precision and patience), she often feels like she’s encouraging a skill that’s already there to come out.
A cultural and artistic inheritance
Her new exhibit explores Palestinian tatreez in the past 75 years, during which Palestinians have faced dispossession, displacement and dispersion. Across Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Honduras, the United States and Europe, the people of the Palestinian diaspora have had very different lived experiences yet what they have in common in this art form. The story Ghnaim tells with a selection of historic and contemporary dresses, accessories and artifacts is an examination of that art form as well as a deeply personal homage to her homeland.
For as long as Ghnaim can recall, embroidery has been central to her life and an art form, versus a domestic craft. When she was two years old, her mother—the award-winning artist Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim—taught her to embroider. Palestinian tatreez colored her life and her work, inspiring her 2018 book, Tatreez & Tea: Embroidery and Storytelling in the Palestinian Diaspora, which paired traditional embroidery patterns with stories her mother told. Ghnaim also founded and manages The Tatreez Institute (also known as Tatreez & Tea), a global arts education initiative, running events and courses that provide a place of community.
Bringing tatreez (and community) to D.C.
When Ghnaim moved to the nation’s capital in 2019, Nassar was well aware of her book. Becoming a part of the museum under his direction was a landmark accomplishment, professionally and culturally. D.C. has always been a hub for Palestinian NGOs, but under the Trump administration, the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington was shut down, effectively forcing NGOs and not-for-profits into their own silos. As a result, Ghnaim says, the Palestinian diaspora lost its sense of community.
“The museum is the first organization in D.C. that represents our story,” she says. “It’s needed because museums of various cultural communities have tourists come from all over the world. It’s important to have a voice… we have a presence and a platform in the nation’s capital, which is really important.”
Tatreez Inheritance surprises Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike. Visitors come to the Museum of The Palestinian People expecting that Ghnaim will talk about flowers and needlecraft, and she’s happy to upend those expectations.
“What I’m trying to do is challenge the way that we view Palestinian embroidery through a commodified lens,” she explains. “I am trying to raise questions about the representation of Palestinians in the museum system and the ethics of that, rather than the history of embroidery.”
It’s what needs to happen after 75 years in exile, she adds. Her work has included researching how pieces of Palestinian tatreez have entered and circulated through North America and Europe closets before finding their way to the museum as donations. “It’s a question,” she says, “of who should really have these dresses and of the inheritance.”
That question is more difficult to answer than you might expect. In the US, people of Middle Eastern and North African origin are identified as white in the federal census. A 2019 Los Angeles Times survey indicated that more than 80% of respondents of Southwest Asian, Middle Eastern and North African descent chose white from options that also included Black, Asian, American Indian, Native Hawaiian and “some other race.” Identifying as Palestinian in the U.S. can also expose people to discrimination, says Ghnaim. In some communities, it might even be dangerous.
“People don’t mention it because they’re too scared, or there’s repercussions involved in their work or otherwise,” she says. “It’s very, very hard in the US to navigate that stigma and taboo.”
That said, Ghnaim is adamant that Tatreez Inheritance is about celebrating an art form that is texturally, culturally and historically rich. “The museum doesn’t want to talk only about oppression,” she says. “We want to talk about how we create, the beauty of it, and that’s very powerful.”