Original post: September 15, 2010

This past week I drove out to Abu Dhabi to see an embroidery exhibit at the Emirates Palace (which is not really a Palace but an amazing and fancy hotel, click here to check it out).  The exhibit, set forth by Gallery One, displayed the amazing embroidery tradition of Arab tribes from Northern Africa all the way to what is now called Uzbekistan.

Now, I know embroidery doesn’t get everyone’s head into a tailspin.  But there are a few things that amazed me.  I immediately thought about our use of time today as well as how we value objects and items in our home or on our person.

First, to complete one square foot of embroidery took 2 to 3 days, all day long each day.  If you saw the size of the fabric door hangings at this exhibit, you would be sizably impressed or intimidated.

Can you imagine if we gave a fraction of that time to something specific in our lives?  Can you imagine if we utilized that time to act on true values and life goals?  Can you imagine if we used that time for things we really care about?  Besides our jobs and the socially defined norms of family life, in what area of our lives do we actually dedicate time like those women embroiderers did?  Our society is instantaneous, immediate, fast.  If you can’t order something online for immediate shipping, you jump to another company because they can.  And while you wait for the order to load, you open two more tabs and skim the headlines at New York Times and log in to your Yahoo Mail.

Some may think, those poor women, can you imagine working that long on anything?  I disagree.  Their lives were focused on living each day and making things to help them live their lives.  I would choose a hand-embroidered anything over a machine-created replica.  The love and care, the blood, sweat and tears of an artist give the work something manufactured-anything can never have.

Second, looking through the exhibit I was astounded by the vibrancy of the color still remaining in the fabrics.  The show included wall hangings, dresses, bed coverings, etc.  And in only a few spots did you see wear and age on the items.  Most of these items were from the 18th and 19th centuries.  Just in case you aren’t getting it, that means the fuschia pink dress I saw was over 100 years old and hadn’t faded nearly as much as my blue (insert your favorite label here) shirt I wear nearly every weekend.  In our consumer culture, do you really believe that your clothes have a similar shelf life?  Women usually only had one dress.  Men had a comparable clothing item. Only one.  That’s it. Done. No mas. Fin. Perhaps having limited objects in their lives gave them room to put greater love and subsequent care into the creation of their clothes/wall hangings/etc.?  Perhaps these individuals also took greater care of their owned goods.  How do you treat the things you own?  Are they expendable?  (Which also makes me wonder if they are also perhaps, a waste of your resources?)

art history | embroidery | textile art | islamic embroidery | Gulf women artistsFabric was integral to nomadic and tribal life in these regions.   Women showed off their creativity and skill as part of their social life.  They would get together and practice and share their work with one another over tea.  Women could sell their products as well to help their family financially.  Older women would create wall-hangings that became part of a younger family member’s dowry. This Islamic Embroidery suggests to me they ascribed true value to the few things they owned.  Note: few things.  Nomadic tribes, mind you, are forced to limited possessions because they must carry everything they own as they travel to new and different locations.  Yet despite this transience, they appear to value objects more than we do today.  The quality of their products beat ours but we certainly have “more.”

It could take women hundreds of hours to make a shawl. Yet, despite being practical items for everyday use, they are works of art.  It is artwork they displayed, wore, rode camels on.  The work they made was a reflection of their lives in the desert.  And you can’t imagine the brilliance of the colors they used!  We think drab and colorless when we think desert…perhaps that is why their “decorations” were so filled with life and color and light!

Do you take those kinds of thoughts into consideration when you run to the store for a shop “just because you feel like it?”  Do the things you buy truly reflect your life?  If you consider the things around you as artifacts from a different place and time, what would these things say about you?

Look for the meaning around you.  Look for the meaning you create with the choices you make.


Me outside the Palace.

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