Jordan Nassar is the Palestinian-American Painter Using Art To Connect With His Homeland

06 November 2019
Culture, Artist, Jordan Nassar
Nassar’s paintings use composition and colour to pay tribute to his Palestinian heritage

At his core, the artist Jordan Nassar considers himself a painter: a person who works with colours and composition. Nassar’s works hark back to his Palestinian heritage, introducing a layer of tatreez embroidery to shape a unique identity.

How did growing up a Palestinian in America shape your identity, and your art?

Well, I was raised by my father, who is a first-generation Palestinian-American, to identify as Palestinian. [But] Feeling so American, I felt often not “Palestinian enough” or not “Arab enough”, and so I think I was looking for a connection to my heritage. Learning tatreez, and through this work, getting to know many Palestinian embroiderers has definitely helped me feel more in touch with those roots. But meeting and knowing more people from the region helps me realise that I’m not, “Palestinian from Palestine”, but I’m another, totally valid kind of Palestinian: a member of the global diaspora. I’m certainly not the only one who struggles to feel connected to Palestine from outside.

How do you ensure that your work has a voice, challenges perceptions and champions identity, without being weighed down by geopolitical burden?

Honestly I don’t know. I’m just doing what I do, I’m just living my experiences and letting the work reflect that. I love people on both sides. I criticise the occupation, but I also recognise the good between both places, the overlaps and the shared things, the people who are a part of both sides.

Why did you choose to collaborate with Palestinian women to create your works? How does the collaboration work?

I came across the opportunity to commission some embroideries by women in Palestine, and I took it. At first I experimented with having them embroider various motifs using traditional Palestinian patterns, but pretty quickly the pieces become collaborative. It works like this: I create a layout of patterns on my computer, using traditional Palestinian patterns but arranging them in a “new” way, or a way of my own. I then delete a section of them, leaving it blank. I then send that to the women in Ramallah, sometimes with instructions such as “use green and black” or “use any three colours”. The trick here is that I don’t indicate how to use each colour – the arrangement of the colours, the aesthetic choices of where to use each colour, or which colours to use, is up to them. And I love the fact that, by not dictating exactly what to do, the women are left to draw from their own style and taste, which has been influenced by their mother and their grandmother and their community of embroiderers.

You’re part of a brilliant, talented generation of Arab diaspora. Do you ever struggle to feel connected with your heritage while being so far away from your homeland?

I have struggled with this, but at this point in my life, I feel like I’ve gotten so involved in Palestine that the connection makes me feel better. I also try to go to Palestine between two and five times a year, if I can. The other thing is, I have been lucky enough to become a part of a community of this talented generation of Arab diaspora in New York that you mention. We share ideas and work and lives and music and food and just really have this Arab-American community of artists and musicians and writers and curators that I feel is my true “homeland” – even more than Palestine itself. We are all Arab in our own ways, and we all accept each other. Some can’t read Arabic but can speak, some can’t speak it at all, some are native Arabic speakers, some can cook amazing Arab food, some can’t, some love Arab music, some don’t, and so on, but we’re all Arabs.

Being a New York Arab is a big part of my identity – after all, I was born in New York, my Arab family has been in New York City since 1919 – 100 years ago this year!

So yes, I feel Arab, but not in any way that I can compare to how anyone else is Arab.