Translated from the italian by Sara FORCELLA Michael JOHN
There is a moment in everyone’s life that is impossible to forget. That very instant when a child grasps a pencil for the first time and starts drawing his certainty of being born, within a line. Black appears on white, strong and determined, as the first voice you hear coming to break a very long silence. Lines mark paper, tracing the initial border.
We like to imagine women doing the same with the art of embroidery. We fancy embroidering women imitating children who impress on sheets, for the first time, their certainty of being alive. In fact embroidery is the starting point of Aglaia Haritz and Abdelziz Zerrou’s project “Embroiderers of Actuality”, launched in 2013. Conscious of the role played by this ancient art in the Mediterranean, Aglaia and Abdelaziz have undertaken their artistic exploration with the aim of shedding light on grey areas: pockets of shame, still hidden somewhere around the Mare Nostrum. Almost all women from the countries that border the Mediterranean are acquainted with their local embroidery traditions. It is likely that these women learnt to embroider long before they had the chance to pick up a pen. Thus, while waiting for somebody to return, or intent on rebuilding their past, female embroiderers design marvellous geometric patterns. Their hands are capable of laying out boundaries underneath perfect geometries. Stitch by stitch, women define their spaces for
reflection, as places they could never share with anybody else.
Keeping these boundaries in mind, Aglaia and Abdelaziz cleverly address the concept of the border with their provocative art. Today, we are constantly talking about boundaries and borders, especially geographical ones: be they confines that people have been forced to infringe in recent years or impassable frontiers, from which you may never return. Above all, there exist boundaries of which nobody speaks: they are the barriers of silence, walls built to defend oneself from delirium. Borders created to mark territories easily turn into barriers, built to safeguard against those who were strangers yesterday, but have become enemies today. Similarly, the Mediterranean Sea no longer unites but divides: that sea which once brought forth treasures, now is squeezed by silence, spoiled by the bitter taste of shame. That sea you can look at upside down, like a salty carpet of dreams and hopes, or a heavy hat that makes us hunch over under its weight.
The Mediterranean Sea, that we can observe from above and from below, like a salty carpet full of dreams and hope, or a top hat that weighs too much and sags. And it was by crossing this sea that the tale described in these pages first saw the light of day. Aglaia Haritz and Abdelaziz Zerrou come from two separate areas of this terribly salty sea. Aglaia is from Switzerland, and
after graduating in plastic art at the Higher Institute for Art in Limoges, she took part in numerous residencies in Europe and the South Mediterranean. Abdelaziz was born in Casablanca and graduated at the Tétouan School of Fine Arts; he has since been a multidisciplinary artist particularly attracted to graphic design.
The two artists gave life to their « Embroiderers of Actuality » project in 2013, a project which is widely discussed in this book. The project is made up of seven chapters, all of which are set in different areas of the Mediterranean. The first chapter was written in Cairo in 2013. This was a period in which the two artists were looking for a space in which they could create what were then only ideas: embroidery and history, the tale of women and of the areas covered in shadows, the South forgotten by a North that crafts its political
10 beliefs on exclusion. While in Cairo, the two artists collaborated with the Artellewa Art Residency. Each day, the women from the Huda Shaarawi Association would meet up with Aglaia and Abdelaziz and together they would embroider cloth on which portraits of revolutionary women from Egyptian history, such as Ipazia, Latifa Al Zayyat, Nabawey Moussa, Zaynab Al Ghazali and others, were depicted. And while the women embroidered, they spoke about the history of these other women who, even while living in another era, enjoyed freedom of thought, a freedom
which today, for various reasons, appears to have been lost. A lot of these women were forbidden from taking part in this project by their husbands, while their absence is, in itself, a topic of discussion, while the others embroidered faultless contours on these faces sculpted by a past that is far too often forgotten.
While we get to know the works of Aglaia and Abdelaziz, we could ask ourselves whether art is essentially this; bringing to light what would otherwise run the risk of remaining buried and perhaps, in this delicate rescue operation, only art can succeed in recovering what would inevitably lose its strength in the shadows, by throwing light onto what remains in the dark, and by envisioning how difficult it is to be seen. This project, born with a precise artistic connotation, is driven by a strong historic significance along with social, political and documentative overtones and, with this in mind, it aims to establish a new form of memory, one that is founded on the tales of these women who, while embroidering, recount or listen to tales that bring to light a more authentic image of themselves.
After Cairo, Aglaia and Abdelaziz took their project to Rabat, in collaboration with Cube Art Space and the embroiders of the Foundation Orient-Occident organisation, with migrant women from the sub-Saharan region, and other embroiders from the Association for
Embroiderers of Actuality
the Education of the Youth (AMEJ). While in Rabat, the two artists attempted to shake up the wall of silence by encouraging debates on sexuality and its taboos. The girls from the AMEJ were encouraged to embroider images depicting hymen breakage. Along with the migrant women from the sub- Saharan continent, however, a work called “Le Serouel” was accomplished, a work in bright red that depicts a map of Morocco on white underpants. This work, which was clearly of a provocative nature, portrays the commonplace ritual of when the bride’s underpants are displayed in front of the guests after the first encounter between the two lovers who are now united in matrimony.
Sexuality was not the only topic discussed with these women from the sub-Sahara. The natural, historical and legitimate ambitions that lead a woman to leave her country of origin for attempting to find her real self elsewhere were also spoken about. They talked about their dreams, their lives, what they were like before and what they are like now, what is left of their dreams now that these women are confined within the borders of Morocco, the final frontier for migrants arriving from the deep South. The borders in Morocco are closed and these women are forced to remain within its boundaries, clinging to the cold and insuperable wall that was erected in the name of international law. From behind these bars, these women embroider their
past and their present in silence, on that transparent curtain and where these women have engraved the word Resistance.
After Rabat, in 2014 Aglaia and Abdelaziz move on to Casablanca where the walls of silence are evermore sour and pungent, like copper left out to rust in the dust condensed between the pages of justice. Subsequently, the « Embroiderers of Actuality » project moves inland, to where the conflict is even more severe. While they were in Casablanca, the two artists collaborated with four different groups. The women from the Oukacha prison, a group from the Cooperative of Hay Mohammady, the Federation of the Democratic League of Women (FLDDF), and the Association of Aicha Chenna: Solidarité Féminine (unmarried women). In Morocco you can be imprisoned for a variety of more or less familiar reasons. Women can be arrested for adultery and they can be marginalised from the social fabric if they are unmarried mothers, as happened with the women from Solidarité Fémenine. It was with these women and the embroiders from the Federation of the Democratic League of Women (FLDDF) that Aglaia and Abdelaziz created works of embroidery that were designed to be applied as tools used mainly by men, such as hammers and screwdrivers, while the other women were invited to embroider these same utensils typically used at work by men. The aim was that of provoking reflection on
their role of building a new culture where women are no longer marginalised, rejected or punished, but a culture in which they are followed, admired and appreciated. The women from the Oukacha prison, however, were asked to embroider the profiles of two women activists from the years of turmoil: Saïda Menebhi and Fathna El Bouih. The prison warden, however, looked on with suspicion at the work being done by the two artists with the Oukacha inmates. Tension mounted day by day and it became increasingly difficult to work. In the end, the work created by the women unexplainably went missing and Aglaia and Abdelaziz had no way of retrieving the portraits of the two women from the Moroccan Marxist movement. Their social and political demands were buried behind those small walls in Casablanca. But what is confined to silence will never die.
12 Later in 2014 Aglaia and Abdelaziz head to Marrakech, where they find themselves having to break through a less bitter cloud of silence: the women of Amazigh, or the Berber women. Their venture in cooperation with the Dar Al Ma’Mûn Foundation was endorsed by the Swiss Embassy which was intrigued by the topic of linguistic minorities, which is also a heartfelt subject back in Switzerland. Unlike other minority languages, the Amazigh language is not only a minority language but it is also an oral language. Its oral nature distinguishes it from other languages
and is naturally impervious to any attempt at archiving or research.
For the first time, Aglaia and Aziz experienced the technique of carpet embroidery with the Amazigh women. And thanks to help they received from experts in the Berber language, from the anthropologist Ahmed Skounti, from the women at the Cooperative Yagour in Tighduin (63 km from Marrakech), from the Cooperative Tigmi in Aït Ourir (33 km from Marrakech) and from the Cooperation for the Freedom of Weaving and Embroidery in Tameslouth (17 km from Marrakech), Aglaia and Abdelaziz were able to deal with themes of great importance and in their own ways universal, reflecting on the fate of a community whose roots are centred around a tradition, a community that by its very nature, is destined to vanish. The Amazigh language is indeed an oral language which is used less and less and which, for obvious reasons, is averse to comparisons and to a structured dialect with the rest of the world. Yet this does not seem to be a problem for the Berber women. They believe that at the beginning, the whole of Morocco was Berber and only later did it become Arab. Traditions can change but roots remain planted with theresilienceofblood.Thewomenfromthe various associations can speak both Berber and Arabic and they are often married to Arab men, while at night they most likely continue to dream in silence. A language that cannot
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be written, that sounds like a whisper in the wind. We can shut our eyes, pretend to be deaf, but that wind will continue to blow eternally on our skin and it will be felt like blood that becomes warmer and warmer and it will caress us like the evening breeze that blows from the sea. They asked Aglaia and Abdelaziz to decorate onto fabric the words ‘Exist’, ‘Read’ and ‘Today’ , translated into Berber. We would like to think that, while they were embroidering, that breeze never ceased to blow through their hands.
The following year Aglaia and Abdelaziz travelled into a region shrouded in a more obstinate and suffering silence, a region where Syrian women sought refuge in Beirut, in collaboration with the Syrian Refugee Women of the Association Basmeh y Zeitooneh in Shatila and the Art Residency Aley, and with the support of the Swiss Embassy in Lebanon. The women that the two artists met were women that had endured all forms of violence at the hands of the military. The artists suggested that the women rewrite their past by embroidering it on to fabric where their faces were printed. The tales told by these women were recorded and the video, which bears witness to their stories, can be seen on the « Embroideres of actuality » website, alongside various photos that were taken.
As we alluded to at the beginning, there comes a moment in life that can never be
forgotten, that moment in which we start to write. However, on reflection, none of us can remember that moment clearly. Nevertheless, we often come across that moment as our very first certainty and it is when someone, after far too long, comes close to us and says, and how are you? All of these women were probably able to return to their earliest certainty by completing the fifth chapter with the two artists, with whom they retraced their steps by covering miles and miles of road, vast open spaces, treks, pauses, falls, time that suddenly stops to remind us of where our journey started, that first moment when these women said no to a war for then finding themselves trapped in the realms of martyrdom. Perhaps things can change by telling these stories, they can be heard and a tragedy can redeem itself by turning into a finale of light. Light that dispels the shadows, justice that at last, when it needs to, increases its demands.
The penultimate project was also conceived in Marrakesh and once again it involved the Yagour Berber women. They all embroidered an image created by the Dutch artist Jan Luyken in 1670 onto a large red carpet. The image depicts a King’s guard, who was probably a black slave and undoubtedly a man of humble origins. And while the women embroidered, they spoke about themselves and they discussed political and social topics in the shadow of an image that was so ancient
and at the same time, so modern. During the exhibition, the public could watch the videos that portrayed the two artists and the Berber women together, sitting on the very same carpet that the women and two artists had embroidered together.
All of the material that was created during the course of these projects was, of course, recorded and some of these works can be seen on the website in the form of pictures and videos. A selection of these pictures and videos was used during the exhibitions where you can hear the sounds and where the pictures are displayed alongside the embroidered fabric and carpets, and where the public can sit down to listen to the tales of these women that come from afar, sometimes appearing to come from light years ago, and yet the voices of these women echo inside us just like that first voice
14 after a far too deafening silence. It was said that we continuously speak about borders. Yet art stops us from taking these borders for granted and it continues to provoke them, and to provoke our inhibitions, and it prevents us from becoming blind, suffocating behind those barriers which were erected through ignorance, for keeping out the rest of the world, where life is a race against time, or biding time behind prison bars, or simply trying to ensure that things can improve.
This was the case of the Filipino domestic helpers who feature in the final chapter of
this project called “Exiled Home” carried out in Malta in 2017. These women were asked to draw a map of their journeys on pieces of paper. These maps were subsequently printed onto cushions, inside which there were audio devices that aired the voices of these women while they told their tales. And by leaning their heads on these cushions, people could listen to these tales.
The tales of these Filipino domestic helpers are no doubt different to those of other women who Aglaia and Abdelaziz met while completing their project. The reasons for their journey were far different to those of other women. These Filipino women emigrated for economic reasons, leaving families back home, families which they hoped to reunite with as soon as they could. It was indeed the Philippine government itself that came to an agreement in assisting the movement of these women towards other countries. Their migration, however, compels us to reflect upon how the borders created by this form of mass movement of people over the last few years are not so much of a political or geographical nature, but more of human and cultural one. The true feeling of exile, however, is felt not so much by the Filipinos, but by the homeowners whose homes are taken up by a variety of faces, indecipherable voices and the spring in their movement. This feeling of exile can be felt every time such migration occurs, not
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particularly by the migrants themselves but by the local inhabitants who feel that they have been ousted from their own space. And it is not so much the external borders that instigate, but the internal ones, barriers that when breached by a foreigner, it is he who becomes the enemy. The South that penetrates the North, the East that penetrates the West. By following these movements, we are forced to alter the playing field on which the identity of each one of us is played out. We will probably never cease to be at war with each other until we accept the notion that identity is only an illusion that easily slips through our fingers, since we cannot pretend to define once and for all who we really are, but that we have to redefine our identity day by day, and if our prospects were focussed on the dynamics of exclusion, the game we play with the other is destined to explode into a violent outcome. The other should not be excluded or even assimilated. The other should simply be listened to. As a result, the Filipino domestic helpers invade the homes of the Maltese, causing the local inhabitants to newly reconsider their own space, their homes and the borders of their daily life. A reflection that is unavoidable, not only for the local inhabitants but for all of us as well, in order for us to realise that a guest is not only someone who arrives but, above all, it is someone who leads us to where we see the sun die and rises at the same time.
Aglaia and Abdelaziz’s project is, therefore, set out as both an artistic and historical-political project. The work of art is the product of a real and unpredictable encounter between the artist and the silence of a woman, and it is within that silence that a memory is embroidered, a memory that even belongs to us and to all of those who will, one day, have the chance to stop and listen to a voice that perhaps will appear to be incomprehensible, but a voice that will stir something inside of them. The women who agreed to take part in the “Embroideres of actuality” project are, therefore, women who agreed to embroider their tales with the pattern of a memory that belongs not only to them but to all the women that have been forgotten in the shadows of history and to all of those who find themselves in those shadows, blinded and unable to see the important things. The project was created in the South to then be shown in the North, aimed at the East for then to be brought back to the West. When you enter the rooms set up by Aglaia and Abdelaziz, it is like being absorbed into a page written by a distant hero, or like that man who walked onto the stage for the very first time and asked his audience of strangers the question: ‘to be, or not to be’. That audience of strangers, clouded in darkness, which could only listen while being compelled into silence, just like the first foreigner in that perfect harmony of the West. And then, when the show was over and the lights turned on,
the borders dissolved, the game was over. A performance, a provocation, art of the ephemeral. Nobody, though, has forgotten. It keeps on playing inside like the melody, the first beat of the heart, when that man opened the dance and, in silence, we followed him. Today it is he who is following us and who, in turn, becomes the foreigner. This is art, a game that starts from scratch every day and that makes us become exiles and foreigners at the same time. But after all, it is only a game. You only have to close your eyes to see more clearly the rays of light from those far gone times, times when we could follow each other, when it was easy to astonish. All we had to do was imagine and the light became stronger and the borders quickly dissolved under the newborn sun.
And by closing our eyes we can feel the breeze
on our skin that blows from afar. It could be16 the chant of Amazigh or the proud steps of a Filipino, that we have unwittingly descended into the silent revolution of a woman from Oukacha, or that we travelled to Cairo or to Beirut, with our fingers on those faces that without despair held their heads up high. This breeze can blow from the East, or perhaps from the South. It makes no difference to us, we are inside it, and in this breeze we have never ceased to ask ourselves: ‘to be, or not
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