Watan is the creative platform and storefront by Jumana Al-Qawasmi, a student based in Los Angeles, by way of Chicago, by way of Al-Khalil in Palestine. Nour from the Riwayya team was able to touch base with Jumana to find out more about her as an artist and the inspiration behind Watan.
Nour Salman: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What got you interested in art? Have you taken any art classes?
Jumana Al-Qawasmi: I think I’ve always loved art, always loved making new things with my own hands and creating them with the intention of making others happy. I remember always making birthday and Eid gifts for Mama dating back to at least elementary school. I remember making jewellery and sculptures for friends and teachers (sometimes enemies too). I remember painting, knitting, sewing, drawing, and sculpting in my high school classes (when I should have been taking notes). I don’t know, it’s always been a part of my life.
I’ve never taken art classes aside from the required art classes of my elementary and middle schools. I’ve never needed an art class to really teach me anything; I tend to figure things out by myself and observe others’ art for inspiration. That said, I always loved the fact that I got free access to so many art supplies in my classes and that my teachers often let me take home a lot of supplies for myself.
NS: What does Watan represent and how did you come up with idea and concept behind this creative platform?
JA: To date, I’ve been doing Palestine organising work for almost four years; the start of my political/cultural consciousness came a little before that. My family has always been consciously Palestinian, though we operate largely outside of all communities. But I’ve never really learned much about my Palestinian-ness from my family. And in the same vein, I never was able to really get in touch with my roots through SJP, a space that doesn’t and largely shouldn’t deal with issues of Palestinian heritage.
When I began Watan in January 2014, I’d been coming up on natural frustrations stemming from this culmination of experiences. I couldn’t find a space in Chicago where I could learn about and play with Palestinian culture in the ways I sought. Instead, I decided to create it. I chose an Etsy storefront specifically because it would: hold me responsible to constantly producing new Palestinian art in some form; give me a platform to share my learning and appreciation of Palestinian culture with friends and strangers; help spread a little of myself across the world; and generate funds with which I could donate to good non-profit organisations and buy art supplies with which to explore new art forms.
So with the idea of the space formulated, all I needed was a name. The reason why I ended up choosing “Watan” (translated as “Homeland”) was because I really wanted to emphasise the role this space plays in my attempts to connect back to my real homeland, Palestine. And in a way, it’s funny. When it comes down to it, at least no one can take this space away from me.
NS: What is your preferred medium when creating art and why?
JA: I don’t really have a preferred medium at the moment. I’m kind of a one-track mind: once I latch onto a new medium, I’ll keep creating new things with it until I’ve sort of exhausted it and gotten bored. I’ll then move onto my next new project set. I’ve done this with beading and tatreez, though I still continue with both. Nowadays, I’m playing a lot with watercolor, jewelry making, and sculpting little dishes.
NS: Do you have a favourite artist(s)? If so, what draws you to that individual’s work?
JA: I don’t know if I have a favourite artist but I do like a lot of different work! A few artists I really love: Abdel Rahman Al-Muzain, Leila Abdelrazzaq, Ismail Shammout, Laila Shawa, Irina and Maher Naji, Naji Al-Ali, Ayman Baalbaki, Angelica Beccera, and, god, so many more. I’m not sure what exactly draws me to a work–I just like what I like–but I really like pieces that draw from history, have strong use of symbols and imagery, and aren’t really abstract.
NS: What or where is your favourite place to see art?
JA: I think my favourite has to be the Dreihaus Museum in Chicago. It’s not a place for paintings or sculptures, really, like the Art Institute of Chicago or Detroit Institute of Art. It actually used to be the mansion of a rich banker during the Gilded Age and is one of the few remaining Gilded Age-residences left in Chicago; it was purchased and converted into a museum by another rich benefactor, I believe. It’s filled with intricately carved furniture, stained glass, handcrafted and painted ceramic tiles, and so much more. I like places that feel small, intimate, warm, I think. This place has to be my favorite for the fact that this place used to be lived in. In other words, it wasn’t simply a place for art on display but rather was a place where people lived among the art and craftsmanship. I really can’t describe the particular feelings this place engenders in me so all I can do is to strongly recommend visiting the museum next time you might be in Chicago.
I’ll also be boring and say that the internet is my ~actual~ favourite place to see art. I’m unencumbered by boundaries and plane tickets and god knows what else. I get to see it all anyway, though sadly that’s untrue for a lot of Palestinian art.
NS: What’s your favourite art work that you’ve created for Watan?
JA: I’m so bad with this! It usually ends up being the latest piece I’ve released on Etsy. But then there’s always that newer piece that I somehow love more. Or the new project ideas that I’m itching to work on and complete. So I guess technically, my current favourite piece is my Palestinian “Jerusalem” print but I already know my new projects will quickly replace that.
NS: One of my favourite pieces of yours features women clad in traditional Palestinian dress (thobe) and makes the powerful statement “A woman’s voice is a revolution” (صوت المرأة ثورة). Why the use of the thobe and what do each of these women in the piece represent?
JA: Thank you! I guess, one of the most indicative pieces of Palestinian heritage for me right now is the use of our particular form of cross stitch. So thwab on the women, in addition to the hattas, are outward symbols that most clearly mark the women as Palestinian. Roughly a little more than half of the women on the piece are hand-drawn and were then duplicated to fill up the rest to fit the measurements I wanted. Each women has real life tatreez designs drawn onto her thobe, ranging from Khalili designs to Ramallah designs and etc. The religion of each woman isn’t too evident, unless she wears hijab (though even this can be complicated); even more, I didn’t want to draw on traditional conceptions of femininity so I consciously included people who simply identify as women.
The purpose of coming up with this piece–and a lot of my pieces, present and future, deal with this–was to really emphasise the centrality of women in the Palestinian movement for justice. I wanted to commemorate the work of every single woman who’d contributed to this cause, most of the time making up for male counterparts or simply doing, at best, thankless work.
NS: A significant amount of pieces on Watan have a historical or cultural connection to a particular place and time. What research, if any, do you undertake to capture these concepts in your pieces? Where do you gather most of the inspiration for your works?
JA: The way I come up with ideas for new pieces is almost a two-step process, though this happens simultaneously with all the projects I’m working on. I already do a good bit of reading as part of my Palestine organizing and education. This usually is a good source on finding relevant bits of history and culture I want to emphasize and bring out in my work. I have a sort of running list of everything I think is “Palestinian”, in other words, what feels like home to me, which ranges on everything from embroidery to paintings, from music to poetry, from dance to food, from politics to plants.
I’ll then peruse the internet for new art pieces and jewellery ideas, referring a lot to Tumblr and Instagram as ways of finding new ideas and artists to connect to. This usually will be the base of the piece, whether it is a print, a jewellery piece, etc. This is how I kind of assess what parts of pieces I like and think can use in different ways for my own pieces. Then I’ll figure out how a particular piece of Palestinian heritage can fit into what I’d like to make. So for example, I have a couple new pieces coming out soon where I combine motifs I find in tatreez with jewellery making, whether this means real embroidery or laser-cut pendants.
NS: What’s the most indispensable item that you use when creating your art?<
JA: Definitely my sketchbook. I recently lost my only sketchbook that I’d had for over 4 years. That was a really harsh blow. My sketchbook is where I come up with ideas for new pieces and where I practice some of my drawing and painting technique. But I recently got two new sketchbooks, one for general sketching and another for both general sketching and watercolor painting. Hopefully I don’t lose these!<
NS: What’s the last artwork you purchased?
JA: This is a little embarrassing because I can’t remember what the last piece was and if I’ve even ‘purchased’ a piece of art. Just looking around my apartment, I think every piece I own are pieces I’ve made. The few purchased pieces I own are gifts from friends. I just like making the objects I put up in my home. I think it makes me feel more comfortable to be surrounded by the thoughts and moments I was in when I created each piece.
NS: What projects are you working on now and what can we expect from Watan in the future?
Lots of new projects, I hope! I’m currently working on a big batch of new jewellery. I noticed that there really seems to be a deficit of Palestine-inspired jewellery. The existing pieces I’ve seen either play on hackneyed Palestinian motifs–the flag, the kuffiyeh pattern, or Handala–or use expensive materials, such as gold and silver, that make the piece unaffordable to the average young person. Admittedly, what I’ve seen of Palestinian jewellery in old photos is usually relegated to coin jewellery; the way women displayed status was through her appearance through the quality and intricacy of her thobe, her jewellery, etc. So this gives little to build up from. So instead, I hope to play on Palestinian heritage to create new pieces.
I also hope to work in collaboration with a few other artists and businesses to build up a broad collection of Palestine-inspired pieces. I have a few projects with others I’m currently working on, inshallah, but I’ll leave those as a surprise!
Really, this is an open process! I love when I get feedback from people, when I learn from people. When I first started Watan, I wanted to create a little space where Palestinians could learn, teach, and appreciate their ever-changing culture. This remains true and hopefully–with a little help from friends and supporters–can continue to grow into that kind of life-giving space.
For more information visit, www.watan.etsy.com and on Instagram, @watan_palestine