If anything, the work of Jordan Nassar comes from the school of doing. The linguistics grad turned artist, whose primary medium is embroidery, has a somewhat unorthodox art school experience. Namely that he never actually went to one. The first part of this trajectory came when the New Yorker moved to Berlin, to work in a number of galleries, including both the former Pool (now Dittrich & Schlechtriem) and Niels Borch Jensen galleries. Working as a gallery assistant, he got introduced to the whirlwind world of contemporary art and all its fairs, including Art Basel. You can call this the beginning of his analogous art school.“When you first start going to galleries, you can’t express your opinions,” he says. The quick-witted Nassar is talking from his small embroidery-packed studio room in the Big Apple, having just returned from exhibiting his work in Dubai. “For me, it’s a case of ‘either everyone likes something or they don’t - immediately'. You just need to have the vocabulary, and the comfort using it, to express yourself.” It took Jordan a few years to be able to talk about his taste in the right language, to express truly whether he loved it or hated something - something he clearly has no issue with doing right now.
The “practical stage” of his art school experience, as he puts it, began in his Berlin apartment in the evenings, where he picked up a needle and started embroidering. Why embroidery? It came when he met his now-husband, painter Amir Guberstein. “There’s a level of guilt that comes with dating an Isreali,” he admits. “I was looking for something Palestinian to connect with, and when thinking of something Palestinian, I came across this type of embroidery.” “Most, if not all, Palestinians have this type of embroidery growing up,” he continues. He learned all about the symbols inherent to tatreez (Palestinian cross-stitch embroidery). Each village, for instance, has its own symbols, based on a wide variety of things, from plants and flowers to geographical features and mundane household objects. These symbols were influential in his free-time stitches, however, having not grown up in Palestine, he sometimes changes the symbols to evoke his upbringing in New York’s Upper West Side. Etel Adnan, a Lebanese, French-speaking painter, and writer is both his idol and biggest inspiration. “Her work taught me how I should not hide parts of my identity that I am insecure about. She has had similar issues with her Arabness and has felt fake in an Arabic context, something she embraces in her writing”. For him personally, it encompasses both his sexuality, as well as his skills in Arabic. Incidentally, Jordan’s working on his Arabic right now, something he describes as a “mess”. A mix of formal Arabic and Palestinian dialect from when he was a child, but he’s still working to get his speaking up to par.Originally his work was quite minimal - minimal pieces of the “blue on blue, white on white etc” variety. However after a fairly uneventful London debut - “we sold like one thing” - his work, inspired by Adnan, took on a new dimension. He took on a “technical challenge - to try to evoke a landscape with his cross-stitching, rather than just the standard geometric grids. What about a slope of a mountain, for instance? His work, then more technically-advanced, became more about ideas than mere visuals. He describes recent works as an evocation of the Palestine that exists in the mind of diaspora Palestinians who’ve never been there. Distant landscapes acting as a metaphor for his experiences. It’s a way for him to lightly explain to the world about those “small subsets of people that many Americans don’t know about”. “Many Americans think 'Jews hate Arabs' and ‘Arabs hate Jews’, but it's much more complicated than that,” he says. After all, Jordan himself is New York-born, Palestinian, has a Polish mother, is gay, and is married to an Israeli Jew.
It’s more than just a metaphor. On some of his paintings, he actually works together with some women across the West Bank, from Ramallah to Bethlehem. He sends over a pattern for them to embroider, within which he leaves a small gap. Once they’ve stitched the embroidery pattern, they send it back over and within the gap, he embroiders a small landscape pattern. A small inset of Jordan’s style included.In some way, everything ties into his creative pursuits. He produces zines. Playlists too. “All of my friends are artists,” he admits. “People who are like me, with everything they do somehow related to their artwork. We have this community around fashion, art, and publishing.” He makes time to mention his love for belly-dancing - “I love dancing music, I love dancing, and I love being silly on my stories”.There’s his fashion work too, which entwines with his art practice. When he was in Jaffa for an artist residency, he was contacted by two Israeli men, one of Libyan and one of Iraqi descent. Eager to utilize his skills in Palestinian embroidery, together they began to create streetwear together, with hoodies and tees incorporating tatreez designs. The brand, ADISH, means indifferent/apathetic in Hebrew. “There’s a sarcastic meaning here,” he laughs. They showed their first real collection last June in Paris - their debut had been a small capsule collection - and Jordan now works as a creative director. Stores like Voo in Berlin and Opening Ceremony in New York are by no means ambivalent about it, they already stock the brand.Then there’s also the politics in action aspect. There are over 60 Palestinian women employed across the West Bank - around ten of whom also work on his personal artworks - embroidering by hand for ADISH. “Each tee that has been hand-embroidered has a little tag inside saying who made it,” he explains. He likes the fact he’s showing the world there are Palestinians and Israelis that like each other, and even work together. “In a grand sense, I’m trying to show how complicated it is, but give rays of hope,” he says. Jordan aims for the political middle-ground, happy that he’s producing something tangible - creating employment in the West Bank - rather than merely making statements. “The fact of the matter is that people live there. What are we gonna do?” he says. “I prefer to be about moving forward, finding commonalities, and living our lives together.”
Back to art, and the future, there’s an exhibition coming up in Tel Aviv in September. Jordan here admits he rarely travels outside of work. His recent trip to Dubai may have included some time by the pool, but he was still stitching on his flight back. “It’s not so bad really, it’s just I always need to be doing something with my hands”. Thankfully, his hands, seemingly stitching 24/7, have avoided any lasting damage. “The needle I use is blunt, not sharp,” he smiles. "Actually, my hands are pretty soft and lovely”.