ARTIST INTERVIEW: Claudia Martínez Mansell of Kissweh
Kissweh was founded by Claudia Martinez Mansell in 2017 with the aim of creating a line of beautifully hand embroidered personal and home accessories that are made by skilled craftswomen living in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon. Kissweh will join us at the Echo Park Craft Fair for the first time this Holiday. We are in love with the intricate embroidery of the Kissweh pieces and honored to help bring this work to a new audience in Los Angeles. We spoke to Claudia about her path and the origins of Kissweh.
Describe the path that led you to the work you do now. Did you take any big risks to get where you are?
I grew up in Madrid, Spain, and my dream was to join the United Nations and work in their humanitarian operations. So I studied International Relations and Political Science at university and my first job was with International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Kosovo in 1999-2000. After that I joined the World Food Programme (WFP) and later the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). I was fortunate to live in Rome for 8 years working at the headquarters of both organizations, but to also have the opportunity to live for extended periods of time in Sudan, Yemen, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories.
In 2010, I met my partner Richard when he was visiting Rome and after a year of a long distance relationship, we decided to try to build a life together – so I moved to LA to join him and quit my job. It felt like a huge move at the time but it has been the best decision I have ever taken! Since then, I have been working as a consultant for the United Nations – recent assignments have taken me to Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan – but at the same time I wanted to do something more creative on issues I care about.
Inspired by LA’s creative community and the rich folk art of traditional Palestinian needlework motifs, the idea of Kissweh began. Living in LA has given me the space to creatively try to imagine how to put the two together and take the plunge and set up Kissweh.
Why is it important to you to show and share your work to a larger community?
At a time when negative news dominates our understanding of the Middle East, I want to value and honour its people and their rich history and crafts. It takes around 2-3 weeks for a woman to embroider one pillow and their art, care and attention to detail just amazes me every time I see their work. We work with Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian women and their dignity, resilience and wish to improve and change their situation, inspires me.
A main cornerstone of our work is giving refugees the opportunity to earn a fair living from their artisan skills. Lebanon is going through a staggering emergency and hosts more than 1 million Syrians and around 450,000 Palestinian refugees – in other words, one in every five people in the country is a refugee. Solving the situation of refugees is a collective responsibility, and with our work we aim to support the livelihoods of these remarkable women, and the work of Beit Atfal Assomoud – a secular non-governmental organization providing a wide-range of much needed social services in the refugee camps.
Do you see your work as part of an artistic tradition? Where does your work depart from artistic tradition and move into new territory?
Palestinian embroidery has a long history – as far as I know there is no clear answer when it began, but there are great examples of it from the 1870s onwards. In 1935, Phyllis Sutton and Grace Crowfoot published the pamphlet “Ramallah Embroidery” and started documenting the different motifs used in traditional Palestinian embroidery – especially as this varied from region to region, so at the time you could tell by the dresses if the person was from Bethlehem, Jerusalem or the Galilee! Now there are some wonderful books documenting the motifs and the craft. I am particularly taken by antique examples that are more geometric and abstract, but also at the cross-pollination of motifs from different parts of the world, as the region was in the midst of silk and spice trade routes and a center for pilgrims visiting the many Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious sites. Kissweh’s work is inspired by this tradition, but aims to add a contemporary twist to it with our choice of colors, materials and patterns.
How is your work inspired by or influenced by nature and your surroundings?
When embroidering, women traditionally would pick the motifs they felt represented them – as a way of expressing aspects of her identity and daily life. This was an art practiced by women mainly living in the villages, and so many of the motifs are about nature (trees, flowers, birds, fauna), highlighting a connectedness with the land. Some of my favorite motifs are for an almond branch, a cypress tree, a damask rose, palm trees and even frogs in a pond. There are also motifs that the names are a witty glimpse of daily life, such as ‘chickpeas and raisins’, ‘bottom of the coffee cup’ or my favorite ‘old man’s teeth’!
Who are some current artists, creators or people working in other fields who work you admire?
From my work with the United Nations, I have great admiration for the work of the think tank International Crisis Group. Their reports are the first thing I try to read whenever I have to go to a new country and understand the political situation. In the US, I have a lot of respect for President Jimmy Carter and the work he and his foundation have been doing internationally. Environmentally, the Crop Trust that runs the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is critical. On Lebanon and its history, the works of Rosemary Sayigh have shaped my understanding of the country, and the situation in the Palestinian refugee camps. Rosemary is this wonderful British anthropologist who has been living in Beirut since the 1960s. I am fortunate to have now met her in person, and every time I pass by Beirut, I love meeting up with her.
Artistically, the works of Gunta Stölzl, Anni Albers (who came to the US as a refugee), and the women in the Bauhaus weaving workshop inspires me, as does the work of Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian and Louise Despont (a US artist based in Indonesia). And then William Kentridge just leaves me in awe with his charcoal drawings and animated films about South Africa.