First US Palestinian awarded Fellowship by National Endowment for the Arts
The first Palestinian-American woman has been awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim was just named one of the 2018 National Heritage Fellows, a highly esteemed award celebrating artistic excellence and traditional arts heritage. Abbasi-Ghnaim is an award-winning embroiderer, artist, and teacher focused on preserving Palestinian art and culture.
This year’s recipients are the first to receive the award following President Trump’s defunding of the NEA. The NEA’s selection of Abbasi-Ghnaim also follows Trump’s widely-condemned decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, making this a significant year for the U.S. to be celebrating Palestinian art and heritage.
Abbasi-Ghnaim has dedicated her life’s work to teaching about Palestinian history and traditions through embroidery (tatreez). She gained acclaim through Tatreez & Tea, a 2016 book and initiative dedicated to preserving Palestinian embroidery, folk art, and storytelling. Together with her daughter, she produced the book and led dozens of workshops across the U.S. and Canada, including one at Spotify. The book demonstrates how Palestinian embroidery is a centuries-old folk art, traditionally passed from mother to daughter over a cup of tea.
Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim is an embroiderer whose journey as an artist started in her birthplace of Safad. Palestinian embroidery—which features intricate cross-stitched designs—is a domestic art that adorns clothing, wall hangings, and pillows. Beyond being a master of this art form, Abbasi-Ghnaim is also dedicated to teaching and mentoring younger generations, including her own daughters, passing along not only the artistic knowledge, but also the stories and history behind the patterns, colors, and designs.
Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim learned to embroider from her mother and grandmother, who also shared the stories behind each design. In 1948, Abbasi-Ghnaim and her family fled to Syria after the war in Palestine. She attended boarding school in Ramalla and obtained a degree in art and history from Damascus University. As a teenager, Abbasi-Ghnaim started her career as a teacher for the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) at Jordan’s Irbid Palestinian refugee camp; her passion to preserve Palestinian art and culture resulted in the implementation of her art curriculum in all UNRWA schools in the Damascus region. In 1973, her design was chosen as the logo for UNESCO’s Palestinian heritage encyclopedia series.
In 1980, Abbasi-Ghnaim and her husband immigrated to Boston, Massachusetts. After having three daughters, she and her family moved to Oregon in 1989. From 1988-90, Abbasi-Ghnaim led a project with the director of the Oral History Center of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The culminating exhibit, A Passion for Life: Stories and Folk Arts of Palestinian and Jewish Women, nationally toured the works and words of eight Jewish and Palestinian traditional artists, including Abbasi-Ghnaim. In 1985, the Women’s Peace Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, featured Abbasi-Ghnaim’s “حمامة السلام” (“Dove of Peace”) tapestry.
Since moving to Oregon, Abbasi-Ghnaim has received numerous awards as a master artist for Oregon’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. In 2016, her daughter Wafa Ghnaim wrote and published Tatreez & Tea: Embroidery and Storytelling in the Palestinian Diaspora, which documents Abbasi-Ghnaim’s journey into the diaspora, alongside traditional design patterns and the techniques, meanings, and origins behind the art form. She has lectured at the University of Massachusetts, the Oral History Center of Cambridge, Portland State University, and Lewis and Clark College.
Abbasi-Ghnaim’s artistry, mentorship, and advocacy continue to improve the accessibility, vitality, and appreciation of traditional arts.