For centuries, Yemen has been at the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and the islands that pepper the majestic seas in between. Textiles have served as a driving force of cultural, economic and diplomatic exchange, offering a living archive of the communities they have touched. Their motifs have migrated away from the fibers and into the architecture, the design, the porcelains, and the story-telling, offering reminders of the histories that they both share and preserve.
Growing up in Sana’a, Yemen, I remember my mother always stressing to us that education wasn’t only what we read, but what we saw, touched, tasted, and smelled. She taught us that in order to be well-rounded we needed to be grounded in the cultures of our community and to know and appreciate the stories we heard and told. I loved to ask questions and to share my impressions and thoughts - however, as we traveled and moved to different parts of the world, I discovered that in some places I was ignored and made to feel unwelcome, hushed as though what I saw didn’t matter. But, it was different in Asia, whether at home in Sana’a, or traveling in Mumbai, Lahore, Hong Kong or Bangkok, I was always accepted, integrated, and seen. The world through my eyes was understood as essential for reminding elders of the cyclical nature of their existence. Children offered a reminder of the wonder, curiosity, and amazement of discovering the world for the first time.
Many of my early memories are of traveling with my mother to these places and visiting the local markets. I remember vividly the feeling of entering into spaces where there were textiles stacked and ordered from floor to ceiling, creating perfect walls of carefully arranged colors and textures. The merchants–and even sometimes the Master Artisans themselves– would insist on inviting us in, and would share with us their processes and their histories. It became very clear that they weren’t just makers and sellers, they were storytellers, entrepreneurs, and artists – and they invited me into their world.
These were my favorite people and places to visit. The process of selling was so much more than a transaction– it was a ritual that had been perfected, as a choreographed dance, all parts of which would play into the final negotiations at the end. But the most important aspect was the journey that was shared together through pattern, pigment and storytelling. There was always an elevated seating area, designed for resting, relaxing, and remaining. Tea was offered as a way of showing hospitality, kindness, trust and comfort. We would commence with niceties to engage mutual curiosities and facilitate the collection of information, and soon enough the flowing of fabrics, teas, and stories would begin. It was through this flow that I developed the rhythm and timing of my own practices. I would sit there for hours, while fabrics were thrown across my legs and lap one after another, until it was no longer only the small pattern that I saw, but also what it looked like within a community of its own.
The word that comes to mind most when I think about the experience of fabric finding and garment making is royalty. Not only because of the treatment one receives in the process, but because of the textures and color that takes one on a journey through time and place. The liberated feeling of actively reimagining one's image by defining factors of how the fabric falls, how it pleats, how it fits together. The process of touching the finest and least fine fabrics that exist, knowing the difference between what is good quality or poor, and learning that someone else’s taste might not be my own.
It was in the markets that I learned to harness my own opinion and to develop an appreciation for what I was drawn to, rather than what I was meant to be drawn to. I didn’t learn this from being told – I learned this by what I observed, felt, and experienced. I learned that cotton is the most exquisite fabric, and the finest cottons are among the finest fabrics made. Cotton has the capacity to both cool the body and to keep the body warm, and the potential to be worn by all classes of society. The fabric impresses the richest of colors, and as a plant itself, cotton both harbors and reflects the language of the natural world. Cotton is also the most difficult fabric that I have worked with thus far, because of its extreme capacity to wrinkle, moreso even than silk.
It is well-known that Liberty cotton is among the finest cottons in the world. The skills required to create these couture fabrics were developed by Indian artisans over hundreds of years, and their place within British culture is a direct result of Britain's violent occupation of India. Taking the artistry as their own, the British disassociated the roots of this ancestral knowledge and beauty from its origin, replacing histories of splendor with narratives and images of suffering, victim-hood, and criminality – all under the trademark of “Liberty.” How can one copyright liberty? How can one steal the knowledge of generations, divorcing them from their ancestors and from their land, in the name of freedom?
Liberty (2022) is a love letter to those who have taught me the most about what I know of pattern, color, texture, and the expanse of the world of textile – which is the world of linguistics, constellations, cartographies, and expressions. When asked how I obtained such a knowledge, the answer is that I owe it to my mother, to those merchants, to the keepers of knowledges, to the protectors of the archives, to the storytellers, to the tea makers, to the dyers, to the Master Artisans, to their apprentices, to the land… This series is dedicated to all those who have generously taken time, served me tea, and invited me to root my identity in and alongside their own. To this day my wonder and amazement only gets larger and bigger. You’ve taught me that Liberty cannot be owned, trademarked, or captioned, but must be experienced.
May you never be forgotten, may you always be acknowledged, and may you forever be seen.
In Collective Rise, PDF