Nesrine Maalouf co-founded an organisation to support refugee women through this traditional craft
“We were always very appreciative of the art of tatreez, the traditional Arab-Palestinian embroidery,” says Nesrine El Tibi Maalouf, co-founder of 81 Designs, a UAE-based social enterprise that has recently displayed the work of Palestinian refugee women at this year’s Abu Dhabi Art festival.
Founding the organisation with her daughter Nadine nearly three years ago, Maalouf wanted to create an outlet to support women in under-privileged areas by partnering with creatives from across the region. For their latest collaboration, the mother-daughter team is working with Lebanon-based surface fabrication studio Bokja.
Known for its quirky transformation of discarded antiques, Bokja creates exuberant furniture decoratively covered with layers of vintage textiles that is meant to represent the many layers of Beirut. The studio also tries to project a meaningful social message through its work.
With the same objective in mind, both women led-organisations are now seeking to empower refugees and their families though art and creation with their latest project. “We chose the Palestinian refugee women specifically to make a difference in this community,” Maalouf said. “So we employed them, put them on a sustainable income, and ultimately helped to improve their living conditions and welfare.”
Creating pieces that range from furniture to art, the 81 Design co-founder describes the work as tatreez with a modern twist. For example, the debut collection reinterpreted works by acclaimed Tunisian artist eL Seed through embroidery, and last year’s collection had the women cross-stitch renditions of 14 pieces of pop art by renowned British-Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj.
Earlier this month, 81 Designs and Bokja presented works honouring femininity and Palestinian tradition at the 10th edition of Abu Dhabi Art with the Standing Tall exhibition, a project made up of five sculptures of women adorned with 100 embroidered fragments on the wall. Made of stacked poufs upholstered with textiles gathered from around the world, each totem represented a female attribute: independence, empathy, compassion, nurturance, and strength.
“These women feel like they are empowered, they’re keeping their heritage, and they are teaching the younger generation. It is moving from one generation to the other,” Maalouf adds. At its core, the organisation’s vision, she says, is to employ as many women as possible from within the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp to help create a supportive environment for struggling families. “We started with eight in 2015 and now we employ over 30. It’s growing, and it’s making a difference,” she says. “We have all age groups, some are special needs, but they are all being taught this craft, and they are all being put to work. They are also the children of women who want to provide for their families.”
“We may expand to other countries in the future, but our main focus right now is refugees in Lebanon,” she explains. “I have seen a lot of improvement in these women’s living conditions and that is something that I want to continue working towards.”
As a result of the support provided by 81 Designs and Bokja, many women have used the money to seek medical treatment for their children, as well as for educating their families. Now they are helping to provide for their families and you can see that they are happier,” she adds. “We are always looking to work with different artists – and maybe even looking beyond art – but the aim will always be to give women the opportunity to work.”