Beyond Æsthetics exhibition showcases the Palestinian Costumes and Tawfiq Canaan Amulet collections at the Ethnographic and Art Museum at Birzeit University. The exhibition demonstrates the underlying visual symbolism and messages the collections convey. The viewer in this exhibition is given the opportunity to explore the scope of possibilities and perspectives the ethnographic collections present within this visual framework.
Palestinian traditional costumes are usually associated with a geographic area. The embroidered geometric figures and motifs on each dress are associated with elements emanating from the local environment. This exhibition explores meanings and representations that imbed in the symbols, colors and fabric used in the making of the dresses; it unfolds the mannerism of social interactions and communication pertinent to aspects of life in Palestine up to the mid-20th century. The exhibition elaborates on how the symbolic nature of costumes and amulets largely reflect ideas and beliefs expressed in and through costumes. It further explores social practices related to wealth, death and mourning, the body, modesty, marriage, social status, and spiritual beliefs. Despite that costumes and ornaments displayed may seem to be restricted to discourse pertaining to women only since its main focus is on female costumes, nevertheless much of what was visually portrayed in women costumes during that epoch was often associated with the husband, father, brother, family and kindred.
Costumes were made based on established and traditional procedures that rendered them particular style and appearance. The opportunity and space for creativity and innovation, even when bound to acceptable limitations, gave rise to development of styles and change. This process allowed a certain degree of fluidity in representation whilst maintaining cultural and regional identities. Through this same process certain messages of particular pertinence to earlier stages of development became obsolete and were either removed or included depending on their relevance to the visual identity of the dress rather than on the meaning it disclosed. This means that specific elements that were once employed to communicate very specific messages were simply included on the basis of perceived tradition and supposed propriety.
By showing the collections in this context, the museum seeks to herald an alternative approach and attitude to addressing the costumes and amulets in particular and Palestinian history and culture in general. The exhibition rejects ideas pertaining to nostalgia, sentimentality, and mysticism that seem to overshadow the discourse on Palestinian ethnographic items. The aim is to allow the items to be studied and understood from as many angles as possible from whichever context the researcher or spectator sees interesting and relevant.
Clothing was used as a medium to indicate to amount of material wealth and social status, for instance, an expensive and modern dress indicated to a higher standard of living. The elements that make up the dress starting with the quality and type of fabric, the amount of work invested in designing the dress and technique of adding embellishments, in addition to features pertaining to ways of handling and wearing the dress were all expressive of wealth or the aspiration to project wealth regardless whether it was truthful or pretentious.
The manner of which grief and mourning were expressed in Palestine varied according to regions, and while taking into consideration pertinence to religion and age. Modes of expressing grief and mourning were not merely confined to a particular event, but rather comprehensive of grieving any undesirable event that interrupted the normal course of life such as death for example. Expressing mourning was demonstrated by wearing a garment in an unusual way, or by covering or ripping parts of it, or changing its color for the period of grief and mourning.
Sexuality of the Body
In spite that it is of paramount importance for women to maintain a sense of modesty, costumes consisted of motifs insinuating sex, transformation of the body, flirtation and fertility. This was done by referring to certain colours, trimmings, strategically placed openings and adornments. In many occasions, a woman selected her costumes in reference to her marital status, sexual maturity and self-control without compromising her dignity or family honour.
Spiritual and Apotropaic
We notice the enormous impact that spirituality, purification, and superstition had on the making of costumes. Jewels and ornaments for instance were used by women and children, sometimes by men as well, as means for protection and expressing spiritual beliefs. Despite that changes have resulted in dismantling the spiritual associations pertaining to the apotropaic function and characteristics of these ornaments, continuing their use in contexts of protection and adornment is not considered out of the ordinary.