Izar Samawa: hook embroidery of southern Iraq
During his first project scoping visit to Iraq in February 2016, Rashad met Um Mohammed, founder of the Feminist Association in the town of El Khithr ("the Tomb of the Green Man"), a satellite town of the city of Samawa on the banks of the Euphrates in southern Iraq. The Association was set up to advocate for, and improve the situation of widows, divorcees and other marginalised and victimised women, of whom there are very many, as a result of the recent war and ongoing violence. These women come not only from the town but also from the surrounding farming areas.
Samawa and the southern regions of Iraq are famed for embroidered marriage rugs and blankets (izar Samawa). The iconography and patterns of these embroidered woollen rugs date back to ancient Mesopotamia. Rashad has a longstanding interest in the design of Samawa rugs. His teacher, the artist Shakr Hasan al Said, and uncle Jewad Salim, as well as other seminal Iraqi artists were clearly influenced by this craft or art, and its iconography which can be traced to ancient cylinder seals.
During the sanction period, these rugs (izar) were one of the very few exports from Iraq, smuggled out and sold cheaply in neighbouring countries. Due to the wars and conflicts of the past 40 years, and the circumstances of exploitation in which izar were produced during this time, the rugs lost quality and attention to detail.
Um Mohammed is reviving this traditional embroidery as a way to develop work opportunities for the women of her community. Older women who know the technique's traditions thoroughly, and other women with newer creative approaches, are sharing the skills with a new generation of makers. The crafts involved include spinning, dyeing and weaving as well as embroidery. The women dream of having a sanctuary and workshops devoted to their endeavour, and Um Mohammed has a plot of land she has donated for the realisation of this aim.
Rashad has begun working with Um Mohammed and the izar-makers to help develop their production and marketing. He introduced them to Awj Baghdad Cultural Centre, where their first exhibition in 2016 immediately sold out. Rashad also held drawing workshops, engaging the women in the creation of Samawa rugs as artworks, with the story of the Ark and the flood represented in visual narrative. Makers who show promise as artists are supported to develop their designs as artworks that develop and extend the traditional iconography of the rugs.
In working with the Association, Rashad has identified four types of products they can create:
1. The established style of embroidery they already produce and sell, which uses a quicker, looser version of the traditional izar technique.
2. Izar that aim to achieve the quality and embroidery techniques embodied in the best of the Samawa tradition, documenting this tradition at the same time as reviving it.
3. Izar created as artworks by the women and in collaboration with other artists, and as narratives of the Ark Re-Imagined.
4. Design and marketing of other products such as bags, belts, decorative panels, and bespoke interior design, and the capacity to fulfil the requirements of commissions.
Safina Projects invites interested parties to support these courageous and talented women and the art forms and handicrafts that have helped them survive, which also lie at the roots of our civilisation. Enquiries and commissions are welcomed. All proceeds from sales will contribute towards realising the Association's dream of the creation of an independent, self-sustained sanctuary and workshop: a place where the women can, as they have said, “be themselves”. To gather, support, have fun, laughter, friendship, and learn.