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SewTheirNames

A Project

By Neville Rigby

The global reaction to the bombing of Gaza was spontaneous. In cities around the world, demonstrators proclaimed their humanitarian solidarity like the followers of Spartacus chanting: In our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinians, to express their revulsion and demand an end to the mass slaughter of innocent men, women, and children in Gaza. This response stands in stark contrast to those of our disappointing political leaders, so slow to utter any words of concern, more fearful of Zionist extremists than world opinion – or even the International Court of Justice.

As the death toll continued its inexorable rise, a small campaign group in the far north of Scotland, Highland Palestine, saw its numbers swell at the weekly protest rallies in the High Street of Inverness, the region’s capital. Among them, several hospital doctors recounted their previous experiences working with Medical Aid for Palestinians in war-torn Gaza. Ico Bautista Garcia, a Spanish nurse now working in Inverness, rejoined the ICRC to volunteer at the European Hospital in Gaza and later returned to bear witness to the horrific conditions she encountered. Hospital pediatrician Dr. Salim Ghayyda, a British Palestinian originally from Gaza, gave regular updates to the weekly rallies on his appeal for help to enable his family to escape the horror.

Ordinary folk were keen to do more themselves, something practical and personal. Scottish artist Jane Frere, who years ago devised the Nakba Project which resulted in the extraordinary Return of the Soul installation in 2008, had a notion of how she could involve scores of concerned individuals in a simple communal gesture to help create a memorial, something that everyone could contribute to, and that would stand as a symbol to proclaim that those murdered under the relentless bombardment and destruction of Gaza should be remembered not as nameless numbers, but as real people with known identities. She launched her appeal at a Highland Palestine rally in autumn and within days the project SewTheirNames was born.

Jane working on the banner.

In the Highlands of Scotland, hundreds rally each week, raise funds, and listen to messages relayed from those trapped in Gaza, and sometimes – as in the poem of Refaat Alareer – from those who have been killed. The yearning to do something more practical inspired the project SewTheirNames. Artist Jane Frere, who mobilized hundreds of Palestinians in 2008 to contribute to her Nakba Project Return of the Soul, again galvanized the goodwill of an entire community to collaborate in a common humane gesture – to commemorate the names of those slaughtered in Gaza, to ensure that they did not remain just numbers in the grim daily statistics of war. This is the remarkable story of how a second memorial banner bearing nearly 2,500 handwritten names has gone on display in Venice throughout the summer alongside the work of 26 Palestinian artists – a reminder to the world that the dead are not numbers – they have NAMES.

With scores of Highland Palestine volunteers and scores more eager to contribute, the local arts organization, Circus Art Space, offered an initial workshop facility and administrative support to help manage the allocation of names from the official lists to be handwritten and sewn on name tags, then returned to be made into the final banner. The project was soon underway to create a prototype. More than 7,000 names of the dead, issued via the Palestine Health Ministry, provided a starting point. Individuals came together, more groups joined, and eventually, more than 80 pairs of hands were busily engaged in writing and sewing names on name tags, helping to create a memorial. Within weeks the first banner was paraded at the street rallies in Inverness.

The “SewTheirNames” banner.

Jane knew that producing just one banner was not the end of the story, and with more than 84 individuals signed up to sew, she responded to public pressure to continue creating an even larger banner as the grim death toll continued to mount. “People have responded magnificently. Perhaps we in the north of Scotland are haunted by the folk memory of the Highland clearances, when thousands of families were forced to leave their land and abandon their homes. Of course, Scotland’s First Minister’s in-laws were trapped in Gaza at the outbreak of war, so it was brought very close to home for everyone. But remarkably we have many folk in the Highlands, particularly doctors and nurses who have experienced previous wars in Gaza as medical volunteers, so there is a heightened awareness here,” she added. The second banner with names sewn onto the backing of a Palestine flag was given the finishing touches by The Highland Multicultural Friends Common Threads Sewing Group who completed it by adding a surrounding cloth framework that included Palestinian flags and other materials to link to the communities involved.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of having handwritten names was creating a direct link between the individual writing and sewing the name, and the victim. “Many people told me they found it a very emotional and almost spiritual experience, bringing them closer to someone who was a total stranger, but whose death is not forgotten,” Jane said. It was during an online open house session arranged by Faisal Saleh, the executive director of the Palestine Museum US based in Connecticut, that the significance of the connection was highlighted. During a Zoom meeting, as Jane was talking about how the banner was created, a member of the audience asked if the name of a particular young boy was included. Having taken over the administrative side of the project, I was able not only to confirm that Omar Ahmed Nawaf Al-Najjar, aged three, had been included, but also to identify the individual lady who had written and sewn his name.

Jane with Derek Newton, founder of Highland Palestine.

The SewTheirNames banner has been included in the Palestine Museum US exhibition opening alongside the Venice Biennale this year. It was included as a “Collateral Event” in 2022, but the biennale decided not to include the museum’s exhibition against the background of concern that the official biennale organizers have permitted an Israel exhibition pavilion. Faisal Saleh himself started a petition, and a group called the Art Not Genocide Alliance also raised a petition to protest over “double standards.”

Scottish artist Jane Frere is no stranger to Palestine. She was artist in residence at Al Hoash Gallery in East Jerusalem from 2007 to 2008, leading workshops in refugee camps in the West Bank, Jordan, and Lebanon during the process of creating a massive sculptural installation formed of thousands of suspended wax figures, entitled Return of the Soul, commemorating the sixtieth year since the Nakba. Trained in theater design at Central Saint Martins School and Slade School of Fine Art in London, Jane devised set and costumes for the play Go to Gaza, Drink the Sea, by Justin Butcher and Ahmed Masoud, produced as a response to Operation Cast Lead in 2009.
Jane returned to stay in the West Bank, which resulted in a series of oil paintings, pastels, and prints inspired by her experiences living next to the notorious apartheid Wall. These works were exhibited to coincide with the concert premiere of a work entitled Emails from Palestine by composer David Ward for the Sound Festival in Northeast Scotland in 2010. The powerful imagery of Return of the Soul attracted interest from many quarters and was discussed in depth in the book Why Only Art Can Save Us by Spanish philosopher Prof. Santiago Zabala.
Challenged by the activist group Highland Palestine to design a banner, Jane devised the SewTheirNames project, involving almost 90 volunteers across the region. The resulting work is included in the Palestine Artists Only exhibition whose curator, Faisal Saleh, confided: “We’ve made you an honorary Palestinian.”

However, the exhibition entitled Foreigners in Their Homeland: Occupation | Apartheid | Genocide, featuring the works of 26 Palestinian artists, has gone ahead and runs from April 20 to November 24 at the Palazzo Mora – The European Cultural Centre in Venice. The Return of the Soul installation marked the sixtieth year of the Nakba in 2008. It opened at Al Hoash Gallery in East Jerusalem where Jane was artist in residence and went on to be exhibited in Beirut, Amman, and the Edinburgh Art Festival in Scotland.

  • A former Fleet Street journalist, Neville Rigby also spent many years campaigning with international NGOs on nutrition and health policies in many parts of the world, visiting the Middle East as a consultant with the World Health Organization. When he is not busy as the resident wordsmith for his wife Jane Frere’s Druimarts Studios, he enjoys taking his camera into the great outdoors around Loch Ness. He is a long-standing supporter of Highland Palestine, a network of people in the Scottish Highlands who support the Palestinian struggle for equal rights.

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