Traces of Displacement / Material Power, Whitworth, Manchester - Museums Association

Traces of Displacement / Material Power, Whitworth, Manchester

These two exhibitions offer a useful blueprint for how museums can respond in polarised times
Conflict Refugees
An illustration of eyes on a lined copybook
Mounira al Solh, I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous #149, 2016, mixed media drawing on legal paper. Currently on display in Traces of Displacement Image courtesy the artist and the Whitworth, The University of Manchester

One of the first things that you see at the Whitworth, once you get past the shop selling Palestinian embroidery kits and books about Palestinian textiles, is the gallery’s code of conduct – a useful introduction to the space and how we might act, react and respond within it in these challenging and polarised times.

But interestingly, neither inside nor outside the Manchester gallery is there any information about two of the powerful and thought-provoking exhibitions currently on display.

There are no posters outside or signage inside, and once in the gallery I had to double back and ask the helpful staff at the entrance where the Palestinian embroidery exhibition was. Perhaps it’s a sign of our troubled times that we can’t be more open about this type of display.

Both exhibitions were conceived before the current conflict in Israel and Palestine; it is either serendipity, or forethought over astonishment, that they are on now, but either way they provide a timely introduction to some of the issues of the conflict.

Traces of Displacement (on until May 2024), uses the gallery’s collection to address forced displacement. It is part of a major Arts and Humanities Research Council project and the funding is much welcome for this deep exploration of the impact of being forced from home.


The exhibition is divided into themes and the section on detainment and detention is particularly harrowing, especially given current UK Government practice.

Last year 20,446 asylum seekers were placed in detention in the UK. No Man’s Land, a series of photographic prints by Nana Varveropoulou, depicts the Colnbrook immigration removal centre and is a bleak reminder that this is still happening now.

It is a vast exhibition on a troubling subject, where just one exhibit can cause pause for thought and, potentially, action.

I was struck by the images of the MV Louise Michel, a ship owned by a charity that has stepped in to rescue migrants where European states have stepped back. Since 2014, 26,000 lives been lost in the Mediterranean Sea.

In the Body and Record, the trauma of displacement is vividly and explicitly mapped: “People flee because their lives might be at risk. The trauma that this generates doesn’t stay in the past, it imprints itself on the body and the brain.”

This made me wonder if there should be a warning, especially for those who have lived experience, and space and support to process emotions and memories evoked by this exhibition.


It is good to see that the curators have worked with a focus group who have lived experience and “heritage of displacement”, the latter phrase speaking to how this type of trauma can flow through families and generations.

Despite the trauma, the objects, artworks, research and the finely worded labels make this exhibition one that you want to go back to.

For example it would be impossible to talk of forced displacement without reference to the transatlantic slave trade, in which at least 12 million people were displaced.

Traite des Nègres (The Slave Trade) by Frédéric Etienne Joseph Feldtrappe, from 1815, is an abolitionist textile. It highlights the brutality of slavery – the label points out that it was created on cotton picked by enslaved hands, which makes you look at the images and the material afresh.

Mandla, As British As A Watermelon, Video. On display in Traces of Displacement Image Courtesy The Artist © Benjamin Liddell

Traces of Displacement is a fitting introduction to Material Power (on until April 2024), an exhibition of Palestinian textiles that aims to chart the evolution of embroidery in Palestine over the past century, from village tradition to politicisation and commodification.


The exhibition is a major retrospective – the collection of dresses and embroidery is on display in the UK for the first time in over 30 years and it is given the space to develop themes and explore stories.

A compelling feature is that the objects and textiles sit alongside the voices of the women who continue to embroider today. One woman says: “This is my daughter, and I will teach her Palestinian embroidery, and I hope that she will learn and one day teach her daughter.”

The interviews with women speak to cultural traditions, female solidarity, resistance and keeping skills and heritage alive. Many of the interviews were conducted with women in Gaza and the West Bank, some of them in refugee camps, and you can’t help but wonder where they and their families are now.

Over the past 75 years these textiles have become powerful symbols of resistance and cultural identity. The embroidered wall hangings of Mounira Al Solh celebrating the feminists of the Arab world exemplify this, as do the many textiles that carry the slogans and images of struggle.

The interplay of objects, words, photographs and film is rich and layered. Nawal Al-Araj speaks of her son learning to embroider in prison – as a way of overcoming boredom but also as a way of resisting incarceration – and some of the objects that he has embroidered sit alongside the interview.

The overarching story explores how new meanings for embroidery and textiles have developed from an ancient practice, to works of endurance after the Nakba in 1948 and symbols of resistance during the intifada.

The story is brought up to the present day with the section From Love to Labour, which explains how most contemporary embroidery is produced by women in refugee camps for an international market.

Although the exhibition doesn’t address the current conflict, it does lay the foundations of an understanding of the complex issues at play. And it brings together beautiful objects of hope, culture, resilience and resistance.

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