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Lebanese artist Rumi Dalle explores gender and identity through craft processes

Beirut-based installation artist Rumi Dalle talks to STIR about her art through the lens of gender dysphoria, immigrant culture, heritage and folklore.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Nov 19, 2022

Rumi Dalle is an artist of Lebanese origin, whose work explores a plethora of material while playing with scale, form and function. Although Dalle has worked on multiple commercial commissions by Hermés and Boghossian, her work is a continuous reflection of the self and its myriad connections to surrounding cultural energies.

A couple of months ago, Dalle spoke to STIR about her recent collaboration with Iwan Maktabi, a third-generation carpet-maker, renowned across the Middle East. For this project, the artist constructed a series of installations which use mirrors and felting techniques using wool and silk fibres. The series was showcased at Iwan Maktabi Lab in Dubai earlier this year, andpreviously debuted at Nomad Circle, an exclusive art and design showcase, in St. Moritz (Switzerland). Dalle’s enthusiasm is propelled by her fond relationship with age-old craft practices. The artist connects with her own roots via craft and reconnects with herself through her own expression of the craft.

Installation view of Here Comes Sasha | It Felt Like A Dream | Rumi Dalle | STIRworld
Installation view of Here Comes Sasha Image: Courtesy of Rumi Dalle

Dalle's sculptures, It Felt Like A Dream, is produced from a space of profound personal change, and is derived from her process of reconciliation and reckoning with it. The artist employs felting techniques and mirrors as the medium of interest in these works. She shared with us saying, “Two years ago, I changed my gender. Two years and a half ago, I had no mirrors in my home. I lived almost 20 years of my life afraid of my reflection. Dysphoria in itself was a struggle. I would see my reflection in a window facade and panic. When I started my hormone therapy, the first thing that I did was to install a big mirror in my bedroom, just to see the way my face started changing as the hormones started affecting my physical characteristics. That's how I started to know myself. I learned to start loving my reflection.”

Detailing on Here Comes Sasha | It Felt Like A Dream | Rumi Dalle | STIRworld
Detailing on Here Comes Sasha Image: Courtesy of Rumi Dalle

Her story gave me chills. It brought to mind the feeling of coming into one’s own skin, the liberating warmth of self-love. Lebanon, despite legalising gender change procedures, is led by a rather conservative and authoritarian government that is also unsurprisingly patriarchal. Dalle’s incredible journey has been both rewarding and arduous. However, her transformation has led to positive outcomes in her artistic process. As an immersive creator, her work has been inspired by craft culture she has seen around her. Immigrants who come into Lebanon seeking refuge bring beauty with them in the form of weaving, embroidery and other textile crafts. With gratitude in her voice, Dalle says, “Before I could never have access into this woman’s home as in my previous gender. But now I can go sit next to their bed, observe their work, watch them embroider, and have a conversation. Women who collaborate, work in this culture in intimate spaces. It's not being produced in a sweatshop. It was produced in the bedroom of that woman. It was produced in the kitchen of that woman. The factor of intimacy here is important to me.”

Installation view of It Felt Like A Dream | It Felt Like A Dream | Rumi Dalle | STIRworld
Installation view of It Felt Like a Dream Image: Courtesy of Rumi Dalle

The installation artist goes further to describe sustainability in her art practice as being defined by the honouring of domestic craftsmanship. She adds, “I am very biased from a sustainability aspect, to always highlight the craft that is carried by women, domestic crafts, especially in countries like Lebanon. When I work, I always keep in mind the women who are bound to their homes, and not able to sustain themselves.” Dalle’s visual vocabulary combines her very personal experience of the body with the rich, historical culture of craft. She draws from Syrian, Palestinian and Armenian embroidery techniques among others. The Lebanese artist’s process navigates the lines between personal and public, private and shared, contemplating the socio-cultural implications of blurring these lines. She says, “We always like to use material that speaks to the public, you know. We don't like art that is only place in galleries. Especially me coming from a background where I mostly created artwork for window displays. I enjoyed working for window displays because it is on the verge of public and private.”

Dalle’s window display installations for Hermés | It Felt Like A Dream | Rumi Dalle | STIRworld
Dalle’s window display installations for Hermés Image: Courtesy of Rumi Dalle

For It Felt Like a Dream, she worked with children to gain inspiration from the forms they made from it. "When we gave children at high school this clay, the first thing they started to create is a sausage or snake shape. It is quite interesting. It is literally a phallic shape. There's something very sexual about it, but at the same time very innocent and we wanted to play on this kind of dynamic,” shares Dalle. The mirrors are constructed with a serpent-like creature coiled around it. The serpent is detailed with stories using embroidery techniques. In Here Comes Sasha, if a viewer leans in close enough they can see the small embryos embroidered and felted on to the yellow fabric. This work shares Dalle’s desire to conceive, and illustrates the impossible distance between her and that dream.

Dalle’s 2022 series combines contemporary installation with ancient craft practices | It Felt Like A Dream | Rumi Dalle | STIRworld
Dalle’s 2022 series combines contemporary installation with ancient craft practices Image: Courtesy of Rumi Dalle

Dalle’s work is an articulate translation of her own persona. Her installations are soft, feminine and inclusive. However, they are also categorically political while explicitly challenging the socio-cultural narratives that dominate Middle Eastern culture as well as the status quo of the global patriarchy. Her practice is a continued investigation into these realms, a broad landscape she surveys while rooted in her own vantage point.

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