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Ethnographic Museum

Media Release and Material

Zurich, 21 November 2023

Cross-Stitch Technique or Childhood Memory?

Elaborately embroidered textiles from the Negev desert are on display at the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich from the end of November. The fifth and final exhibition in the workspace series presents colorful Bedouin textiles from a variety of perspectives, including their origins and the context in which they were created.

A table with chairs, next to a display case containing a bag of yarn and tools: these items at the heart of the Ethnographic Museum’s new exhibition, "Workpieces?", invite reflection and engagement – on and with the exhibits as well as the various contexts in which they can be viewed, used and interpreted.

The objects on display are textiles from the Negev desert: colorful women’s apparel embroidered with geometric patterns, individual items of clothing, towels and bags, made by Bedouin women and bought by the Ethnographic Museum in the 1980s and 90s.

Context influences perspective

The exhibition was curated by Saada Elabed, a PhD candidate at the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies. She harnessed her own dual role as social anthropologist and descendant of Bedouin embroiderers as a personal starting point for an in-depth exploration of the textiles from different perspectives. What does an embroiderer see in the objects? What different meanings do they hold for an anthropologist, or for an expert in embroidery? What meaning do they carry for the Bedouin community of origin and their descendants? And what happens when these different perspectives are threaded together?

These perspectives are reflected in short film sequences and various quotes in German, English and Arabic. The exhibition thus includes a variety of voices, ranging from an 80-year-old Bedouin to a thirtysomething student from Shqeb as-Salam, the Ethnographic Museum’s textile restorer as well as the museum’s director. Depending on their origin and everyday life, each of these people sees something different in the textiles – one person may focus on analyzing the cross-stitching technique, while for another, the objects evoke childhood memories.

Personal connection to the collection

The exhibition also reflects the curator’s personal connection to the collection by presenting her own large-format photos of the Negev desert. "As a visual anthropologist, I generally draw on my own perception, what I see, hear, smell and taste. These are the ‘raw data’ available to me. When I first examined and smelled the embroideries in the museum storage room, I immediately saw my grandmother in my mind’s eye." Elabed’s father had come to Switzerland from the Negev region in the 80s, and her relatives on her father’s side still live there.

The run-up to the opening of the exhibition was overshadowed by the renewed violence in the Middle East. This meant that it was unclear whether the work of Zenab Garbia would be available. The ceramics of the artist, who is the curator’s aunt, examine Bedouin embroidery while touching on topics such as gender, for example. An example of this is a coffee pot featuring embroidery, juxtaposing a traditionally female activity (stitching) with coffee-making, which is generally associated with men.

Additional perspectives expand meaning

The name of the exhibition, "Workpieces?" references the unique, hand-made embroideries, some of which remain unfinished, as well as the work-in-progress nature of the exhibition itself. It chooses not to present finished research results, but deliberately opens up a space to explore perspectives that have not yet been (properly) considered. For example, it focuses on the views of members of the diaspora, who are often neither fully perceived as members of the community in which they live nor as part of the community of origin, and are thus overlooked. New findings that emerge from the exhibition will be incorporated into the exhibition wherever possible. The exhibition also invites visitors to reflect on their own viewpoints and share their thoughts and impression of the embroideries by using one of the pens and pieces of paper that are available in the center of the room.

"Workpieces? 5 Questions on Negev Bedouin Embroideries from Their Descendants’ View"
Exhibition in the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich
Pelikanstr. 40, 8001 Zurich
24 November 2023 to 15 September 2024
Tue, Wed, Fri 10:00am to 5:00pm; Thu 10:00am to 7:00pm; Sat 2:00pm to 5:00pm; Sun 11:00am to 5:00pm

Ethnographic Museum exhibition opening event: 23 November 2023 at 6:00pm

Download press release (PDF, 113 KB)21.11.2023 "Workpieces?"

Workspace Series

"Workpieces?" is the fifth and final exhibition in the workspace series. The workspace concept shows the research process behind a particular collection, oriented around five keywords, namely provenance, context, skills, contemporaneity and reconnection. The Ethnographic Museum thereby hopes to contribute to the debate around provenance and decolonization.


Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich
Saada Elabed, junior curator
+41 44 634 90 22

Media Relations
University of Zurich
+41 44 634 44 67


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Weiterführende Informationen


Jacket (saltah) for a married woman with embroidery in shades of red, the color of fertility and sexuality, made of a fine cotton-silk blend. Collected by Widad Kamel Kawar in the Suf Refugee Camp (Jordan), 1996. VMZ inv. no. 22172. Region of origin: Negev, 1950s. Photo: Kathrin Leuenberger, 2023.

Buttons and cowry shells decorate a colorfully embroidered women's jacket. Close-up of the jacket VMZ inv. no. 22172. Region of origin: Negev, 1950s. Photo: Kathrin Leuenberger, 2023.

A look at the exhibition. Photo: Kathrin Leuenberger

Blue festive dress (tob azrag)

Blue festive dress (tob azrag)

More about Blue festive dress (tob azrag)

Blue festive dress (tob azrag) for an unmarried woman. The dominant color blue stands for sexual inactivity. Collected by Widad Kamel Kawar, 1996, VMZ inv. no. 22177, region of origin: Negev-North Sinai (border region with Egypt), ca. 1945. Photo: Kathrin Leuenberger, 2023.

Amulets and beads protect against the evil eye and were often sewn onto Bedouin clothing. Close-up of the dress VMZ inv. no. 22177. Region of origin: Negev-North Sinai (border region with Egypt), ca. 1945. Photo: Kathrin Leuenberger, 2023.

Embroidered garments from the Negev region in the Bedouin collection of the Ethnographic Museum, date unknown. Photo: Kathrin Leuenberger, 2023.

Who is looking at the embroidery? Self-portrait of Saada Elabed taken in the Negev Desert, near Shqeb as-Salam during a research trip. Photo: Saada Elabed, 2018.

Cosmetics pouch (mukuhle)

Cosmetics pouch (mukuhle)

More about Cosmetics pouch (mukuhle)

Cosmetics pouch (mukuhle), given to the Ethnographic Museum in February 1996 by Widad Kawar, a Palestinian collector of clothing, textiles and jewelry. Inv. no.: 22170. Photo: Kathrin Leuenberger, 2023.