This is the first of a series of interviews with tenants of 221A. Rawan Hassan is a multidisciplinary artist and designer based in the unceded traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. We spoke with her at her studio at 236 East Pender St.
Thanks so much for speaking with us today, Rawan. To begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your artistic practice?
Thanks for having me. My name is Rawan Hassan. I’m a first-generation Canadian; my parents immigrated from the Middle East. At Emily Carr I studied design, and initially worked in the design industry for a period of time, but eventually I realized that wasn’t for me. So I started exploring art instead. Growing up, I always drew and worked with my hands, and there was always a lot of textile work and Middle Eastern artwork around the house. That’s been a heavy influence on my own work, even when I’m intentionally trying to do something else.
In your piece on the Arts Assembly website, you speak about that Middle Eastern, specifically Palestinian, influence on your work.
Through the Arts Assembly residency, I was specifically exploring tatreeze, which is Palestinian embroidery work. But I didn’t want to just copy-paste that tradition. I was more interested in exploring what it meant for me to be outside of my homeland, and working both with the tradition while giving it room to evolve. I find a lot of the time, especially when you come from an oppressed, marginalized group, the preservation of tradition often leads somewhere quite conservative. And then there’s no room for an evolution to naturally happen. I was trying to, in a lot of ways, make that evolution happen, and add my own spin to the work. One time I was working on a piece and I showed it to a friend of mine, who’s also Palestinian, and she immediately picked up on the fact that it was tatreeze, but she also noticed what I had changed about it, and she was excited. That was a really nice moment of having a fellow Palestinian artist recognize the value of keeping tradition, but allowing room for change; being influenced by the past but also looking into what the future could be.
Are there any specific artists working in a similar vein that you are inspired by?
Oh sure. Jordan Nassar, a New York based artist does a lot of landscape work in his embroidery, and plays with tradition.
We’ve been talking about evolution and change. What sort of evolution has there been in your own work, if any? Are there things you’re doing now that you’ve stopped, or vice versa?
Presently, my work is more focused on patterns. I used to do a lot more pencil work, specifically with bodies. I’ve dropped that in many ways and become more interested in patterns, and doing a lot of more linework. I find that it speaks more to me now, and what I’m trying to work towards. I’m also experimenting more with textile work, and branching out to materials beyond pen and paper. Charcoal impressions, for instance, and clay as well.
That sounds very exciting. On the subject of your development as an artist, I’m wondering what you would say has been the most challenging part of working in your field?
It’s a hustle, y’know? There’s always these questions I’m debating internally, like whether or not to do more conceptual work. Oftentimes in the art world you see very highbrow, abstract pieces that aren’t so accessible to everyday people. But then you also see work that’s “made to sell” and doesn’t hold much meaning at all. So I’m constantly asking how to navigate around both things. And then there’s also the fact that so much of my work is tied into my ethnicity and my identity. Sometimes I wonder if I’m a Palestinian artist or an artist that happens to be Palestinian, and how to balance exploring and experimenting with my culture and respecting tradition.
Thank you for that. I want to switch gears slightly, and talk about when you first moved into this space in 2021. How was that period for you, and what precipitated it?
I needed a place that cared about its tenants and took COVID seriously. Also, price-wise, this space made the most sense. My previous space, I was paying around the same amount for a smaller studio, and I didn’t have as much privacy as I do now. At that time, my artistic practice was very different, more geared towards making art that was sellable. And it was nice coming into this space, where I would have the room to define what my project is and start thinking beyond what’s marketable. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, of course, or making work like that. But at that time, I saw my practice being heavily influenced by those around me, and I realized it wasn’t a direction I wanted to stick with. Coming into this space, it was the beginning of thinking beyond “how do I sell this?”
How has working here in Chinatown contributed to or facilitated your work?
It’s quite something, being here in Chinatown and seeing it being gentrified. It’s weird seeing a juice place next to a family-owned restaurant that’s been here for generations. I’m literally seeing that dynamic of trying to preserve and maintain culture and community while also having things changing so rapidly. And so that’s been, unintentionally, influencing my work. I’m heavily invested in exploring my own culture and traditions, and asking questions about how things might change, but in a way that benefits the community instead of hindering it.
That’s very insightful, thank you. To end, maybe we can speak about some specific pieces you’ve worked on, or any work that’s on the horizon.
Right now I’m in the brainstorm phase for a new tatreeze piece, and I’m researching different symbols right now, and what I might change about them. I just finished this embroidery piece, so I’m giving my wrists a break from doing cross stitch. I spent like two and a half months working with this monster. It’s called Fruitless stumps/Sweetened palms. The symbols here are fruitless palm trees, sugar plates, and palm/leaf combs. The symbols themselves are pretty traditional, but the colors and the composition of the piece is not.
That’s so great. Thank you so much for speaking to us today.
Interview conducted by Jastej Luddu. Photos by Sungpil Yoon. This interview has been edited for clarity.