Clockwise (lower left to lower right): Qab Qab, bride's wedding shoes
from Syria, late 19th century; Thob, a Palestine wedding dress from
Bethlehem, introduced in the 19th century; Yelek, a coat from Alappo,
Syria, circa 1850; Jillayeb from Galilie region Palestine, circa 1860; a
Tunesian wedding garment worn under a gold mesh tunic, early 20th
century; a Thob from upper Egypt, 20th century; Kirdan, a Saudi
choker, early 20th century.
Costumes of the Arab World
by Barbara Karkabi
Gold and greens, rich reds, dramatic
blacks, those are the colors that abound
in the exhibit, Costumes of the Arab
World, which opened recently at Rice
University's Sewell Gallery.
' Organized by Sheryl Saunders and
Nabila Cronfel, two Arab-Americans who
spent months gathering the 80 pieces
from collections around the U.S., the
exhibit represents costumes from 22
"Not only is the exhibit unique in
Houston, it is a first for the U.S. as well,"
Saunders says, "There have been no other
exhibits that show the variety of traditional Arab costumes."
Saunders and Cronfel, local art consultants, got the idea for the exhibit two
years ago when Saunders was compiling
a kit documenting Arab culture.
The kit is actually a large box which
contains audio-visual material on the
Arab world—pamphlets, pictures and instructional materials such as an Arab
coffee pot and costumes.
Saunders has compiled six kits and
they are currently being used in classroom situations by both the Houston and
Spring Branch Independent School Districts.
"I realized then how little documentation there was on the Arab world,"
Saunders recalls. "The kit was compiled
for that reason. But this (exhibit) should
be more of an eye-opener. I don't think
anybody realizes what they will be seeing. That's why we have a picture of one
of the Palestinian dresses on the invitation."
Some of the unusual pieces in the exhibit include a Tunisian wedding dress
with ornamental gold pants and a gold
mesh tunic and a multi-colored embroidered undergarments, a Palestinian
peasant dress with freeform applique
designs and antique Bedouin jewelry
made of hand-crafted silver.
Also in the exhibit is a pair of the
world's first platform shoes, QabQab.
They are made of wood inlaid with
mother-of-pearl mosaics. According to
Cronfel, the shoes, popular in Syria,
were often used in wedding ceremonies
so the bride would stand out in the
"Most people don't think this type
of folk art is a valid art form," Saunders
says. "But, we both feel it is. Not only
that, it is a dying art form which should
be documented and preserved."
One of Saunders' personal favorites
in the exhibit is a Syrian coat from
Aleppo, a picture of which appears on
the cover of the exhibit's catalogue. Made
in 1850, Saunders considers the coat to
be one of the finest pieces in the exhibit.
The fabric's black background is enriched
by intricate and colorful embroidery
"I can't say I have a personal favorite,"
Cronfel says, "I'm in love with all of
them. I love the Bedouin jewelry and the
Palestinian dresses. The typical Bethlehem costume is just beautiful."
The two women started working on
the exhibit six months ago when they
learned Sewell Gallery would be available.
"The exhibit is entirely funded by
contributions from 22 companies in
Houston and a substantial grant that
came from the Cultural Arts Council of
Houston," Saunders added.
"People really loved the idea of the
exhibit, and had things to contribute to
the exhibit. So many of them had lived in
the Middle East."
The bulk of the exhibit is on loan
from the Smithsonian Institution, the
Santa Fe Museum of International Folk
Art and the Costume Institute at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New
The Santa Fe Museum has one of the
largest collections of Palestinian costumes
in the world, Cronfel says. The costumes
were left to the museum by an American
missionary who lived in the Middle East
Cronfel feels that Houston is the
logical place to host an exhibit of this
type because of its connection with the
"Houston has the strong economic ties
to the Arab world and a greater understanding of Middle East culture than
other parts of the country." Cronfel says.
"We really want to inform the American
public about Arabic art to show them
how rich and varied the culture is."
Earlier this year, the two women
presented an exhibit of Middle East prints
by the 19th century British artist David
Roberts; at the First City Bank in downtown Houston.
"We hope both these exhibits will be
the springboard for other shows of this
type," Saunders says, "And we hope that
the response to this exhibit will indicate
an interest in Houston."
photos by Jim Youngmeyer