Reflecting introspectively within their country of origin, these designers and makers from across the Arab world create work that is both sustainable and locally relevant.
Investing in local economies, their attitudes insist on a more ethical approach, circumventing waste and extrapolating the potential of inherited narratives, know-how and the diversity of the land. Playful and creative reuse stems from a deep and thoughtful relationship between designer and maker, based on respect and reciprocity.
Salma Tuqan is the Contemporary Middle East Curator at the V&A responsible for Arab art and design programming at the museum and the co-curator of the biennial international Jameel Prize exhibition. She graduated from Cambridge University with a BA in History of Art and has an MA in Arts Policy and Cultural Management from Birkbeck University. She worked at Art Dubai from its inauguration in 2007 to 2011 as Head of Artists’ Projects, as well as Artistic Director of Contemparabia, a series of cultural itineraries for museum groups. She has contributed to other projects as an independent curator and facilitator, including Palestine c/o Venice at the 53rd Venice Biennale (2009) and the Wind Tunnel Project in Farnborough (2014). She works closely with cultural organisations on strategy and is a committee member of the Arab Image Foundation (Beirut), The Palestinian Museum (Birzeit), The Khatt Foundation (Amsterdam), a Trustee of the Crossway Foundation (London) and Strategic Advisor to NuMu (Guatemala City) and previously, Delfina Foundation (London).
“Clay can provide some of the most penetrating insights into nature. With fire and glaze one can evoke explosive violence and leaden silences, wild collisions, rhythms and falls.” Both a practitioner and teacher Nathalie Khayat opened her ceramics studio in 1999 in Beirut, later turning her focus to working almost exclusively with one of the finest and fussiest clays – porcelain, where she pushes the boundaries of its limits. Known for its long lineage, extreme sensitivity and susceptibility to collapse, porcelain is a material that commands attentiveness in the artist’s touch and responsiveness to its needs. In Khayat’s vessels one senses an intuitive understanding and harmony with the material’s character, coaxed and shaped into organic forms through the imprints of her fingers. Working in a country where conflict lives side by side with reconstruction and restoration, Khayat is drawn to the vulnerability and fragility of non-enamelled porcelain that seems to be on the verge of collapsing. The victim of a 2012 car bomb explosion close to her studio in Beirut, Khayat created her “Seeds” as a result of that harrowing experience, in a bid to reconnect with nature and as a celebration of life and rebirth.
The design studio 200grs made up of designers Rana Haddad and Pascal Hachem was set up in Beirut in 2013. Their practice and authentic approach reads like a candid love story with their city. Growing up with the pervading uncertainty of the Lebanese Civil War imprinted on both practitioners the importance of living in the present and appreciating the everyday. This attitude spills into their products and playful interventions, simple and elegant handmade pencil cases, boxes, trays and tables made from warm offcut repurposed wood and polished brass, bringing into play and adapting existing artisanal know-how. Using the city as their studio, discarded materials and everyday objects are given new life, appropriated as ready mades, encouraging us to look again at the beauty and tactility of everyday objects.
Ahmad Angawi is a Saudi artist and designer whose work addresses the notion of global and local. His initiative the Abaya Factory is a bespoke service, allowing consumers to select their own material and colour and demonstrating a series of ways in which the garment can be worn – as a short gilet or as a long abaya when in Saudi Arabia. The factory comes out of Angawi’s ongoing belief in the versatility of tradition, whilst propagating the idea of living tradition, one which is malleable and adapts according to contemporary needs.
Moroccan jewellery designer Amina Agueznay’s work exists between anthropology, design and preservation. Marked by childhood memories surrounded by Berber jewellery, Agueznay is a passionate advocate of Moroccan crafts. Working with artisanal communities in towns such as Fez and Tiflet, her work reveals an integral motivation to ensure the longevity of ancestral craftsmanship. This relationship with artisans, which relies on a complicity of mutual reciprocity and respect, results in her exquisite sculptural ornaments crafted from raw materials ranging from coral to paper and Sabra silk.
I remember coming across Hala Kaiksow’s work at International Fashion Showcase, the British Council’s annual festival of emerging global designers and being completely seduced by her sensitivity to structure, material and form. It was through working with her hands as a fine artist and her belief that fashion was too far removed from craftsmanship that she started challenging the ethical issues of the mainstream fashion industry and arrived on the slow fashion model, which defines her brand. Kaiksow hand-weaves textiles herself on a manual loom with the help of artisans in Bahrain in an attempt to consciously support the local economy. Seeing clothes as a second skin or armour, which like uniforms both protects and projects a sense of identity, her brand centres around workwear with a twist, drawing on a range of references from nomadic Berber communities to ancient drapery. Thinking about long forgotten habits of darning and salvage within workwear and boro, the age-old Japanese art of mending textiles as an antidote to the fast fashion world, she experiments with upcycling, imbuing new life and character into her garments.
Recently elected as a guest member by the Chambre Syndicale in Paris, the highest order in haute couture status, Moroccan artist/ designer/costumier Nourredine Amir works quietly at his own pace, unaffected by the approval or gaze of the fashion industry. Inspired by natural materials across his homeland Morocco, as well as the trance-like effect of Sufi music, Amir works by hand to create sculptural adornments that reveal his flair for costume design (frequently collaborating with Iranian artist Shirin Neshat on her films). Gravitating towards wildly contrasting materials such as wool, raffia, organza, silk, chiffon, felt, muslin, gauze and even tree bark, the tactility of his approach is reflected in his creative process. Like a collector, he accumulates piles of materials, feeling them and mixing them before the point of transformation, where “the form creates itself born out of the material.” Rough and refined fabrics spar with one another as compressed, protruding and cascading volumes emerge.
Born in Turkey, Alev Ebuzziya has been working with ceramics for most of her life. She left Istanbul in 1963 for Copenhagen, a city renowned for its crafts and design heritage, where she worked at the Royal Porcelain Factory before founding her own workshop shortly afterwards. This confluence of influences from prehistoric ceramics to the elegant simplicity of Danish design comes together in her stoneware, vessels that exude a sense of serenity, timelessness and grandeur.
Founded in Amman by graphic designers Hussein Alazaat and Ali Almasri, Wajha is an independent social initiative that uses design and branding knowledge to help the community by offering design services free of charge to local business owners. Deriving its name from the Arabic word for “façade,” Wajha’s design work reimagines shopfronts, recalling a time when those shaping the visual identity of the city were calligraphers and craftsmen, in the hopes of returning the same care and attention to the city’s façade.
Deeply engrained is the founders’ belief that design should not be an unattainable luxury for the few but rather affirming its potential as a positive influence to serve communities. The Wajha competition launched in 2016 instigates designers across the Arab world to follow in the same vein, funding projects that marry design ingenuity and social engagement.
Elias and Yousef Anastas
Bethlehem based architects Elias and Yousef Anastas’s brand Local Industries presents a line of affordable well-designed furniture created in Palestine with traditional crafts and know-how. However, it diverges from a more sentimental attitude and folkloric approach towards traditional crafts by extrapolating artisanal know-how and casting these into new forms and industrial design objects. The collection began serendipitously after searching for a more economic and locally grounded furniture solution to equip the Edward Said National Conservatory that the brothers were designing. Working with an old factory previously manufacturing beds for the Jordanian army gave birth to the Local Industries line, a series of sleek, vibrantly coloured tubular steel chairs, carrying the names of the artisans who crafted them – Jawad, Mike and Jamil.
Featured image: Salam Tuqan, Copyright Edmund Sumner.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Curriculum Vitae #44, pages 209-224.