Blockade-free Palestine depicted in Abu Dhabi Art chair collection

The project by 81 Designs and Nada Debs is based on a painting by revered contemporary Palestinian artist Nabil Anani

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In On Belonging, seven pebble chairs and a series of straw lamps have been designed and embroidered with an unsullied Palestinian landscape in mind.

The project by 81 Designs is a collaboration between Lebanese designer Nada Debs and a group of Palestinian craftswomen living in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in South Lebanon.

The collection is being showcased at Abu Dhabi Art, which is running from November 17 to 21 at Manarat Al Saadiyat. The items in the collection are also for sale, with the pebble chairs going for $10,000 each and the straw lamps for $600.

On Belonging comes as part of an annual collaborative enterprise by 81 Designs, which brings together the women artisans with artists from the Mena region. The group has previously collaborated with French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed as well as the design studio Naqsh Collective from Amman.

Behind the design

When 81 Designs approached Debs for its annual collaborative enterprise, the 2021 flare-up of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was in full force.

“The Palestinian issue was very much in the news,” Debs says. “The issue about land was very prevalent at the time.”

The Sheikh Jarrah evictions and the Gaza war inspired Debs to look towards a Palestinian landscape that was bereft of Israeli roadblocks, walls, watchtowers and settlements.

More specifically, she looked to a painting by Palestinian artist Nabil Anani titled In Pursuit of Utopia. The painting features stratified vistas with neon green hills, amber lakes and turquoise fields. It depicts a non-existent place, a utopic Palestine wrought by childhood memories and dreams.

“We decided to have seven chairs and each chair has part of the landscape in Anani’s painting,” Debs says. She sought permission from the artist to use the painting as inspiration for the project. “He loved the idea,” she says.

The challenges

For On Belonging, Debs says she wanted to take the women artisans out of their comfort zone. Experts of the traditional tatreez, she wanted the women to try new stitching techniques and work on new materials.

“We first gave them free canvas,” she says. “We worked on some techniques and took into consideration what they can do. And then we asked them to do something a little bit more than what they usually do. We wanted to experiment with other embroidery techniques.”

“The idea was to take the typical Palestinian embroidery and doing it on a much harder material. In this case, straw or woven cane.”

The lamps, as well as the backs of the bulbous pebble chairs, are all made of woven cane stitched with designs reminiscent of Anani’s painting.

“Working with the material was really difficult because it isn’t malleable, it’s really stiff. So the women had to work with these big frame boards, which was a little bit complicated.”

As the designs began to find form and were halfway to completion, Debs saw she wasn’t happy with how the project was turning out.

“I didn’t like it,” she says. “I took a weekend to embroider on my own to understand the effect that I wanted. I didn’t want the designs to be flat, but to have a sense of degradation. The landscape goes from dark green to light, the sky from blue to light blue. So I worked on it myself and brought the women to my art studio in Gemmayzeh and we worked on it together.

The women, Debs says, not only became proficient in the novel embroidery approach but began adding their idiosyncrasies and artistic flair to the technique.

“Each of the chairs is named after the woman who made them,” Debs says. “You can see each of their personalities come up in the pieces. Some of them are creative, while others are more safe.”

Lebanon’s ongoing economic and political woes were also an impediment to the project. Gas shortages and rampant electricity cuts meant the women couldn’t work after nightfall and had to get as much done as they could during the day.

“I tried working at home when I was practising on my own,” Debs says. “Even the smaller lamps were hard to work with, with little light. We really had to speed up the process. We were really panicking at one point – especially when we had to start over again. But we are so happy we managed to do it in time.”

An exploration of identity

The collection’s title, On Belonging, stems from Deb’s multicultural background. The Lebanese designer grew up in Japan, studied design at the Rhode Island School of Design in the US, and has “spent a significant time travelling the world, finding connections between different cultures.”

“Belonging is a term I use all the time and all my work is based on it,” she says. “I grew up in Japan, in an environment that was not Arab and not Muslim, and I always felt left out. My sense of belonging was coming back to Lebanon, trying to know my roots and yearning to belong somewhere. I wanted to belong in a group, in a community. In Japan, we didn’t have that so much.”

Debs says she found a sense of community while working with the women artisans. Their collaborative effort, Debs adds, resonated with the project’s theme.

“It was really nice working together. That sense of community was nice,” she says. “The term belonging came up often. While the women were working, they often spoke about going back to their land, to Palestine. They felt like when they were embroidering, they were dreaming of the land they were going back to.”

Modernising and preserving tatreez

Nadine Y Maalouf, co-founder of 81 Designs, says she established the organisation in 2015 with her mother, Nesrine El Tibi Maalouf, as a way of preserving and modernising the Palestinian craft of tatreez.

“Each year, we collaborate with a different artist from the region to challenge as well as provide a new platform to showcase the talents of the women we work with.”

“When we approached Nada, it was not just because she’s incredible at what she does. She’s always challenged how materials work together.”

“This edition was produced specifically for Abu Dhabi Art,” Maalouf says. “I think what drives a lot of the purchases from our booth during Abu Dhabi Art is that they are unique pieces and you are buying something that is extra special for your home, for you to enjoy aesthetically as well as something that’s functional.”

Updated: November 18, 2021, 5:57 AM