Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award winners say inspiration came from ‘the culture of the UAE’

Structure celebrates the joy of Bedouin poetry and stories

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - - -  26 April 2017 --- Dunescape, an installation by Anna Kurkova was unveiled at NYUAD on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. Kurkova was the winner of the 2017 Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award.  (  DELORES JOHNSON / The National  )  
ID: 19031
Reporter:  Jessica Hill
Section: AL *** Local Caption ***  DJ-260417-AL-CHRISTO-19031-001.jpg
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Two seniors at Abu Dhabi University have won the annual Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award, which supports public artworks. Maram Kassab and Mariam Ayoub received the honour for the structure Qasa'ed, which, Kassab says, "celebrates the existence and importance of creative literature in Emirati culture".

While renderings of the work have yet to be released, the artists spoke to us about their piece: "We thought of designing Qasa'ed as an interactive pavilion that represents the joy the Bedouin had spending nights recounting stories and poetry from the tops of the sand dunes," architecture student Kassab says.

Seen from the outside, the wooden curve will evoke Arabic calligraphy, while inside, Kassab says, “it was designed so that you feel as if you’re sitting on top of the sand dunes”. For the Bedouin, she says, the desert wasn’t “a void of nature, but rather a place for community, for interaction, for telling stories”.

Indeed, the plan is to use Qasa'ed to host poetry readings. The work will be unveiled in November at New York University Abu Dhabi, whose Art Gallery has partnered with the artist pair Christo and Jean-Claude and the Abu Dhabi Music and Art Foundation to support the award. The award carries with it US$10,000 (Dh36,725) towards production and $5,000 towards future projects. Later, it will travel to New York University, as an ambassador for the UAE's cultural tradition.

Kassab and Ayoub, both Palestinians, met in their first year of college and have been collaborating since. “We tend to get motivated by being together,” Kassab says. “When we work together, we try to focus on our strengths to balance creativity with good planning. One of us is more creative while the other is a better planner.”

Read more:

Artist Christo on his special relationship with the UAE

Christo faces the sands of time after 38 years of work on UAE desert sculpture


The pair praised the support of their professor, Basem Eid Mohamed, who mentored them through this work, as well as when they won a Undergraduate Student Research Competition in architecture. Both credit their Palestinian nationality as helping them in their practice.

"Due to our unstable situation back home, we have had to increase our level of adaptability," Ayoub says. "As Palestinians we had to be brought up and raised in countries different from our home country. This has affected our view of life and our design journey as it has widened our acceptability of different design visions and it has increased our persistence to participate in international platforms and allow people to hear our voices and see our talents."

After the two graduate this year they plan to stay and further their careers in the region. "We are interested in creating innovative ideas that are inspired by the culture of the UAE and which are looked at from different design visions," Kassab says. They hope to explore ways of introducing diversity while raising the standards of affordable housing, and by thinking of how to work with the culture of the UAE – for example, in designing multi-family housing units that consider diversity, culture and budget, as well as provide privacy in their outdoor spaces.

Both see winning the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award as a way to boost their profile and help them tackle these challenges. “This competition, with people from so many other backgrounds, has been such a great opportunity and a great platform to showcase our ideas and designs,” Kassab says. “We are so grateful for the chance.”

The award is in its sixth year. Christo has a long-planned artistic project, The Mastaba, for Abu Dhabi that will be the largest sculpture in the world: an enormous pyramid of multicoloured oil barrels. It has been "in process" since 1977, but Christo is said to maintain his commitment to it and his desire to see it through. He has also maintained a strong connection with the region, not least through this award.

NYUAD alumna Anna Kurkova won the award last year with Dunescape, an artwork inspired by the desert environment.