Brazilian designers join their Emirati protegés to turn junk into art, Sandra Lane writes
It's not looking promising: we have come to this workshop to design and make a functional accessory or piece of furniture and all we have to work with is a pile of corrugated cardboard strips and a glue gun.
But that's the genius of Fernando and Humberto Campana, who are directing the event during Abu Dhabi Art (held this month at Emirates Palace): making something wonderful out of apparently nothing; creating things that are at once functional and beautiful - even if verging on the surreal - from what most of us would consider junk.
The Brazilian designers had welcomed two young Emirati counterparts, Khalid Shafar and Noor al Mehairi, to their Sao Paolo headquarters a month previously, in a cultural exchange sponsored by HSBC leading up to the event.
"We wanted them to really understand how our work is rooted in our surroundings, so we made up a sort of total immersion programme for them, sending them all over Sao Paolo," recalls Fernando.
"It was amazing," says al Mehairi, who is studying art in Abu Dhabi. "Everything was so different and there was such a lot to try to understand in just one week."
The young designers' experience was a longer version of what we are doing today: drawing on what they saw and felt in Sao Paolo and blending it with elements from their own culture as Emiratis, they were to create something entirely original, with guidance rather than intensive teaching from the Campanas. Their project was to become an installation at Abu Dhabi Art, as well as forming the basis of this workshop.
"We were surprised to see an exact parallel between Sao Paolo and the UAE in the form of the rubbish-pickers, who go around the streets finding all of the used cardboard, then taking it away - for recycling or, in the favelas, for making their houses in," says Shafar, who is living in New Zealand and studying at the Centre for Fine Woodworking.
And so cardboard became the medium. It's a material that had previously inspired the Campanas themselves (Papel sofa, 1993; Cardboard screen and side chair, 1995) but, says al Mehairi, that didn't make things any easier for them.
"In the beginning it was terrible," she laughs. "We had no clue what we were doing - but very quickly we began to look at things differently."
As the hands-on tutors of the workshop, al Mehairi and Shafar will be guiding us to do the same. We begin with a demonstration of how to bend, or soften and roll the cardboard without cracking it. Then we are let loose with a brief simply to create something three-dimensional: we could consider any "interior" element; we were encouraged to blend elements of UAE and international culture, and, above all, we were encouraged to work spontaneously, let the materials guide us and listen to our intuition.
The participants are a mixture of nationalities and professions - housewives, an engineer and about a dozen students from Ajman; one, an oil company executive, had come from Kuwait for the weekend, especially for the event.
Next to me Helly Bjorklund is creating a freestanding arrangement of stylised flowers and Istabraq Emad, a student from Ajman, is making a wall decoration inspired by the camel. I'm making a panel that would form part of a room divider - inspired by mashrabiya but with the pattern following the free-form lines used by the Brazilian landscape architect, Roberto Burle Marx.
The room is fizzing with energy and enthusiasm; intense concentration is punctuated by outbursts of laughter; Shafar and al Mehairi circulate from one work table to another, encouraging, gently cajoling and occasionally picking up a piece and giving a practical demonstration.
The afternoon flies past and, before we know it, the Campana brothers are back in the room to watch us put the finishing touches to our pieces. Suddenly, time's up and we have to stop. The brothers gather the work together and mount it on a wall, enthusing about the burst of creativity that has produced patterns ranging from fish to flowers.
None of us could have imagined what was possible with a few unwanted packing cartons: guided by four inspiring teachers - the two Campanas, Shafar and al Mehairi - it has been a remarkable afternoon.
"It's too little time to do anything really," says Shafar, "but we hope it has given everyone a taste of what they could do - and will inspire you all to continue experimenting."
No question about that.