Emirati craftsmanship has plenty to do with Arab cultural authenticity

Whether in art, fashion, architecture or handicrafts, it's good to see examples of Arabic traditions merging modern techniques with practices from the past

Talli, the traditional handicraft practised in the UAE. Photo: Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council
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Over the past few years, arts and culture in the Middle East have undergone a period of immense development. This is evident by the ways in which several countries, particularly in the GCC, are intertwining national identity and pride in tradition with contemporary values.

There have been several impressive attempts in recent years to display this delicate fusion. Increasingly, regional entrepreneurs and designers are incorporating traditional methods and resources into their craft – whether in architecture, urbanism, fashion or by empowering artisans of traditional craft, such as calligraphers.

In doing so, a reservoir of knowledge is rediscovered and reimagined. This helps not only artists and entrepreneurs, but the younger generations as well, who are then able to learn about their roots, thereby ensuring the continuation and evolution of cultural heritage.

At the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, which ran from last November to March, traditional forms of architecture and the use of materials were discussed. There were discussions around how heritage practices encompass a wide spectrum of disciplines, and each offers insights into craftsmanship, cultural identity and sustainability.

Architects and artists often use scarce resources in innovative ways. Many of them increasingly design structures that are not only functional and efficient, but also in harmony with natural surroundings.

Examples of such structures show traditional principles and are being integrated with modern techniques and materials to create authentic yet functionally efficient spaces. Projects such as Sharjah's Al Buhais Geological Park, Abu Dhabi's Masdar City campus, the new Oman Across Ages Museum and Al Naseej textile factory in Bahrain exemplify this blend of traditional motifs with contemporary approaches. The result is stunning architectural landmarks.

A challenge in leveraging heritage practices for innovation lies in finding the delicate balance between preserving tradition and embracing change

Another integral part of heritage practices is handicrafts. They offer a glimpse into the ingenuity and creativity of generations of artisans who have honed their skills over centuries.

Whether it is the Islamic patterns of carpets and jewellery of the Mughal Empire or the vibrant embroidery designs by the Bedouin people of the Arabian Peninsula, these techniques are not just visually appealing but also remarkable in their intricacy and ingenuity.

Organisations such as the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council, established by Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, play a crucial role in preserving and promoting these crafts through pioneering initiatives, locally and globally.

The Irthi initiative has developed a unique archive to record and celebrate the history of craft in the region and the Global South. For instance, Bedouin weaving, still crafted on a stick loom with ancient knowledge of natural dyes and fibres, bears traditional patterns and meanings unique to different geographical regions.

By preserving, studying and adapting these techniques, contemporary designers and artisans can infuse their creations with the richness and essence of traditional craftsmanship, which would be a way to ensure their longevity and relevance even for future generations.

There are countless local examples of Emiratis such as Khalid Al Shafar, Maysson Al Otaiba, Ayseha Hadhir and Azza Al Qubaisi, to name a few, who are successfully merging ideas of innovative design, art and heritage to promote traditional Arab resources and crafts.

On a larger scale, initiatives such as Irthi have collaborated with international fashion houses, incorporating traditional textiles and techniques into modern clothing and accessories, appealing to a global audience while preserving cultural authenticity.

A notable collaboration in the Mena region is Qasimi, the successful London-based but Sharjah-born brand, which featured in its recent past collection, the Emirati crafts of Safeefah (weaving palm fronds) and Faroukha (textile knotting to make handwoven tassels).

Bil Arabi by designer Nadine Kanso is another significant UAE-home-grown brand in the fashion world. Her collection of jewellery, which she began creating almost two decades ago, redefines boundaries of traditional calligraphy and Arabic typography. In her craft, she has embraced Arabic cultural heritage in new and original ways.

These are all noteworthy. A challenge in leveraging heritage practices for innovation lies in finding the delicate balance between preserving tradition and embracing change.

In Saudi Arabia, Princess Noura Al Faisal, the chief executive of Art of Heritage – an organisation dedicated to conserving Saudi cultural heritage, has drawn inspiration for many of its collections from the colourful motifs from the five regions of Saudi Arabia.

By weaving a multitude of regional colours, motifs and embroidery techniques, Princess Noura has created a distinctive visual narrative in a handbag collection that fosters pride and connection among Saudis.

The Saudi fashion scene continues to grow and thrive with numerous designers making a name for themselves regionally and internationally while incorporating Saudi heritage in their designs or with support of the local artisan community. This includes designers such as Shahd Al Shehail, Nora Al Shaikh and the brand Kaf by Kaf by Kawthar Alhoraish.

While honouring heritage is essential, it is equally important to recognise the dynamic nature of culture. As societies evolve and technologies advance, traditions must adapt to maintain relevance and resonance.

It is crucial to invest in education and preservation efforts so that heritage practices are elevated and continue to evolve. The benefit of documenting and studying traditional techniques also ensures that they are passed down to future generations.

By valuing the rich knowledge of the past while exploring the possibilities of the future, regional entrepreneurs can encourage societies to acknowledge tradition while pushing the boundaries of creativity.

As we draw from the cultural tapestry of the Middle Eastern, Arab and Islamic worlds, let us remember that our treasured cultural heritage is a vibrant source of inspiration for the future.

Published: May 14, 2024, 7:00 AM