New Lest We Forget exhibit tells UAE’s history with tales and heirlooms

Highly personal stories, imbued with a powerful and very human resonance that transcends their specific origins, form a key part of the exhibition Lest We Forget: Emirati Adornment, opening at Warehouse421 in Mina Zayed.

Curator and art historian Michele Bambling continues to bring the memories of the emirates to life with the latest Lest We Forget exhibition at Warehouse 421.  Christopher Pike / The National

The latest Lest We Forget edition begins in the capital on February 4, the third iteration of the arts and history stream that taps into all the senses to bring life to the nation's history told by the heirlooms and stories of the people who live it.

They may have different backgrounds, but Mohamed Al Jneibi and Sheikha Saeed Al Mansoori find a similar sense of solace in the heirlooms and customs they hold on to and the memories these evoke.

Mr Al Jneibi comes from a family steeped in maritime traditions. His grandfather, after whom he is named, was a merchant who always loved the sea, writing poems about its danger and allure that the younger man recorded for posterity on a rudimentary mobile phone.

But rather than the recordings, a pair of frosted spectacles or the creased and tattered photograph of the old man, it’s a dagger, or khanjar, decorated in gold and silver and with an ivory handle that Mr Al Jneibi cherishes most.

“We don’t inherit money, we inherit traditions,” he says of the form of men’s adornment that not only symbolises Emirati manhood but was used for protection.

“In the past, everything worn had a story, had a reason [and] our ancestors turned these reasons into beauty,” Mr Al Jneibi says.

Mrs Al Mansoori grew up in a very different environment, among the dunes of Liwa, where she lived with her father, mother and younger brother.

From an early age she would go hunting with her dogs and falcon, but it is a very feminine tradition and a fragrance that reminds Mrs Al Mansoori of her younger days and, most importantly, of her mother.

Al Mahalab is a plant-based paste that was traditionally applied to the hair of brides-to-be and whose fragrance is said to last for at least a week.

“My mum used to do it. She taught me to make it when I was 7. My mum always applied it to her head,” Mrs Al Mansoori says.

“I loved her. Who doesn’t love their mother? I gave birth to my children and love them but my love of her is different. Honestly, I miss everything about her. Everything.”

These personal stories form a key part of the exhibition Lest We Forget: Emirati Adornment, which opens at Warehouse421 in Mina Zayed tomorrow.

Containing almost 200 objects donated by members of the public, commissioned from emerging artists and created by interns and members of the Lest We Forget team, the exhibition not only displays adornment such as jewellery, clothing and weapons, but also includes items such as perfume and makeup. What links all of these disparate examples of Emirati cultural heritage is the fact that they were all worn or displayed as very personal items and, that each has its own remarkable story.

The show opens with a display of antique swords, rifles and daggers loaned by the Emirati collector and antiquarian Dr Ahmed Al Khoori.

These reach beyond living memory into a more distant past in which the Trucial States, though remote, were connected to a wider world by trade.

Late 19th century Martini-Henry rifles bear marks that not only show their age but their place of manufacture, the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield, London, while some of the swords, made in places like Julfar in Ras Al Khaimah, have blades that are believed to have originated in Renaissance Europe.

A selection of ornate khanjars not only displays elephant ivory and rhino horn handles that speak of the Gulf’s participation in the far older Indian Ocean trade with Africa, but also subtle variations that would have distinguished their owners as seagoing merchants from Oman or camel-herders from the desert interior.

The show is the third iteration of the memory and archiving project, Lest We Forget.

The first edition, Lest We Forget: Structures of Memory, was an object-based architectural history of the emirates that formed the core of the UAE's National Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2014, while Lest We Forget: Emirati Family Photographs 1950-1999 was exhibited at Warehouse421 in 2015.

All three exhibitions and their accompanying books, public lectures, workshops and talks were curated and devised by the American art historian Michele Bambling, a long-term Abu Dhabi resident who developed the concept in 2012 while teaching at Zayed University.

“The idea of Lest We Forget as both an initiative and an archive is to really develop a history of vernacular Emirati memory, not just of Emiratis, but of people who have lived and contributed to the Emirates as well as nationals who have lived their whole lives here,” Bambling explains.

“But this is a sharing exercise, a way in which people can hear and know the memories of others,” she says.

“The objects are triggers for people to celebrate and share and reflect on the cultural history of the country but also to trigger their own memories and [new] conversations.”

To achieve those triggers, she has had to employ an array of museological techniques.

In a section dedicated to perfume and fragrance, visitors cannot only open boxes containing perfume-making materials such as oud and frankincense, but can also experience a display of native plants, housed in a small external courtyard, that were traditionally used in their manufacture.

Other sections contain short films, made in partnership with Image Nation Abu Dhabi, dedicated to intangible heritage such as the making and application of henna, Al Mahalab and kohl as well as to tangible objects such as Mr Al Jneibi’s traditionalkhanjar.


A striking portrait of UAE’s founding father Sheikh Zayed made from pearls. Courtesy of Lest We Forget Archive

In other areas, Bambling has worked with interns and emerging artists on installations such as one made by the 24-year-old Emirati illustrator Amani Jamal Baswaid, who was an intern with the Lest We Forget initiative for 7 weeks. A stop-motion animation projected inside an antique wooden bridal chest, Baswaid’s film tells the story of a young bride from Buraimi, now Al Ain, who received a palm sapling as part of her dowry, a tree of life that provided her family with shelter and construction materials as well as food.

A final year student at Zayed University, Baswaid was not only a former student of Bambling’s but is also the third member of her family to contribute to Lest We Forget.

Her father, a former professional footballer, lent an early copy of the Al Ittihad newspaper outlining his sporting exploits that was scanned and is now housed in the archive, while her mother lent a snapshot to Lest We Forget: Emirati Family Photographs 1950-1999.

“The Lest We Forget archive is strictly digital. We are not custodians, except for the duration of an exhibition when objects are on physical loan so that they can be shared with the public ,” the curator explains.

“But the physical items remain in the custody of their owners. We’re really an organisation for the sharing of images and ideas, scholarship and inspiration, in terms of the art.”

That art includes newly-commissioned works such as Ayesha Hadhir Al Mheiri's Namesake Necklace, a sculpture made from bright orange 701 embroidery thread, and Noura Al Mansouri's Burqua Portrait of 50 Ladies and is, Bambling insists, one of the key factors that distinguishes Lest We Forget from other archive-based initiatives.

“Sometimes cultural history is not accessible, especially to people who are not from that culture, but people worldwide tend to respond to art in their own ways so when people come here, they won’t just be walking into a historical show they’ll also be walking into an art show at the same time,” she says.

“What we’re doing is exploring memory, so the artists might be responding to other people’s memories or they might be exploring their own, but all of the content, collaboratively and collectively, is about cultural memory.”

Thanks to the personal nature of many of the memories and objects on display, Lest We Forget: Emirati Adornment, achieves a degree of immediacy and insight that sheds an important light on the connections between the diversity of personal and regional habits and the wider uniformity of national traits.

“These objects and memories are a way of understanding the UAE that people may not have thought about before,” Bambling says.

“They go beyond the stereotypical view of the emirates, which is something that people really like, because it taps into their own sense of self and identity wherever they’re from and in that sense they also resonate beyond the emirates.”

Lest We Forget – Emirati Adornment: Tangible & Intangible runs at Warehouse421 from 4 February to 27 August 2017. Visit for details.