Oman’s dwindling heritage of pottery

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Updated 26 June 2013

Oman’s dwindling heritage of pottery

Oman has a rich tradition in pottery and Bahla occupies a place of pride in the region.
The art of pottery dates back to as early as 2500 BC. The invention of the potter’s wheel has tremendously influenced the development of our culture and civilization. So much so that ancient pottery today is considered to be an important relic in the studies of archaeology and social anthropology.
Yet unless the Omani government takes action, the pottery traditions and culture will fade into oblivion
The traditional pottery trade is dwindling though a few pottery units have remained in Bahla. At one time, scores of families in Bahla were trying to perpetuate the craft, but today there are only a few left. The souq has only limited items.
On my recent visit to Bahla I sneaked into a pottery unit in the heart of the town. Outside, a slab of clay, trampled upon by men hours before, was tanning in the sun. At another place the soil was left to soak in shallow water-filled pits secured by nets. These ensure that dried leaves and other dirt would not get mixed in with the clay.
Zaid Abdulla Hamdan Al-Adawi, the proprietor of the pottery unit, was seen stacking up the earthenware in the courtyard of his shed. When I queried him about the clay, he said that the brown clay is extracted from the wadi (riverbed) in Bahla while the red clay comes from mountains in the Bahla Wilayat. He did not seem enthusiastic when he observed: “Traditional pottery is a dying art now. Until about eight years ago, pottery was still a thriving trade. People now opt for plastic containers over our earthenware. A small section still prefers our items and for them we survive.” Zaid works from his electrically operated pottery wheel amid the accouterments of the trade. From the finished items I could make out that pottery is not confined to utility and economic purposes alone. It has developed into an aesthetic and quintessential art form.
Zaid’s shed is a clutter of water pitchers, pots, vases, frames, storage urns and decorative objects. Though the methods for producing potteries have changed, especially kilns (ovens) and firing techniques, Zaid still practices pottery the traditional way, completely unaffected by the changing times and trends. Except that he uses the electric wheel over the kick wheel.
Watching the clay being transformed as Zaid’s hands seem to weave patterns in the air seeing shapes and sizes emerge, along with spouts and rims as the fingers mold and curve, makes for a fascinating sight. Within minutes the contours of a pot appear. Zaid uses the old way, yet he is aware of the needs of the tourists and art collectors. Therefore, he is attempting to innovate by incorporating new design and motifs on his earthenware.
The items do not come cheap these days. I bought a very small water pitcher with an interesting mechanism for OMR 2 (SR 19.50). In this magic jug, water can be filled from the bottom and poured out only through the beak. Amazingly, it does not spill out when in an upright position.
The pieces, which adorn the spaces of the shed, have aesthetic appeal and a smooth finish. A frame with a picture of a coffee pot, all in clay, speaks of the creativity of Zaid. But unless the Omani government comes to the rescue of the dying craft, people like Zaid will continue to be a victim of ‘survival of the fittest’.

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Zahrah Al-Ghamdi finds the beauty in sadness

Updated 21 May 2019

Zahrah Al-Ghamdi finds the beauty in sadness

  • This month saw perhaps the most significant accomplishment of Al-Ghamdi’s career to date
  • Zahrah Al-Ghamdi discusses her love of land art and organic materials

VENICE: The Al-Baha-born, Jeddah-based land artist and arts professor Zahrah Al-Ghamdi has an unwavering passion for creating arresting, large-scale installations composed of natural materials — sand, clay, rocks, leather and the like. Explaining her love of shaping these organic substances, Al-Ghamdi once said: “It’s important for me to smell the sand and feel it with my own hands, because those senses of touch and smell allow my work a synergy, and if I don’t get that synergy, I can’t work.”

This month saw perhaps the most significant accomplishment of Al-Ghamdi’s career to date. The artist was chosen to inaugurate Saudi Arabia’s pavilion at the 2019 edition of the Venice Biennale —the art world’s largest public event and oldest contemporary art show — through an immersive solo exhibition entitled “After Illusion.”

Al-Ghamdi was jointly selected to represent the Kingdom by the recently developed Saudi Ministry of Culture and the Misk Art Institute, a homegrown arts foundation that aims to strengthen artistic activity within the Kingdom.

“To be honest, when I used to read about the Venice Biennale and its unique concept, I felt so far away from that world — it was like a dream,” Al Ghamdi tells Arab News. “In recent years, I’ve worked really hard and always hoped to achieve more through each work I would present. So when I received the call from the Misk Art Institute to participate at the biennale, it was like a dream I never thought I’d dream. I was elated but simultaneously felt a great deal of responsibility, as I am not representing (just) myself, but my country and all its artists.”  

Through her debut participation at the biennale, which is open to the public until November 24, Al-Ghamdi joins a canon of female artists putting on solo exhibitions and taking the lead in representing their countries to the world, including Larissa Sansour for Denmark, Laure Prouvost for France, Cathy Wilkes for Great Britain, Nujoom Al-Ghanem for the UAE and Naiza Khan for Pakistan.

In a dimly lit, almost celestial setting, “After Illusion” takes the viewer through a thoughtfully designed constellation of 52,000 manually manipulated leather spheres — or ‘creatures’ as Al-Ghamdi likes to call them — cascading down white drop curtains, while others are scattered on the ground. Adding intimacy to the overall experience, an audio recording of Al-Ghamdi working in her atelier plays within the pavilion’s interior.

'After Illusion,' the work Al-Ghamdi created for the Venice Biennale. (Supplied)

As with most of Al-Ghamdi’s works, the exhibition not only reflects an element of Saudi Arabia’s history and evolving identity, but also the artist’s own history, acting as an expressive form of self-portrait.

“One of the things that I liked about Al-Ghamdi’s work is that she makes her work by hand,” says pavilion curator and fellow Saudi artist Eiman Elgibreen. “This is something we are missing lately in the art scene — everyone is doing manufactured, plastic-y things. I was always interested (in the fact) that she works with something very traditional but transforms it into something really contemporary and new. The leather material used here reminds her of her grandfather herding, but now no one herds. And so she took the leather and transformed it, which I thought would go very well with our concept. Just imagine these creatures having a new life and then trying to settle in Venice, reassuring people that it’s not wrong to transform and change, because eventually you’ll reach a new reality that way.”

Al-Ghamdi, too, has undergone transformation in her life and career, evolving her artistic vision by exploring themes of memory and loss, exhibiting works in Dubai’s AlSerkal Avenue and London’s British Museum, among others, and participating in international residency programs and symposiums. It was Al-Ghamdi’s father — a teacher who enjoyed drawing — who first noticed her artistic abilities and encouraged her to pursue the arts.

After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Islamic Arts from Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz University, Al-Ghamdi traveled to England, where she gained Master’s and PhD degrees in Design and Visual Art. It was during her studies abroad that Al-Ghamdi’s artistic knowledge greatly expanded, and land art was her greatest influence.

Land art — which, in its modern sense, gained momentum during the 1970s — was practiced by pioneering Western artists including Robert Smithson, Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, and Walter De Maria. Resisting the commercialism of the art world and the confines of the gallery space, they turned instead to vast landscape settings for artistic expression — passionately sculpting into the ground or building massive installations using natural materials.

One of Al-Ghamdi's earlier works, 'What Lies Behind The Sun,' was constructed from thorns. (Supplied)

“In Saudi Arabia, the field of research was weak for me. But when I traveled abroad, I was introduced to a whole other world through the Internet and exhibitions,” Al-Ghamdi explains. “I was deeply influenced by land artists Smithson, Goldsworthy, and Long, and I was taken by their ability to use raw materials to express their feelings and attract the attention of viewers. They helped me see ‘nothing’ as something important, and that I could use raw materials to send a message. For instance, in a previous work I made, I placed tough thorns that were found in southern Saudi Arabia in a large circular shape. The thorns may indeed emit stories of pain, (but also), on the contrary, the notion of power and stability.”

Observing her experimental and thought-provoking oeuvre — from a carefully lined floor installation made of rubble to a layered gauze installation soaked in black paint — one may experience an unsettling sense of isolation, sadness, and vulnerability. A kind of destruction, almost.

“That is exactly how I want you to see my work. When I look at architecture, I do not necessarily see the beauty or happiness it exudes. My colleagues often ask me why I focus on the misery of architecture, but that’s what personally interests me — I need to see its truth. When I look at the old, abandoned buildings in the south of Saudi Arabia, they’re isolated and look unhappy to me, as they are surrounded by contradictory modern counterparts that do not attract me,” Al-Ghamdi says. “In my work, I am also trying to send a message to the viewer that the earth, which grants life and stability, suffers from the relentless actions of human beings through dryness, pollution, and war."