Sarya Jamal: Exploring the arts one chair at a time

Sarya Jamal
Updated 17 February 2017
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Sarya Jamal: Exploring the arts one chair at a time

It would not occur to you how much meaning there is in art until you meet Sudanese furniture designer Sarya Jamal. You cannot walk past her work without stopping to ponder for some time and try to decipher the hidden meaning behind her pieces.
Jamal’s design-aesthetic strongly reflects her African upbringing. She believes the tribal inspiration will forever run in her blood. Her passion for painting started at a very early age although her plan was not originally to design furniture. “My idea was to find different mediums to paint on other than canvases because I needed a change,” she said.
Watching emerging artists trying to give their best shots at their artwork, Jamal was inspired to try different mediums as soon as she grew weary of the canvas. “I watched struggling artists produce masterpieces with coffee as paint and others who would paint on rubber tires or glass. Some even produced really cool abstract pieces using just a toothbrush,” she said.
Jamal said she also painted on bubble wrap before attempting wood. “I absolutely love painting on wood. It absorbs the colors so well... My first thought of a wooden canvas was a chair.”
In 2014, when Jamal had amassed enough pieces to call her work a collection, she decided to label her brand “Pieces of Me,” because most of her furniture pieces reflected an aspect of her life.
“Pieces of Me is a one-man show,” said Jamal. “Sometimes it’s difficult to meet deadlines when I’m designing and painting all the pieces completely by myself. I love painting when I’m in the mood but when my passion turns into business, it changes everything. When I have to finish an order and I’m in no mood to paint, the biggest challenge is when I have to force it.
“Art chose me… I did not study furniture design or any design for that matter. I always wanted to but never had the chance especially since my surgeon father encouraged me to go into the sciences.”
Having studied pharmacy at the University of Medical Sciences & Technology in Khartoum, Sudan, Jamal pursued a day job in her field of study, designing furniture on the side.
The first brush stroke
Just like every artist needs to reach inside themselves and rouse their emotions before creating a masterpiece, Jamal revealed that it was her negative feelings that drove her to paint. “I am so much faster when I’m pondering about something that is worrying me.” Every part of Jamal’s soul is conveyed through colors and strokes in her pieces. “I love the very first brush stroke. It gives me such a rush!”
“Sometimes people don’t understand why a chair is so expensive,” she added. “But if they see the sweat that goes into it, anybody would understand. Some people appreciate art more than the others and I am willing to sell my work for less to someone who appreciates it rather than make lots of money and lose my art to someone who will not give my pieces the credit they deserve.”
Jamal uses a lot of color to express herself. She says her signature style is a pop of black and white in the midst of all colors. “I like things that are monochrome or colorful,” says Jamal. “I can’t stand anything that is only two colors, with the exception of black and white. I like an element of surprise, so most my pieces look different from the front and back.”
Her vibrant homeland of Sudan — the colorful saris, henna tattoos, traditional weddings and wild African animals — also contribute to her inspiration.
Jamal’s exotic furniture pieces have been sold in London’s Showroom Shoreditch, Riyadh’s Maison BO-M and Dar Al-Kanz interior design boutique and also at a lobby display in Jeddah’s Shada Hotel.
Rewarding work
Jamal said some of the exhibitions at which her furniture has been displayed include Art Visionary at Tashkeil in Jeddah, Al-Khozama Fashion’s Art & Design Expo in Riyadh, and Market 388-The Nest at Al Riwaq Art Space in Bahrain.
Jamal said she was voted the winner of the Behance silver coin in 2014; the same year she was also recognized at Al-Khozama Fashion’s Art & Design Expo, bagging the “Most Creative Design” award.
Explaining the brainstorming and design process, Jamal said: “I pay most attention to the painting. It makes all the difference and takes the longest time. Some of my pieces were painted over duration of 35 to 40 hours. I paint more than one piece at the same time. I’m not the type of artist who finishes one piece before moving onto the next. I get bored easily and keep rotating from one piece to another until I suddenly find that they are all finished.”
Then begins her hunt for contrasting fabric. “I never buy any fabric before I paint because I never know how the final painted product will look like or what color it will be,” she said.
Inspiration through dark times
Jamal has designed four collections so far under her brand “Pieces of Me.” Her very first collection was an experiment she crafted while she was going through a terrible phase of life, which was also her favorite of the four. “I was lost. My daughter was two and I was going through the most unexpected divorce. I was basically emotionally constipated and that emotion is what dictated my entire first collection from the design, to its color concept to naming each of the eight pieces.”
Her second collection, however, was a celebration of the number two. “It was basically an attempt to make pieces that were artistic but unusual, trying to incorporate a combination of two,” explains Jamal. “I focused on the number two because it was my second collection… I was doing two things — working my day job and painting by night and also because my daughter and I had become an inseparable duo.”
Speaking of her third collection, Jamal says her inspiration was a mix of Sudanese celebration, Bedouin rituals and Ramadan. “This collection was exhibited during the first 10 days of Ramadan. It had chairs, home accessories and mainly candle holders of abnormal heights and widths.”
Jamal’s fourth collection was exhibited during London Fashion Week at Showroom Shoreditch. Being her smallest collection of only five pieces, they were displayed in a funky concept store during events.
“My final and biggest collection of all was a private order for Buqshah Cafe in Riyadh, for which I designed a hundred pieces. Each chair and table was hand painted to match the cafe’s logo and color scheme.”
Although she never likes to unveil any new pieces she is currently working on, she hints that there will not be any chairs in her next collection.
While trying to setup a studio in Sudan, Jamal also wishes to design and rent out furniture for events and photoshoots. “I’m excited about this new venture because people will get to see ‘Pieces of Me’ not only in exhibitions but also in formal or casual event settings.”
Encouraging aspiring designers, Jamal advises: “Do not aim to be current or likable by other artists. Just be yourself and it will do wonders for your work, regardless what it is you are designing. There are no rules, just make your own. If it feels right, then it is right. Thinking outside the box is a lot more fun!”
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Pakistan’s qawwali music fights to be heard after singer’s death

Updated 26 April 2018
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Pakistan’s qawwali music fights to be heard after singer’s death

  • Thousands poured into the streets near Sabri’s family home after his death for his funeral, a rare public display of affection in Karachi
  • His murder was just the latest in a series of blows in recent years to strike at the heart of qawwali, which has thrived in South Asia since the 13th century

KARACHI: Nearly two years after Pakistan’s foremost qawwali singer Amjad Sabri was gunned down in Karachi, the devotional music of Islam’s Sufi mystical sect is struggling to survive, as fears of sectarianism and modern pressures slowly drown out its powerfully hypnotic strains.
Thousands poured into the streets near Sabri’s family home after his death for his funeral, a rare public display of affection in Karachi.
“He was a rockstar of the masses,” explained journalist and musician Ali Raj, who studied under Sabri.
His murder was just the latest in a series of blows in recent years to strike at the heart of qawwali, which has thrived in South Asia since the 13th century.
“I am still in shock,” Sabri’s brother Talha told AFP from his family home adorned with pictures of his superstar sibling, whose fame spanned the subcontinent and beyond.
“Why do they hate qawwali? Why do they hate music?“

In this file photo, Pakistani Qawwali singer Talha Sabri speaks during an interview with AFP behind an image of his late father and renowned Qawwal Ghulam Farid Sabri at his residence in Karachi on Jan. 19, 2018. (AFP)


Embraced widely as a part of Pakistan’s national identity, qawwali has played a key unifying role, with city-dwellers and villagers flocking to Sufi shrines for concerts.
Performances traditionally last hours, with a troupe of musicians interweaving soulful improvisational threads under lyrical, lilting vocal lines to a steady beat of thundering rhythms on dholak and tabla drums and hand clapping, sending fans drifting into trance-like transcendent states.
The genre entered a golden age in the 1970s as singers known as qawwals battled for prestige, with the Sabri Brothers — led by Amjad’s father, Ghulam Farid Sabri — and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan finding audiences around the world.
Following the death of Ghulam, Amjad took the helm and slowly carved out his place as Pakistan’s most prominent qawwal, becoming a fixture on national television and radio.
But now musicians worry that his murder — and the fear it sparked — has hastened the decline of qawwali.
At Cafe Noor in Karachi where qawwals have gathered for decades, musicians said business has been falling for years, with fewer shrines willing to host performances.
Sectarian militants have targeted Sufis, a mystical sect of Islam, for years — with the Taliban and increasingly the Daesh sending suicide bombers to attack shrines over what they see as heretical displays of faith.
Just months after Sabri was killed, Daesh claimed back-to-back attacks on shrines in the provinces of Balochistan and Sindh that killed more than 100 people combined.
Earlier this month, the military approved death sentences for two militants linked to Sabri’s killing.
But questions linger over who ordered the murder — the Pakistani Taliban, or another group — forcing his brother to spend months guarded by elite paramilitary rangers.
Such fears, meanwhile, are not the only factors triggering qawwali’s decline.
Inflationary pressures have also kept the qawwals’ working-class fanbase from hosting shows. Increasingly only the middle class or elite can afford to pay a qawwali group to perform at parties or weddings.
“In the good old times, even a poor man... would manage to organize qawwali,” explained singer Hashim Ali, saying he is now lucky to play four or five shows during religious periods compared to dozens in the past.
The rise of more globalized interpretations of Islam has similarly chipped away at qawwali’s popularity, as Muslims in Pakistan increasingly depart from the subcontinent’s syncretic religious traditions and look to the Middle East for guidance.
“People access... (qawwali music) as a part of their faith,” said Ahmer Naqvi, chief operations officer for Pakistani music app Patari.
“A lot of the younger population is abandoning the ways that the older generations worshipped.”
Increasing conservatism has also hit the genre.
Even before Karachi’s Abdullah Shah Ghazi Mazar shrine — famed for hosting performances — was attacked by the Taliban in 2010, organizers had imposed restrictions on shows for years as part of a campaign against qawwali’s hashish-smoking fans.
The pressure has compelled more qawwals to try their hand at fusion, or even branch into more financially viable genres such as pop. Only a minority have embraced social media to promote themselves, journalist Raj said.
But they face an uphill battle.
“The youth... they don’t know what exactly qawwali is,” said fan Muhammad Saeed, 24, citing the popularity of contemporary music at home and from abroad, during a private show in Islamabad.
After 16 years playing by his brother’s side, Talha Sabri said he has struggled to find his place on stage until Amjad’s own sons are old enough to perform.
“We are under pressure,” he said, with his long hair and neatly trimmed beard-cutting a stark resemblance to his brother.
But even as he fears the possibility of extremists striking again, he refuses to be cowed.
“Regardless of these threats, we have to keep on,” he said.

In this file photo, Asghari Begum, the wife of late renowned Qawwal singer Ghulam Farid Sabri, speaks during an interview with AFP at her residence in Karachi on Jan. 19, 2018. (AFP)


For Sabri’s mother Asghari Begum however, the murder of her son marked a turning point for qawwali, ringing the death knell for its future.
Her family previously made it through the tumultuous 1980s, when political parties and gangs battled for turf, turning Karachi’s streets into killing fields.
But they were respected then, passing unscathed through the city’s numerous pickets.
Amjad’s death proved things have changed.
“He has gone now,” she said. “And the passion of qawwali has gone with him.”