She’s weaving home: Helping refugees keep the tradition of tatreez alive

81 Designs' recreations of Hassan Hajjaj's works tatreez on canvas. (Supplied)
Updated 22 November 2018
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She’s weaving home: Helping refugees keep the tradition of tatreez alive

  • Moroccan pop artist, photographer and designer Hassan Hajjaj headed to the Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon to meet with the working women of 81 Designs
  • The women were recreating 14 pieces from Hajjaj’s “Graffix from the Souk” collection using a traditional cross-stitch technique called tatreez

DUBAI: In January this year the London-based Moroccan pop artist, photographer and designer Hassan Hajjaj headed to the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh in southern Lebanon. He was there to meet a group of women working with the UAE-based social enterprise 81 Designs.

“It was quite intense,” says Hajjaj, recalling his visit to Lebanon’s largest Palestinian camp. “It reminded me of places in Tangier where I used to live. My parents lived in a shantytown with no electricity and no water, so I kind of understood that. There was a similarity. And the women kind of reminded me of my auntie — the way they dress, the cultural side of things, you know? It really took me back to something familiar.

“But at the same time it was shocking, in the sense that I’ve only seen refugee camps on TV. It was a real eye-opener. Not only the place, the women too. There was a nice human connection between everybody.”

The women were recreating 14 pieces from Hajjaj’s “Graffix from the Souk” collection using a traditional cross-stitch technique called tatreez. The collection, spearheaded by 81 Designs and the mother-and-daughter team behind it — Nesrine El-Tibi Maalouf and Nadine Maalouf — was shown for the first time at Art Dubai in March.

Now 81 Designs has collaborated with the Beirut-based surface fabrication studio Bokja as part of Abu Dhabi Art, with five female totems created for an installation called “Standing Tall.” Each totem, which can be dismantled into six-to-eight poufs, is being sold for $8,000. A further 100 fragments that can be worn as scarfs are being sold for $500 apiece. The money will go towards paying and empowering as many skilled female artisan refugees as possible.

“It’s been so insane in the run-up to this week, but it’s been such a great ride,” says Nadine, the co-founder of 81 Designs, which was created to preserve the art of tatreez and “to bring art and humanity together.”

“Tatreez is a folk art that’s been around for centuries, but the way it’s always been captured has been quite commercial, in the sense that it’s always been traditional garments, pillowcases or small objects. It hasn’t been given a wider platform.

“So (we thought) why not give it that platform and be able to modernize it? Let these ladies showcase their creativity. To be able to modernize it through design is something that I’m passionate about.”

The Bokja collection is 81 Designs’ third artist collaboration after Hajjaj and the French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed, who kick started the 81 Designs initiative at Art Dubai in 2017. During Dubai Design Week earlier this month, the social enterprise also hosted interactive tatreez workshops as part of a collaboration with Facebook. The founders had been working on 81 Designs for two years prior to its official launch.

“It was very challenging in the beginning,” admits Maalouf. “First of all, we needed the right ladies to work with, and when approached different NGOs in Lebanon they thought the idea was just ridiculous. They said our idea was too abstract and they couldn’t really visualize it the way I was seeing things. But we got lucky when someone from one of the NGOs reached out to us and connected us to the women. So, we were fortunate in that aspect.

“They’ve had a lot of hardships in the camp that they live in,” says Maalouf. “Sometimes it’s quite volatile and it’s difficult for them to leave — it’s almost like they’re quarantined there. And obviously they buy their material from outside. So those are the challenges.

“But we’re taking it one step at a time. We just hope to work with people who share the same vision as us. That’s the most important aspect to partnering up with anybody: (finding) somebody who wants to give back and who has the same passion about working with the women that we do.”


Sheikha Alyazia’s ‘mishmash’ of ancient and modern

Her “Mishmash Trails” featured cave-like shapes cut in marble, with the treasure taking the form of imagined ancient eastern coins. (Supplied)
Updated 23 July 2019
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Sheikha Alyazia’s ‘mishmash’ of ancient and modern

  • Inside the Emirati artist’s inaugural solo exhibition in London, ‘I Met a Traveler From an Antique Land’

LONDON: You are searching for treasure. Several potential locations are marked with an ‘x’ on your map. You move methodically from site to site, always to be met with disappointment — never striking gold. Are you, in following trails set by others, missing the treasure ‘hidden’ in plain view?

This is one of the conundrums posed in the artworks of Sheikha Alyazia Bint Nahyan Al-Nahyan, whose inaugural solo exhibition in London presented a thought-provoking range of work fusing the ancient past with modern life.

Her “Mishmash Trails” featured cave-like shapes cut in marble, with the treasure taking the form of imagined ancient eastern coins, reflecting Arab, Roman and Phoenician influences. She described the coins, embedded in the marble, as symbolic of the great treasures buried in secret locations that were sought out and fought over by many. 

Al-Nahyan named her exhibition — held at Pi Artworks from June 25 to July 7 — with the opening line of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem “Ozymandias”: “I met a traveler from an antique land.” (Ozymandias is the Greek name for the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II.)

Mishmash Dirham. (Supplied) 

The poem, published in 1818, imagines a meeting between the narrator and a traveller who describes a ruined statue lying in the desert. The description of the statue is a meditation on the fragility of human power and on the effects of time: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!/Nothing beside remains: round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

“Maybe a positive thing from looking to the past is that it proves it is only human to repeat the mistake and the lesson,” Al-Nahyan told Arab News. “Studying the past is a realization of human nature, individually or in groups, right or wrong. This natural feeling of connectivity is something I usually aim for.”

There is humor in some of her work — particularly the depictions of old commercial airline advertisements from the 1950s and 60s with ancient figures superimposed in the frames. They certainly give the viewer pause for thought about how much our world has changed in the short time since air travel became widely available.

The exhibition’s curator, Janet Rady, said of Al-Nahyan: “She has been practicing art from a very young age and is self-taught. She is incredibly talented, and you see this in the wide range of her work, which uses all sorts of different media. I can’t necessarily call her a pop artist or a collage artist or an installation artist; she is in fact all of these things, but it is the concept behind her work — connecting the past with the present — which is important.”

The UAE’s UK ambassador, Mansoor Abulhoul, was present at the opening and he particularly admired Al-Nahyan’s works based on the classic wooden board game Carrom paired with a modern video game.

Carrom Station in Motion. (Supplied) 

“I first played Carrom with my cousins as a boy, and she has combined it with modern computer games, which is very creative,” he said. He pointed out that her innovative work ties in well with the dynamic of the UAE.

“Next year we have EXPO 2020, with its theme ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.’ It’s very much about our roots and how we take them forward, how we develop the mind and global cooperation,” he said. 

The exhibition included a short clip from Al-Nahyan’s upcoming film “Athel,” written by Al-Nahyan’s sister, Sheikha Shamsa. It centers on a strange encounter in the desert between a pre-Islamic poet and a modern-day TV presenter. “Athel” is set for release later this year and stars Hala Shiha and Mansour Al-Fili.

“The idea behind it all is taken from the tradition of Arabic poetry — its wisdom and, sometimes, risks,” Al-Nahyan explained. “And ending with a realization of one tribal law putting redemption and family before all.” She added that there are some “light-hearted” moments in the film too.

Arabic poetry is an ongoing inspiration for Al-Nahyan’s work, adding another layer of meaning to many of her pieces.

“The Arabic language is poetic, and Arabs and other cultures around the world have documented their lives through poetry,” she said. “So, for example, when tackling the topic of what is considered treasure, we found different meanings in various verses. Like when (pre-Islamic poet) Zuhair Bin Abi Salma refers to glory as the only true treasure.”

There is a much to absorb and reflect on in this exhibition which opens windows into many facets of Arab history and culture and poses universal questions about humanity and what constitutes real treasure.