Saudi Arabian artists explore Arab identity with sculpture

Abulrahman and Turki Gazzaz’s ‘Geographical Child’s Play’ echoes chaotic drawing up of boundaries for Arab world. (Supplied)
Updated 05 August 2019

Saudi Arabian artists explore Arab identity with sculpture

LONDON: The children in the British Museum playing at reconfiguring Abdulrahman and Turki Gazzaz's jigsaw-style map of the 22 Arab League States are, in their naivety, creating similar chaos that was caused by the British and French officials responsible for drawing up post-war boundaries across the Middle East.

That seemingly cavalier approach to carving out states has blighted the region — often the Europeans who drew up the maps had little knowledge or interest in the myriad identities of the people whose countries they were defining.

Shubbak. (Supplied)

The Saudi Arabian brothers’ work — “Geographical Child’s Play” — was commissioned for Shubbak, an annual art festival now in its fifth year which brings work by Arab artists to London's stages, concert halls, cinemas, galleries, museums and streets. Arab News caught up with the Jeddah-based artists (and founders of Bricklab studio) at the British Museum, where their sculpture was attracting interest from visitors from all over the world.

Each ‘state’ in the sculpture is represented by a three-dimensional piece. The pieces are decorated in pastel colors (with shades abstracted from the pan-Arab colors), which, coupled with their low height makes them reminiscent of children’s seating in a nursery. One key feature of the work is that — regardless of the way in which the 22 pieces are arranged, they are always interconnected. The work is described in the promotional materials as “an invitation to imagine geopolitics through the lens of play and deliberately naïve hope.”

Geographical Child's Play. (Supplied)

“We wanted something playful that also serves as an educational tool,” Abdulrahman explained. “Some people try to read the names of all the 22 countries, while others just enjoy the tactility of the material.”

The brothers, who both trained as architects, had originally intended to use a hard rubber surface, but — in the transition “from conceptualization to realization” — they decided they wanted a softer surface too. “We wanted to use different materials like wood and foam together to create a contrast,” said Abdulrahman. “We were looking for tactile materials. This aspect is something we are always interested in at Bricklab. Most of the projects we work with involve us breaking the concept down to its material form and trying to carry it through.”

In addition to three London venues — the British Library, British Museum and the National Theatre — the installation has also been exhibited in Milton Keynes as part of the town’s community festival Art in the Park. That particular location, Abdulrahman said, was his favorite. “It was just families and children really interacting with the artwork and mainly just having fun,” he explained.

Geographical Child's Play. (Supplied)

“At the British Library, which is a lovely space, people were treating it more as an educational tool and shying away from touching the work. We, and the invigilators, had to encourage them. Here at the British Museum, people are much more relaxed about engaging with the work.”

According to Turki, showing “Geographical Child’s Play” in the UK makes the piece even more relevant.

“Initially the project was very political, because the role that the British have played in shaping the Arab world, and Arab identity in general, is undeniable,” he said. “The Arab revolt was instigated in large (part) by the British, and reading about some of the policy makers, you see that the people in the background, who were holding office in Egypt or India at the time, were playing instrumental roles in shaping what we understand as Arab identity today.

“By bringing this work here to London — especially here, to the British Museum — I think we are asking the question, ‘What is our identity now?’ And if we were to remove it from the Western understanding, or the British understanding, of the Arab world, what might that identity be?”

Turki and Abdulrahman Gazzaz with their sculpture Geographical Child's Play at the British Museum. (Supplied)

He pointed out that the borders between Arab countries were ‘blurred’ before the interference of British, French and Ottoman Empire officials.

“If you take a village in the south of Saudi on the border with Yemen, you can barely tell where Yemen ends and Saudi starts,” he said. “I think it is interesting to acknowledge how abstract these borders are and how cultures merged — and this is something that is true generally, not just particular to the Arab world.”

The brothers are encouraged by the creative progress they see happening in their home country.

“The community of art is growing, and speaks truthfully to us as a society,” said Abdulrahman. “We are lucky to be around at this time when the arts are really being promoted and supported. Without such support, we wouldn’t be here.  We are getting tremendous support back in Saudi. There is this really meaningful belief in emerging architects and artists who look at things from a critical perspective and try to have a certain commentary rather than shying away from the truth. And that is what we have always tried to do and to achieve.”

Orange is the new grey for Bangladesh beards

(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on January 24, 2019 shows men with henna-dyed beards in Dhaka on December 24, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 22 October 2019

Orange is the new grey for Bangladesh beards

  • It is now virtually impossible to walk down a street in a Bangladesh city without seeing a colored beard

DHAKA, BANGLADESH: From shades of startling red to hues of vivid tangerine, brightly colored beards have become a fashion statement on the streets of Bangladesh capital Dhaka.
Facial hair of sunset tones is now the go-to look for older men wanting to take off the years, with an array of henna options available to the style-conscious.
“I have been using it on my hair for the last two months. I like it,” says Mahbubul Bashar, in his 50s, whose smile reflected his joy at his new look.
Abul Mia, a 60-year-old porter at a local vegetable market, agrees that the vibrant coloring can be transformative.
“I love it. My family says I look a lot younger and handsome,” he adds.
While henna has been used widely in the country for decades, it has reached new heights of popularity. It is now virtually impossible to walk down a street in a Bangladesh city without seeing a colored beard.
Orange hair — whether it’s beards, moustaches or on heads — is everywhere, thanks to the popularity of the colored dye produced by the flowering henna plant.
“Putting henna on has become a fashion choice in recent years for elder men,” confirms Didarul Dipu, head fashion journalist at Canvas magazine.
“The powder is easily found in neighborhood stores and easy to put on,” he adds.
But the quest for youth is not the only reason why more and more Dhaka barbers are adding beard and hair coloring to their services.
Top imams also increasingly use henna powder color in what experts say is a move to prove their Muslim credentials as some religious texts say the prophet Mohammed dyed his hair.
In Bangladesh most of the population of 168 million is Muslim.
“I heard from clerics that the prophet Mohammed used henna on his beard. I am just following,” says Dhaka resident Abu Taher.

Henna has long been a tradition at South Asian weddings. Brides and grooms use henna paste to trace intricate patterns on their hands for wedding parties.
It has also long been used in Muslim communities in Asia and the Middle East for beards.
Previously, aficionados created the dye by crushing henna leaves to form a paste. It was messy and time-consuming but modern henna powder is far more user-friendly.
Taher, who goes by one name, believes the dye has given his beard added vigour.
“Look at this growth. Isn’t it strong?” he exclaims pointing to his chin.
“The powder turns the grey hair red but does not change the remaining black hair,” he explains.
Some believe henna powder has health benefits and, as it is natural rather than created using man-made chemicals like some dyes, does not cause any medical issues.
The new trend has also boosted barbers’ fortunes — more men feel compelled to dye their hair and to do it more often at the salons.
“In the past we hardly would get any customers for this,” recalls Shuvo Das, who works at the Mahin Hairdressers in Dhaka’s Shaheenbagh neighborhood.
“But now there are clients who come every week to get their beard dyed,” he says.
“It takes about 40 minutes to make the beard reddish and shiny. It is also cheap. A pack cost only 15 taka (four US cents),” Das explains as he massages the dye mixture — imported from India — into a customer’s beard.
According to Dhaka University sociology professor Monirul Islam Khan, the growing number of henna beards “is a sign of increasing Muslim fervor in Bangladeshi society.”
But, he adds, even those who are not strict followers do it.
He explains: “They want to look younger. Even the women are getting fond of it as it makes their hair glitter.”