x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Knitting together Dubai’s labourer community

Elise Vazelakis has spent the last eight months collecting scarves from the labourers in Dubai and weaving them into fabric art. People walk past these guys all the time without even acknowledging their presence,” says Vazelakis. “But what they have done for this place, working all year round and constructing our city, cannot be discounted.

Elise Vazelakis collects scarves from labourers in Dubai Marina. Jaime Puebla / The National
Elise Vazelakis collects scarves from labourers in Dubai Marina. Jaime Puebla / The National

Even after their photos have been drained of colour and cut into strips, the character and personality of the labourers in the images is clear. Perhaps it is the intensity of their stares, perhaps it is a kind of rare unexpected beauty or perhaps it is the fact that Elise Vazelakis has taken the images and woven them into her fabric art through which she celebrates these men and their contribution to Dubai’s society.

The Gamcha Project, named after the coloured cotton scarves that the labourers wear around their necks or over their faces and heads to protect them from dust and sand, is Vazelakis’s way of giving these men an identity and of expressing recognition for the work they do.

It began as an obsession, she ­explains.

“Out of the dull landscape, I suddenly started to see the bright colours of the labourers’ scarves and then they were all I could see as I was driving around. I became obsessed. Then, one day when I was out photographing, I asked one of them if I could buy it from him and he was happy to. I came home and didn’t know what to do and then I started collecting them.”

Thus began an eight-month mission to collect as many gamchas as she could. At first, she would trade the dirty, sweaty rags for care packages containing a small meal and Dh10 and then, when she realised she was taking away a vital part of their uniform, Vazelakis found out what they were called and began searching for new ones. Eventually she located them in the supermarkets inside the labour camps and so she began to swap brand-new gamchas with a stapled-on Dh10 note, for the old ones.

The reactions from the labourers as well as some of the contractors are mixed, she says.

“I try to explain that I am doing art but they don’t understand, they think I am a crazy gamcha lady,” she laughs. “Also, when I tell people I know what I am doing they get grossed out because who wants to touch sweat-soaked garments? But after I have washed them on a really hot wash they are beautiful pieces of material with so much history.”

When she had gathered between 50 to 100 gamchas and many more photographs, Vazelakis ripped them up into thread and began her knitting and hand-weaving project.

The idea developed over the summer, when Vazelakis travelled back to her native Los Angeles and bought a Japanese loom. Bringing back the loom to Dubai, she started a more formalised process of weaving and began making new scarves from the worn gamcha material and coloured thread. She also wove in photographs that she had printed on canvas paper and detritus from the building sites such as yellow tape, rope or pieces of reflective jackets.

The end results are beautiful pieces of fabric art that now line the walls of one of the spare rooms in her Dubai Marina apartment. Not only are they visually appealing, they tell a story of the city that is so often overlooked.

“People walk past these guys all the time without even acknowledging their presence,” says Vazelakis. “But what they have done for this place, working all year round and constructing our city, cannot be discounted.

“They are the fabric of Dubai and so I am reconstituting the fabric that they wear into a different form. My sincere wish is to humanise them and to give them a face.”

Although Vazelakis had some of her paintings displayed last year in Dubai Culture’s public art project on Jumeirah Walk, her work mostly stays in her home studio. We think, however, that the results of the Gamcha Project, which she describes as repurposed scarves or fibre paintings, really deserve an audience.

“I haven’t told a lot of people until now but I do want to make a little bit of change. With the labourers I can’t change their living or working conditions but I can change a little piece of their day with some extra money or an extra meal and with the art, I might change people’s opinion about them, or make them see their gamchas and smile.”

aseaman@thenational.ae