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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

There's a huge wool sculpture hanging in Downtown Dubai this weekend 

It's only up for a few days, and it's made from the noblest of all fibres — merino

You can walk into this 50-metre-wide installation in Downtown Dubai, which is free to enter, and touch the different panels of wool. 
You can walk into this 50-metre-wide installation in Downtown Dubai, which is free to enter, and touch the different panels of wool. 

Up until the 1700s, the export of the Spanish sheep that produce merino wool was a crime punishable by death. Merino sheep then became a fashionable royal gift. Charles II of Spain sent some to his cousin, Prince Xavier of Saxony. The French king Louis XVI received 366 sheep and promptly started his own flock. King George III, before going mad, got in on the game: he established a flock at Kew, now the site of a botanical garden. But the “merino craze” of the early 1800s came to an end with the Napoleonic Wars, and these royal affiliations slid into obscurity.

For those in the know, however, Merino wool continues to be regarded as noblest of all. Wool-growers internationally compete for the “world-record bale”, the finest-spun wool produced on earth. For the past four years, the Italian luxury brand Loro Piana has won this distinction, and they are bringing this bale to Dubai — where else? — to celebrate the launch of their first store in the UAE, in Dubai Mall.

The royal patronage continues here too: it is produced under the auspices of Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum, the daughter of the former ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Maktoum.

This weekend, Loro Piana unveils their installation at the Dubai Opera plaza to introduce the wool to the public. A cloud-like structure, 40m by 50m wide, made of panels of felted wool, encases examples of the material as it is harvested from sheep, spun out into softness, and then woven into fabric. (Wonderfully, you are invited to touch it.)

Around this pavilion is a “second skin”, a fabric bearing an eL Seed calligraphy of “The Gift of Kings,” a poem by the Castilian king Alfonso X that underscores merino's royal pedigree. The temporary structure, with its bright blue, jagged Arabic, sits above the permanent eL Seed calligraphy that achieves semi-sculptural form.

el Seed has designed the hoarding that covers the woollen sculpture - which will only be up for a few days. 
el Seed has designed the hoarding that covers the woollen sculpture - which will only be up for a few days.

Historical resonances aside, Sheikha Lateefa’s involvement owes less to her royal standing and more to her role within the Dubai art world. She is the founder and director of Tashkeel, a Dubai organisation that provides studios and exhibitions for UAE artists and designers, and which was instrumental in working with eL Seed early on in his career. The Loro Piana commission marks the beginning of a collaboration between the Italian brand and Tashkeel, launching in 2019. The organisations will pair an Italian artist and UAE-based artist for a four-month period at the Tashkeel studios in Nad al Sheba, in a production period culminating in an exhibition.

The Gift of Kings installation also kicks off a “tsunami” of Tashkeel design activity in November, as deputy director Lisa Ball-Lechgar, put it. They are holding the show “Voices of Design” at their Nad al Sheba space, and during Dubai Design Week at d3 will host workshops, surgeries and talks for emerging practitioners, in addition to launching eight products from their Tanween design programme.

A part of the bale installation inside the temporary structure. 
A part of the bale installation inside the temporary structure.

The patronage of the Gift of Kings also plays in to a desire Sheikha Lateefa has expressed for more thoughtful, interactive public sculpture across Dubai.

“We need to explore the interactive aspects of public work more,” she says, mentioning as an example the D3 sculpture park with its climbing wall made out of repurposed concrete blocks. “I like to see it integrated. The fact that you are invited to touch this Loro Piana piece — that’s what is needed. You’re so used to going to museums and you’re not allowed to touch.”

“For the audience who doesn’t make work, they get to feel it. It gives them another perspective on art.”

The partnership with Loro Piana came about organically, she says. “They’re a brand that thinks along the same lines: of quality, not quantity. It crosses over with Tashkeel as we could get so many artists working, but at the same time we know there is so much demand on the studios that we have to be selective, so we find people with purpose.”

Another corner of the installation
Another corner of the installation

Tashkeel anticipated the role that design plays in the Gulf earlier than other organisations. Though Sheikha Lateefa was trained as an artist, she realized early on that much interesting creative production in Dubai was within the realm of design. Tashkeel now supports jewelry-makers, abaya designers, graphic designers, photographers, and print-makers — and those working with fabrics creatively.

“Fibre art: we haven’t done that before,” Sheikha Lateefa tells me. “I like the challenge of exploring something new.”

The Gift of Kings and the Record Bale are on show in the plaza of Dubai Opera from November 8 to November 10

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