x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Interweaving UAE traditional makabbah with modernity

We speak to the British designer Stuart Haygarth who, commissioned by Abu Dhabi Art, has conceptualised a lighting design that incorporates the form of the historic makabbah.

Stuart Haygarth works with a group of Emirati artisans to create his lighting design. Sammy Dallal / The National
Stuart Haygarth works with a group of Emirati artisans to create his lighting design. Sammy Dallal / The National

The makabbah is an evocative and aesthetically pleasing relic of the UAE's harsh, desert-bound past. These cone-shaped objects were once a vital feature of day-to-day dining, used to keep insects off food, and are still handwoven from dried palm fronds by craftspeople around the country today.

Modernisation may have made these objects less essential, but the designer Stuart Haygarth thinks that there's an artistic quality to the makabbah and has produced a lighting piece that incorporates its conical form.

Haygarth was commissioned as part of Abu Dhabi Art's design programme and will unveil the piece during the fair which is being held from today until Saturday at the Saadiyat Cultural District. He collaborated with Emirati artisans steeped in the tradition of palm-frond weaving and had them produce six makabbah cones.

The concept of the piece was inspired by research into the UAE Haygarth undertook in September. "I find the abaya quite striking and there's something mysterious about them," he says. "The abaya is used to hide very colourful garments underneath and I like that idea of a jewel concealed inside."

With that in mind, Haygarth has had each of the six palm frond cones dyed black, fitted lights inside them and wrapped them around wooden armatures to create an exterior. "Underneath that exterior is a very vibrantly coloured silk fabric covered in talli embroidery," he explains. Talli is another craft tradition native to the UAE and is still very much alive today as it is used for ornamenting the collars and cuffs of women's clothing.

"I'm very much into handmade wherever it may be in the world. I like that bespoke specialism," says Haygarth. "Around the world, we are losing these traditional crafts through mass production, so I was pleased to hear that Emiratis are aware that their country is changing rapidly and have picked up on the fact they should hold onto their heritage."

The British designer is recognised for his use of found objects. He has turned everything from discarded car tail lights to a thousand spent party poppers from the millennium celebrations into alluring light pieces.

As a result, this collaborative project in the UAE is quite different from his usual way of working. He says the process has been no less inspiring, though. "There's a lot of camaraderie between the women and they really get on with what they're doing."

Abu Dhabi Art's design programme aims to reignite understanding of the rich history of home-grown craft traditions that these palm-weaving women represent. But matching artisans with contemporary artists and designers also aims to show the continued relevance of these handmade ways of working. "We're trying to draw that connection between craft and contemporary design and art practices," says Tairone Bastien, the head of public programming at Abu Dhabi Art.

"The design programme is really looking at the aesthetics of the UAE - what is essential and specific about design in this region," Bastien explains. "It's quite remarkable what artisans here are doing and making and it gives a very specific flavour to UAE design."

For more information, visit www.abudhabiartfair.ae