x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Made in the UAE for the world with objects we take for granted

Cultural objects that would otherwise be thrown out, such as dried palm fronds, are being turned into furniture and household items by Emirati artists.

Young Emirati artist and creator Mohammed Al Mehairi started a business where art meets culture called Begsha “Made in the UAE” and wants every piece to tell a story from the past. Ravindranath K / The National
Young Emirati artist and creator Mohammed Al Mehairi started a business where art meets culture called Begsha “Made in the UAE” and wants every piece to tell a story from the past. Ravindranath K / The National

Emirati cultural objects that have been taken for granted or long forgotten are now coming back as art.

Items like the begsha, a colourful cloth that newly married women used to wrap all their belongings in and carried on their heads as they left for their husbands' houses, are back again as an interesting take on gift wrap. The ghahfeyah, a knitted head piece under the ghutra, is being dyed into a myriad colours and revamped into a fancy pouch with a tiny face burqa as its ribbon.

And things that would otherwise be thrown out, such as dried palm fronds, are being turned into furniture and household items, instead of being discarded.

These are some of the ways Emirati artists are producing locally made products. Some are looking through their own wardrobes, out on their farms or into their past for inspiration, to give UAE nationals and expatriates a selection of souvenirs and trinkets that are truly "made in the UAE".

In the case of 23-year-old Mohammed Al Mehairi, he has made it his passion to search for the meaning of traditional Emirati terms and translate them into pieces of art. "It is art meets culture," he says.

He is running the Begsha.com project (statigr.am/tag/begsha) that was started last year by his sister Fatima at the Abu Dhabi Women's College, and which he later took over and expanded.

"I want every piece to tell a story from the past," says Mr Al Mehairi, a graphic designer and artist who spends his days creating and researching.

"Many Emiratis from the new generation don't know what many old words mean and what are the stories behind them. I am going back and finding out so many treasures in our heritage," he says.

Wrapped in begsha, the pieces he makes are portraits of characters whose names have a story, and each one comes with a card explaining the history behind the term. One of the collections is called Banat Al Bahr - which translates as daughters of the sea - where six characters each represent an Emirati word related to sea life. All have very long hair as, he says, it was traditional for the women to cut their hair by no more than an inch or two throughout the year.

Among the collection is a woman called Al Leekh, which refers to a type of fishing net. "She is a character whose hair is like a net, and it is always up. She is a helper, ready to assist in any chore," says Mr Al Mehairi.

His favourite is Bint Al Doal, the jellyfish girl. "Her hair looks like jellyfish. The story behind is it that her mother, Tawahamat, craved jellyfish when she was pregnant, and so the child was born with jellyfish hair," he says.

Each sells for Dh300. Based out of his home, the young artist hopes to expand the business to include all aspects of heritage presented in a beautiful, wrapped begsha. The brightly coloured cloth is bought from the old souq in Dubai. The collections are all limited editions, numbered and handmade with a burqa carefully drawn in acrylic. There also falcons and camels; the latest bird to be drawn up is the owl, Al Boma, as well as a baby owl, which is called Um Touq.

"I am inspired by the elderly Emirati woman, particularly by my mother's aunt, who is 90 years old, with full long white hair and beautiful wrinkles hidden behind her burqa," he said. "There is just something so beautiful about the older generation of Emirati women. I want to honour them through my work."

He also recently launched a special set of notebooks, called Dafater Al Hawa, which means notebook of love. A romantic story drawn on its cover portrays a woman waiting for the return of her loved one. "One day the notebook may be lost, but you must love everything you write in it," he says.

Having sold more than 70 pieces already, Mr Al Mehairi says he is excited about where his project is heading. He plans to create smartphone covers with unique stories from the UAE's past.

"I like my projects to be useful, that will leave an impression and inform."

Meanwhile, artist Azza Al Qubaisi has been providing a free platform for crafts that have been made here since 2006 to be showcased and sold at her "Made in UAE" kiosk in Abu Dhabi's Marina Mall across from Paris Gallery.

"Any young designer that has an idea can come display their creation for free, decide on its display in the shop and interact with the customers. Whatever they like," says the 33-year-old Emirati, whose own work is there on sale.

"There is heavy competition from things that are sold as Emirati souvenirs, but they are not made here," she says. "People want to have something genuine, something that is truly made here and with a bit of heart."

Recently, she had noticed a growing interest from Emiratis and expats in finding and buying things made locally.

Popular at the store are "anything" with burqas, whether on pendants, keychains or bracelets, or when they are part of a pouch made with men's headwear. Depending on the work, costs for the smaller objects range between Dh40 to Dh100.

"The male and female traditional wear unite in this pouch," she laughs. "I really enjoy recycling objects we have at home and turning it into cultural art."

Besides the shop, Mrs Azza's silver line of bracelets, necklaces with camels, ghutras and falcons, can be found on Etihad Airways flights. She has also started a line of furniture and objects made out of palm trees and fronds.

"In the past, when they made things from the palm fronds, they would use fresh ones. I came up with my own technique of using dead ones so they are not wasted but turned into useful objects."

Mrs Azza, who is married with one daughter, also works with her husband, making furniture such as chairs and tables using the palm tree.

"It is always a family project, where my husband will be helping me with the cutting, while my daughter will be handing me over some pieces here and there," she says.

Mrs Azza is excited about how things are picking up for Emirati products, with various recent initiatives such as the online "I love UAE" website (www.iloveuae.ae) that acts as "virtual ambassador" for Emirati products and ideas. She hopes these this will push creative people to unite.

"There are many talented people and artisans who are doing handcrafts and cultural products, but we are all disconnected. I want us to co-operate more and have a central point so we can all grow together," she says. "Things made in the UAE are in demand now, and we should try to take advantage of that and build on it."

rghazal@thenational.ae