The design collective that’s giving Palestinian craftsmanship a contemporary edge
Hamde Abu Rahma
A silhouette-skimming dress fashioned from a keffiyeh, a casual suit made of traditional bedouin fabric, a multi-currency and multi-passport leather wallet – a new design label is giving traditional Palestinian crafts a lesson in modern functionality. Built on collaboration, ‘Disarming Design from Palestine’ aims at introducing Palestine’s olive wood carvers, embroiderers, ceramicists and glass-blowers to its young contemporary artists, through a series of workshops and stylish heritage products. The project seeks to encourage material responses to Palestinian culture and identity as it exists today, while remaining respectful of and faithful to its rich past.
A large part of the organisation’s work takes place under the auspices of the International Academy of Art Palestine, located in an old renovated house in a suburb of Al Bireh, just outside Ramallah’s eternally busy city centre. Since the label’s conception in 2012, the academy, in coordination with the Sandberg Instituut Amsterdam, has held two workshops, each for a period of two weeks. During each workshop, Palestinian students, artists and designers hold conversations, lectures and field visits alongside artisans, small business owners and international colleagues.
In 2013, for example, designers Nadya Hazbunova, Diala Isid and Jaroslav Toussaint collaborated with the Arja Textile Company based in Beit Jala, just outside of Bethlehem, to produce a shirt they titled, ‘I am an Arab’. The shirt, which comes in either black or white, is printed with the shape of a fingerprint, its lines made from the words of a poem by the legendary Mahmoud Darwish.
In a similar meeting of old and new, Palestinian-Czech fashion designer Nadya Hazbunova paired up with olive wood artisan Iyad Sway of Beit Jala to produce a pair of women’s shoes, with chunky wedge heels fashioned from thick sections of smooth olive wood and straps made from strips of kuffiyeh.
‘There were a lot of discussions about processes of creation, design and the use of different materials,’ says 22 year old Ali al-Diq, a fourth-year student at the art academy who participated in the most recent workshop. ‘It was really important for me to meet other artists from across Palestine – we were all working with different mediums and brought different mindsets to the table. It was really useful. It was actually the first time I worked with something in relation to design,’ says al-Diq, whose chosen medium is usually photography and video.
Through the workshops, Disarming Design intends to encourage the development of contemporary products through traditional processes of production, in addition to cultivating a stronger design community within Palestine. ‘I came to the workshop thinking about cars,’ al-Diq relates. ‘I have a car, and was thinking of how to use traditional Palestinian design concepts in a contemporary way.’ After hashing out his thoughts with his fellow participants, al-Diq came up with the idea of creating car seat covers using traditional Palestinian embroidery.
‘I’ve seen many old women working on embroidery,’ he explains. ‘Embroidery often tends to be very busy and overly colourful for my taste, even the Palestinian thobe is “busy” in its design… this was a chance for me to bring something new, to use traditional fabrics in a different way.’ The traditional method of embroidery, with its complex language of colour and symbolism, combined with a modern-day car accessory, created exactly what al-Diq was aiming for, a contemporary presentation of the traditional.
Positive reception encouraged al-Diq to take on another collaborative project with Disarming Design. Ramallah shoemaker, Imad Rahala, and South African designer, Hannes Bernard, had begun a similar collaboration, combining traditional Palestinian embroidery with footwear to create a pair of retro-inspired sport shoes. With Bernard now back in South Africa, al-Diq has taken over the embroidery work.
While the workshops focus on design and workflow, participants spend the majority of their time visiting artisans across the West Bank, ranging from the Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans network (a collective of over 130 olive wood workers), the Hirbawi Textile Factory in Hebron (the only producer of the original keffiyeh in Palestine), to the Hebron Glass and Ceramics Factory and the Toukan Soap Factory in Nablus.
‘You don’t treat heritage as a dead object that you keep celebrating by recreating the same object,’ says Majd Abdel Hamid, artist and designer, from his office at the International Academy of Art Palestine in Al Bireh. Hamid is one of the project’s three conceptual directors, who, alongside Khaled Hourani, an artist, critic and former arts director of the academy, and Annelys de Vet, a Belgium-based designer and author of the ‘Subjective Atlas of Palestine’, hope that the collaborative nature of the project will bring Palestinian product designers together, allowing them to share ideas and forge workable partnerships that would have otherwise not been realised.
Hamid also hopes Disarming Design’s collaborations will give Palestinian visual heritage a tool to reflect its deeper current realities. ‘It’s something we don’t have within the Palestinian community, design as a discourse,’ says Hamid. ‘People mainly develop things on their own here.’ By establishing lasting, working relationships and connections between Palestinian designers, artisans, craftsmen and craftswomen that exist outside the centricity of Ramallah, in addition to questioning and transforming traditional symbols and materials, Disarming Design hopes to breathe life into Palestinian design.
‘We’re kind of in a static limbo, we’re stuck with symbols, we’re stuck with the Palestinian map, we’re stuck with Handala… This is an opportunity to actually recreate something and have our own form of deconstructionism, not for the sake of deconstruction itself, but rather to rethink our national symbols and our visual narrative.’
During the latest workshop, 30 year old Mahmon Sharedi of Mazara’ al-Gharbiyeh collaborated with Hamid and de Vet to produce olive wood replicas of the Ford taxi vans seen ubiquitously throughout the West Bank. ‘Daily life in Palestine takes place within these taxis,’ says Sharedi. ‘I wanted to express our daily reality with natural, locally found materials. You know, everywhere you look there is traffic and taxis.’
Hamid insists that it’s time to move on from the rather played-out, tourist-oriented nature of handicrafts. ‘This project provides an opportunity, a small window, to produce something within this community and to put some questions on the table, other than… you know, being preoccupied with making biblical figures for Christian pilgrims and tourists. You can make the sheep, the crosses, the nativity scene… this is fine and it’s part of our production heritage. But then how do you go forward from this?’
During this year’s workshop, Sharedi collaborated and studied with olive wood workers who are members of the Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans collective. ‘I learnt how to work with olive wood in Bethlehem – how to start with a large piece, which is a bit overwhelming, and then slowly shape it down into the final figure. Collaboration allowed me take my initial idea and turn it into a reality.’
The reciprocal nature of Disarming Design means to not only take inspiration from local craftsmen but to also share with them a new approach to design theory. ‘It’s important, you know, bringing together the society of Palestinian artists and talking about how we come up with ideas, where we get these ideas from and how these ideas and pieces represent us collectively,’ says Sharedi.
‘There is nothing wrong with the current products. They’re beautiful,’ says de Vet, conceptual director of the project. ‘The problem is that they often end up in fair trade contexts. You’re not addressed as a customer, you’re addressed as a good person because you feel a sense of sympathy, not just because they’re really nicely designed products.’
The partnership put forward by Disarming Design allows designers to maintain intellectual ownership of the products, while the label focuses on distribution and promotion. Although it was initially created via grant money, the organisers hope it will soon be self-sustaining, a fact which Hamid argues, would allow them to self-strategise instead of being reactionary to, and confined within, donor-funding stipulations. He hopes that such sustainability will eventually lead to the creation of a full-on design programme within the art academy at Al Bireh.
Disarming Design is set to launch its website and online store by the end of the year, and has plans in the works for several exhibitions and mobile shops throughout the Palestinian territories. Partnerships, however, are not limited to the region. The label is also working, and looking to work, with Palestinians designers and artists in Gaza and throughout the diaspora.
‘We are not only representing Palestinians,’ says Hamid, ‘we should also talk with each other. I think art and design are very powerful tools that can allow us to have serious discussions within the community about our political, social and cultural realities.’