Published in Villa 88 Magazine, AW 2015
Emirati artist and designer Latifa Saeed attempts to revive the UAE’s traditional crafts through industrial design and art
Words by Priyanka Pradhan
How can design trigger nostalgia? How can design make tradition relevant?”
These are some of the questions that ran through the mind of interdisciplinary artist, Latifa Saeed, before she embarked upon a unique concept to bring industrial design and tradition together. The Emirati artist’s latest design installation project, Kinetic Khoos, is a series of sculptural toys for children—a concept that aims to revive the traditional Emirati craft of toy making by using natural raw material such as khoos or palm fronds. She hopes the project challenges one’s perception of a traditional craft to recognize its relevance today.
“Traditionally, palm leaves and fronds were used to make fans, food trays, food covers, baskets, mats, houses and boats,” she says. “Fronds were even bound together and lined with pitch to make water tanks. An inconspicuous use for palm leaves was children’s toys—I remember when older women used to show us how to play with them when we were young, showing us techniques on how to build a fan and make it fly, to weave a thick piece of fresh palm leaf strip, and palm dolls dressed in the sheila (headscarves) and thoab (traditional dress); it brings back memories, emotions and laughter.”
Extensive research into the different types of weaves led to artistic exchanges with local artisans and offered her an insight into how traditional artisans work, fabricate and survive in the modern world. According to Saeed, the sharing of passions and ideas created an interesting dynamic between her and Sheikha, an artisan she collaborated with, on exploring ways to connect the contemporary to the past.
As part of the Design program for Contemporary art organization, Tashkeel, Latifa Saeed was selected for a second time to represent them at Dubai Design Days 2015 with her Kinetic Khoos project.
“It took about two weeks to complete a single toy from the collection, starting from design to industrial machinery to assembly,” says Saeed. “For the limited edition crab, which is part of the collection and is sold out now, it took almost two months to produce each piece.”
But the most challenging part of the project was learning the ropes of industrial manufacturing on the go. “It was difficult to convince the industrial manufacturers at first because the concept was new and unheard of—it was difficult for them to understand the idea, especially without a sample product at hand,” she says. “Also, sourcing materials and finding artisans who are willing to have their work artistically manipulated was a tough challenge.”
But “persistence and refusing to give up” made sure the project ran to fruition.
Her previous project, Braided, was also supported by Tashkeel and showcased at the 2014 City Scape exhibition as part of Dubai Design Days last year. Inspired by hair braids—a very popular traditional hairstyle for children in the Emirates, the project saw her crafting a collection of furniture using braided linen cushion tubes upholstered in a wooden frame.
Unable to find a child-friendly and functional headboard in the market, she created her own design by experimenting and re-imagining the classic buttoned headboard. She then developed the technique of braiding linen cushion tubes and gathering them into clusters to create a padded surface of an organic pattern.
Infact, it was a picture of a headboard using her ‘braided’ concept on Instagram, that caught the attention of Sheikha Lateefa, founder of Tashkeel, who offered to mentor her under the Tashkeel Design Program last year.
While her work so far has been fairly diverse, using vastly different concepts and materials, she says what she’s currently working on is even farther away from what she’s ever done before. “It’s confidential,” she says. “But let’s just say we will have a presence at the upcoming Dubai Design Week (26-31 October 2015) where more will be revealed,” she adds mysteriously.
Saeed’s ability to work in different disciplines without allowing herself to become restricted by a certain material or methodology is reflected in her attitude and free- spiritedness. “I can never have a favorite piece, discipline or medium to work in,” she says. “I’m wholly in love with whatever I’m working on at the moment but I know my next project will be even more fascinating!” www.tashkeel.org