Photographed c.1948, in Qasr Al Hosn, Abu Dhabi (from right) Ahmad Bin Mohammad Al Salf Al Nuaimi, Shaikh Hazza Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Wilfred Thesiger (Mubarak Bin London), Shaikh Shakhbout Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Shaikh Khalid Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Image Credit: Courtesy of Moza Al Nuaimi

The atmosphere within the exhibition space carries an ethereal quality: mesmerising in what it displays; at once a testament to the UAE’s rich heritage and an intimate display of treasured familial keepsakes.

Lest We Forget — Emirati Adornment: Tangible and Intangible at Warehouse421 invites visitors to admire and discover previously unknown, or little-known, elements of Emirati culture. This is done by weaving 200 contributions by more than 100 donors into a fascinating journey that aims to bridge the gap between past and current generations through historical and contemporary examples and practices.

“The sophisticated play of tangible and intangible forms of adornment, so eloquently expressed by [the] Emirati people, was the inspiration [behind] the latest Lest We Forget publication and exhibition,” says Dr Michele Bambling, Creative Director of Lest We Forget.

It draws on content and experience accrued over the previous two Lest We Forget exhibitions: Structures of Memory in the UAE (Venice Biennale, 2014 and Qasr Al Hosn Festival, 2015), an object-based architectural history of the emirates, and Emirati Family Photographs 1950-1999 (Warehouse421, 2015).

“Emirati Adornment: Tangible and Intangible recognises that adornment a vital form of personal and cultural aesthetic expression… [it] has universal significance and can stir memories in us all. It offers a delightful way of exploring Emirati identity and cultural heritage through personal and shared expressions,” she explained.

The exhibition is the latest venture by Lest We Forget, a grassroots creative archival initiative supported by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation. Each exhibition and their accompanying programmes, which include public lectures, workshops and talks, is developed using a concept Dr Bambling established in 2012 during her time as a professor at Zayed University.

“Lest We Forget aims to preserve and promote the cultural heritage and vernacular memory of the land that has become the UAE. The initiative digitally archives publicly-sourced photographs, objects and oral histories. It strives to keep the essence of indigenous traditions alive by exploring and communicating their on-going significance through contemporary art works and artist books,” Dr Bambling says.

Over the course of one year the Lest We Forget team — working alongside community members and interns from Zayed University and New York University Abu Dhabi — archived photographs, objects and oral histories that formed the inspiration for creating the artist-book and contemporary artworks in the exhibition.

“The greatest challenge in facilitating this process has been to frame the sharing of personal photographs, objects, memories and reflections by staying true to the contributions without fringing upon the privacy of those mentioned in the stories and memories or photographs shared with the Lest We Forget Archive,” she said.

Though there are many exhibitions and festivals that touch upon Emirati heritage and offer invaluable efforts in keeping the country’s cultural identity alive and well, Dr Brambling notes that what makes Lest We Forget stand out is how it archives and displays the diverse contributions it receives.

“Each Lest We Forget exhibition and book initiates a seminal stage of exploring Emirati cultural memory through contemporary response. New exhibitions build upon previous archival contributions, research and art production,” she explained.

She added: “The memories and artefacts from one exhibition and publication layer upon the next. All content is authentic and generously offered by people who aspire to participate in the telling of Emirati vernacular histories and articulation of contemporary responses. This collaborative, layered and inspired approach makes Lest We Forget a unique archival initiative in the UAE.”

In this instance, Lest We Forget — Emirati Adornment: Tangible and Intangible is divided between the ‘tangible’ — jewellery, clothing and weapons — and ‘intangible’, which in this case refers to temporal elements that mark daily life, such as henna, kohl, fragrance, and cosmetics, as well as through grooming, nail care, and hairstyles. This aims to acknowledge the cultural heritage passed down through generations, as reflected in what may appear to be ordinary, and in some cases extraordinary, objects.

“I’m very proud of [this exhibition]. Now we say something more about the UAE, its history — tangible and intangible, so that more people can know about UAE’s history and culture,” said Dr Ahmad Al Khouri, one of the exhibition’s contributors. He is also the head of special studies at the Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations (ADCO).

Dr Al Khouri donated swords, daggers and rifles from his sizeable collection. Their presence offer visitors definite proof of the UAE’s — then the Trucial States — comprehensive history, including evidence of their trading prowess with both Gulf countries and beyond.

“I brought some 40-50 [items] and they chose 30. I brought some 20 rifles, they chose 12 [along with] 10 [swords], and of course the jewellery,” he said.

The items on display include ornately decorated rifles, inlaid with patterns embossed with mother-of-pearl, as well as late 19th century Martini-Henry rifles that bear their place of manufacture at the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield, London. Meanwhile, some of the swords, with their unique detailed etchings, made in locations like Julfar in Ras Al Khaimah, have blades that are believed to have originated in Renaissance Europe. Moreover, various baroque traditional daggers, or khanjars, display elephant ivory and rhino horn handles that reflect the Gulf’s trading history with countries as far away as Africa. Furthermore, their subtle design variations offer hints as to whether their owners were seafaring merchants or camel herders.

“[It’s] very exciting [to be a part of the exhibition]… many people think that we are a new country and we did not have these historic [objects] but these items are five to six hundred years old. The UAE is a very important part in the Arabian Peninsula,” said Dr Al Khouri.

This sentiment is also shared by Dr Bambling: “Every photograph, object and oral history contributed to the Lest We Forget Archive has its own significance, yet also provides inspiration for reflection and artistic response. In my mind, it is the creative layering of shared memories, artistry and community collaboration that yields the most interesting and vibrant works in the exhibition and book.”

Given the retrospective’s expansive nature, visitors may be forgiven if they find themselves unsure where to start or what to focus on. These include delicate gold jewellery featuring pearls and semi-precious stones set in necklaces, pendants, rings and bracelets, to a complete silver set that depicts the geometrically-patterned ornaments a traditional Bedouin woman would wear. Meanwhile, pearl enthusiasts can admire the instruments utilised by divers and traders as well as a portrait of the late President Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, composed entirely of pearls.

To help guide visitors, Dr Al Khouri revealed which contribution attracted his interest the most.

“The diary books, because these things can be given to the bride or our daughters to take it to their own house, and for them to hopefully share it with their future children. It is something that each UAE house typically had,” he said.

The exhibition also features many interactive elements that aim to encourage a more hands-on experience for visitors. This serves to draw people into a world that is closer than they think, trigger memories, and spark conversations through exploring the objects on display.

One way this is done is by offering visitors the opportunity to open boxes containing perfume-making materials such as oud, amber, sandalwood, and frankincense, but can also experience a display of native plants, housed in a small external courtyard, that were traditionally used in their manufacture. Another is through short films that have been made in collaboration with Image Nation Abu Dhabi. They are dedicated to both tangible and intangible topics such as the making and application of Al Mahalab, a plant-based paste that was traditionally applied to the hair of brides-to-be and whose fragrance lasts for approximately one week, and traditional khanjars.

Visitors can also discover just how each aspect of Emirati life weaves seamlessly within different areas — and across generations — through a unique digital display of the Lest We Forget archive. Its communal nature is reflected in the choices offered to visitors; they can observe the diverse photographs that can be drawn together under topics including daily life, celebrations, hunting and much more.

Dr Bambling also worked with interns and emerging artists on installations, including a stop-motion animation projected inside an antique wooden bridal chest by Emirati illustrator Amani Jamal Baswaid. It tells the story of a young bride from Buraimi, now Al Ain, who received a palm sapling as part of her dowry, which provided her family with shelter and construction materials as well as food. Other specially-commissioned works include Namesake Necklace, a sculpture made from bright orange 701 embroidery threads by Ayesha Hadhir Al Mheiri that was inspired by a keepsake given by her grandmother, and Burqua Portrait of 50 Ladies by Noura Al Mansouri. This display of various burqas, or face coverings, not only offers visitors a glimpse into the craftsmanship that goes into their creation but also allows to explore the world through them.

“All content in the exhibition and the accompanying book is rooted in generous contributions by Emirati citizens to the Lest We Forget Archive. Thus, authentic heritage is the core of each contemporary art and interactive installation as well as entry of the book,” said Dr Bambling.

She added: “The entire exhibition and book, while contemporary and original, springs from tradition, thus reviving knowledge of past skills, perspectives, experience and practices. Inherently this curatorial approach keeps Emirati cultural heritage relevant and interesting across generations.”

When asked by Weekend Review what they hoped visitors would take away from the exhibition, Dr Bambling and Dr Al Khouri shared similar desires.

“I hope the exhibition will inspire visitors to discover the unique beauty of Emirati aesthetic culture, traditional and contemporary. Appreciating the diverse modes of adornment expressed in the Emirates — male and female, young and old, indigenous and cross-cultural — sheds light upon the spirit of tolerance in the UAE. It provides insight into Emirati identity as well as encourages deeper understanding of ourselves, universally,” said Dr Bambling.

Dr Al Khouri agreed, adding: “I have participated in many exhibitions but this [one] feels rather special, perhaps it is [the items being displayed] or the way it is laid out… we hope we will be able to promote the UAE’s culture and heritage more in the future. Most importantly, to inform tourists and the rest of the world that we have a very long and rich history.”

The exhibition will be supported by several public workshops and talks given through the ‘Wednesdays at the Warehouse’ programme at Warehouse421. Lest We Forget will also give a public talk at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair during its run from April 27 to May 3.

Lest We Forget — Emirati Adornment: Tangible & Intangible will run at Warehouse 421 until August 27. For further information, please visit http://www.warehouse421.ae/