Five senior Emirati women shuffle into an open sunlit room with purpose. They each settle down in front of a metal stool cinched at the centre, on top of which lies a cylindrical pin cushion wrapped in silver and golden spools of thread. In their traditional garb, the women artisans of Sharjah-based Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council start on their respective ‘talli’ embroideries with nimble fingers.
Talli is the intricate thread patterns lining their ‘burqa’s’ wrists and hems, Dr Hayat Shamsuddin points out the detail in the short film, as she takes Gulf News on a tour of the Emirati design platform MENASA at Expo 2020 Dubai. So elaborate is this traditional handicraft that one yard (or nearly a metre) of talli could take an entire day to braid, adds the senior vice president of arts and culture at Expo.
Once done, the women on the screen spool the finished product around their sinewy hands – the same hands that have been tirelessly teaching the art of talli generation after generation.
A commercial platform for designers
As part of Expo’s arts and culture programme since 2019, MENASA (Arabic for ‘platform’) brings together the works of over 40 local and international designers. The curated collection for the world fair narrates stories inspired by the UAE, with representation from all seven Emirates. What lies behind the doors is a modern interpretation of the nation’s vibrant art scene dating all the way to the third millennium BCE.
“To understand a nation, you would have to dig deeper into their culture, and you will find that crafts are rooted in the identity of any society. At MENASA, visitors will have the opportunity to experience Emirati identity and environment through the design collections showcased here,” said Shamsuddin.
Bespoke items from stackable coffee cups to metallic perfume applicators decorate the space, some accompanied by brief documentaries and others text for the visitor. Every piece is unique and up for sale: “We’re offering [the designers] a commercial platform so that they can be empowered,” she added.
Paying homage to Emirati crafts
Yards of talli from the documentary are, in fact, part of an ornate golden dress at the heart of the MENASA store. Along with beaded gloves and a bejewelled headpiece, the glamorous gown on display took seven months to complete. This is the result of a rare collaboration between Lebanese fashion designer Nicolas Jebran and the artisans seen earlier in the film.
Several similar pieces in the room were born of surviving Emirati crafts. Besides talli, Shamsuddin lists other featured techniques: “Sadu is a weaving craft that is generally practised inland by Bedouins in the western region like the city of Al Sila; pottery in the mountains because that’s where they get the clay; safeefa or palm frond weaving takes place close to oases such as in Al Ain, Fujairah and Sharjah; pearl diving near the coast; and coffee making is common to us all.”
Creators were pushed out of their comfort zone to meet Expo’s stringent criteria, including the use of sustainable materials. Only if the prototypes passed the MENASA evaluation could the designers go ahead with their actual pieces.
Rugs woven by a robot and weavers from the House of Artisans in Abu Dhabi hang on the walls up ahead. The largest statement piece nearly spans the entire surface and costs over Dh200,000, for it’s no ordinary floor covering. Not only is the carpet made of recycled nylon called Eco-nyl sourced from discarded fish nets, but it also tells two craft stories simultaneously.
Hand movements of women sadu weavers were recorded and woven into the carpet as a dotted density map by Nepalese artisans. Layered on this is the brisk hand movements of fish net makers, which a robotic arm draws using an inky spray on the rug. No two carpets in the collection of 25 are the same.
Igniting a new appreciation of Emirati crafts
“We have 11 countries represented here and four continents – it’s a reflection of the UAE being a connector for all the designers who have made the UAE their home,” said Shamsuddin. “We never wanted to showcase crafts in a dull way, and if you don’t show the crafts the way you have shown it here, it will die.”
MENASA hopes to ignite a new appreciation of Emirati crafts within the design scene, and “to create an interest in [local] crafts amongst the younger designer communities”. That is how the baton is passed, that is how we ensure that the Irthi women can keep lining gowns and abayas with bands of fashionable talli for ages to come.