Time stands still when you see a craftwork. Every warp and woof tells a story that goes beyond arguing its aesthetic legitimacy to demonstrate the skill and cultural vocabulary of its

maker. Combine that with technological innovation and the result is a wondrous confluence of tradition and modernity, which lies at the core of the UAE’s creative landscape.

“To really get to know a country, one needs to understand its history and culture,” says Dr Hayat Shamsuddin, Senior Vice President of Expo Pavilions and Exhibitions at Expo 2020 Dubai.

She’s the driving force behind MENASA – Emirati Design Platform, a showcase housing the works of over 40 local and international designers, each of whom reimagine Emirati crafts through a contemporary lens. “The collective approach of MENASA, which means ‘platform’ in Arabic, is inspired by the theme and spirit of Expo 2020 Dubai, ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’,” said Dr Hayat.

The Pearl Diving Story
8,000 Waves: The Pearl Diving Story, collaboration between Todomuta and Asateer studios. Image Credit: Supplied

Curated by Samer Yamani, Director of Expo 2020 Dubai’s Design and Crafts Program, MENASA is positioned as the largest-ever gathering of local and international designers, celebrating Emirati artisanal work and uses craft as a communication tool that’s merged with new technologies and materials to convey stories of the UAE. “The curatorial approach that underpins the platform was based on three strands, which considered the role of heritage crafts in Emirati culture, explored local materials within their geographical landscapes, and reflected on the impact of design on people’s lives,” Dr Hayat explains.

As you approach the façade of the MENASA exhibition space in Rove Expo 2020 Hotel that sits next to Al Wasl Plaza, you’ll be immediately enraptured by its Flowing Crafts window display. The design installation, which has been envisioned by Italian architect Carmelo Zappulla and Syrian-born couturier Rami Al Ali, in collaboration with Al Ghadeer UAE Crafts, offers a mélange of architecture, fashion and sustainable craft.

“The 13-meter-long flowing sculptural form blends cutting-edge 3D printing technology with traditional Emirati crafts and materials,“ Dr Hayat states. “Taking inspiration from nature, Carmelo used 3D printing technology to create the eye-catching, dynamic form of interweaving lines that evokes the power of both natural forces and technological innovation.”

Rami, who is known for his striking couture creations, was then invited to dress the futuristic 3D-printed form. In collaboration with Al Ghadeer UAE Crafts, he selected and worked with the wool of Sadu, the intricate, golden patterns of Talli embroidery, local natural palm fibres, and threads used in traditional fishing nets, exploring how the tactile and aesthetic qualities of the materials interact with each other.

A curatorial hook of MENASA is Craft Stories, which features seven design collaborations between local and international designers. “The Emirati crafts on display represent rich, living traditions that go back in history. At Craft Stories each story is told through a multi-layered journey that reflects on many facets of the UAE, its landscape, people, traditions, values and identity,” shares Dr Hayat.

Safari-Barari, collaboration between Chris Schwagga and Sheikha and Afra Bin Daher, supported by 1971 – Design Space based in Sharjah. Image Credit: Supplied

Here, you discover creations like the limited-edition Safari-Barari collection by Rwandan artist Chris Schwagga and Emirati sisters Sheikha and Afra Bin Dhaher. Supported by the Sharjah-based 1971 – Design Space and featuring the Emirati craft of gargour (wire-crafted fish trap), the collection comprises 12 metal sculptures of the Rwandan cow and Arabian oryx, each bedecked with beadwork belts created by African artisans.

Among the highlights of the platform is 8,000 Waves: The Pearl Diving Story, a collaboration between Spanish design studio Todomuta and Asateer, an Emirati design firm founded by Mohammed Al Suwaidi, who is the grandson of a pearl diver.

Crafted in metal and inlaid with mother of pearl that was cut from oyster shells farmed locally in Ras Al Khaimah, the series comprises a unique wall sculpture and limited-edition candleholders and incense burners. “8,000 Waves is a multi-layered expression of the UAE, its history and spirit today, says Dr Hayat. It tells the story of hardship and prosperity, respect for the past and memory of our grandfathers, but it also talks to the young and entrepreneurial spirit of the UAE through the story of Asateer.”

The rhythmic forms of the 8,000 Waves collection summons up the Arabian Gulf – the sea glistening in the sun and the shape of the boats that carried the pearl divers for months at a time, as a nod to the centuries-old history of the craft in the Emirates.

Part of the platform’s impressive roster is Designer of the Week, a series that features 24 UAE-based established and emerging designers, and public and private organisations that support the local design and crafts community. With products spanning homeware, fashion and local crafts, their collections celebrate the diversity of the country’s designers and the mediums in which they work.

Among the participating designers at MENASA, who have been drawn from 11 countries and across four continents, are Emirati jewellery designer Alia bin Omair, Emirati design entrepreneur Khalid Shafar, Dubai-based jewellery brand Bil Arabi, Sharjah’s Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council, Dubai-based art space Tashkeel, BD Barcelona Design from Spain, Brazilian design firm Estudio Campana, Lebanese carpet brand Iwan Maktabi and fashion designer Nicolas Jebran, and India-based lighting brand Klove Studio. “The fact that these designers are a part of something as collaborative and immersive as Expo 2020 is in itself empowering,” notes Dr Hayat.

Design highlights include pieces like UAE-based designer Ammar Kalo’s Sliced’ and ‘Strati | Black Edition stools, which survey the relationship between traditional handcraft and digital fabrication methods. Also on view is a unique collection of coffee cups designed by Kholoud Sharafi, the Emirati co-founder of multidisciplinary design firm Tinkah and its inventive creative realm, The Foundry.

Ammar Kalo
Furniture pieces designed by Ammar Kalo. Image Credit: Supplied

The firm has developed a new material named ‘Ramel’, which has been presented at MENASA. “Cultural surroundings play a pivotal role in Tinkah’s research path, but their main driving force is curiosity. Ramel tames the characteristics of desert sand into a mouldable medium, emerging from the environment of the ever-shifting dunes of the UAE,” explains Dr Hayat. All collections are available for sale and the showcasing brands plan on restocking and introducing new creations over the course of Expo 2020 Dubai.

A series of documentaries shot on location around the UAE are also being exhibited alongside the design collections, further drawing visitors into the world of artisans and their crafts, including clay, safeefa (palm-frond weaving), talli (embroidery), sadu (bedouin weaving), gargour making (wire-crafted fish traps), pearl diving and coffee making. “MENASA has sought to bring Emirati artisans to the fore, highlighting their importance as living testimony to the social, cultural and geographical domains of the UAE, especially in the context of the unprecedented transformation undergone by Emirati society in recent decades. Their innate knowledge as storytellers guides visitors on an emotional exploration of local culture through stories, materials and landscapes,” notes Dr Hayat.

Over the next few months, MENASA will continue to host activations where visitors will learn about Emirati crafts, the knowledge embodied in local artisans, designers and entities that support Emirati crafts and artisans, production processes behind designs, and of course, the UAE landscapes.

MENASA aims at leaving a mark on the UAE’s creative community even after Expo 2020 Dubai closes its doors on 31 March 2022.

“We’ve ignited the ecosystem, wish for it to thrive and prosper, and constantly reach new territories and audiences. This can be achieved by merging the skills and the rich heritage of Emirati artisans with contemporary creativity and innovative techniques and materials.” It’s this sense of craft that will continue to bolster the UAE’s position in the international creative circuit.