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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

NY NOW explores handmade trends in the 'MENA'


Handmade product was a major category at New York’s just-ended biannual NY NOW specialty marketing trade show, which took place digitally due to the pandemic.

“We’re deeply committed to handmade, and we’re looking to share layered and textured content,” said NY NOW creative marketing consultant Dondrill Glover, who conceived the Saturday (Jan. 30) Global Handmade Trends with Yasmine Dabbous--Middle East and North Africa presentation exploring artisanal handmade trends in the Middle East and North Africa (better known as the MENA region).

In the Global Handmade arena, added Glover, “you must reveal its people--with your lens inside of culture—and build narratives with passion.”

So she enlisted Beirut visual culture artist/researcher Yasmine Dabbous, also the founder of Kinship Stories, a line of tribal art necklaces revolving around values, stories and craftsmanship.

“She brought the program to life with details,” continued Glover. “She’s a gifted storyteller, designer and scholar, and shared the history of the region’s design traditions and then trended us forward.”

Dabbous’s presentation commenced with a geographical slide showing the MENA, including the Gulf region (Saudi Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates); the historical handmade centers of Iran and Turkey; the Levant (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel); and North Africa (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco).

“All of these countries have a rich handmade legacy,” said Dabbous of what she called “this often misunderstood area of the world.” She dated the history of handmade in the MENA region to the Silk Road and other major trade routes, though the first evidence of MENA handmade goes much further back, to 8000 BC in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq). Artisanship was a key factor in demonstrating the dominance of the Egyptian pharaohs, and later, the Sasanian Empire of Persia and the Byzantine Empire, followed by a succession of Islamic Empires that took handmade to new artistic heights.

“The MENA region is the source of many tools and techniques practiced worldwide in handmade industries today,” said Dabbous, adding that the MENA artisans have refined such practices as tile making, glass blowing, hand embroidery, inlaid woodwork, miniature painting, calligraphy, weaving (most notably including carpet weaving), textile dyeing, silversmithing, jewelry design and fabrication, stone carving and sculpture, basketmaking, ceramics and leather tanning.

Techniques like symmetrical and asymmetrical knot techniques in weaving, zellij* (mosaics) and cuerda seca (glaze application) in tile making; luster painting in ceramics; and wood carving, inlay and marquetry (decorative veneer) in woodwork, have been pioneered by these artisans.

“But like handmade work everywhere around the world, these traditions slowly withered away in the last two centuries,” said Dabbous, citing major regional political and sociocultural upheavals in the 19th and 20th centuries (capped by war and conflict), along with mechanization brought on by modernization, which left handmade artisans unable to compete with machines.

“Hands migrated to other jobs, and the long line of expertise quickly dwindled. Few prominent workshops remained, resisting the cultural and socioeconomic trends with difficulty.”

But according to Dabbous, there’s been a rebirth in the handmade industry in the MENA, grounded in its past traditions.

“Artists and designers today adopt a different approach,” she said. “They do not necessarily work with their hands, nor do they have the skills to do so, but they have studied in art and design schools, they know the traditions and techniques of the region, they are exposed to contemporary aesthetics and they know what sells. Working hand-in-hand with the remaining workshops, they are revolutionizing the world of handmade in the MENA region [and] offering a product that has enough value to compete with mechanically made fakes, despite the price difference.”

Dabbous pointed to the work of Salim Azzam, who hails from Mount Lebanon, where Lebanese hand embroidery once thrived. He now works in an embroidery workshop in an agricultural area, while creating artwork, via the Adobe Illustrator design program, that is inspired by local traditions while satisfying global tastes.

“His work suddenly seems more interesting to consumers than generic fast-fashion products that are all the same,” said Dabbous. “It embeds storytelling and corporate social responsibility [into objects that] consumers find themselves ready to pay. And that’s where handmade revival takes place: in consumer acceptance and appreciation.”

Dabbous observes a current “symbiosis between artists, designers and craftsmen” in formulating “a new handmade tradition.” The effects of war and poverty, meanwhile, have caused a wave of migration from one country to another in the MENA region, leading to “a mélange and fusion of skills and traditions--and giving birth to new projects.” Additionally, conflict and need has generated an influx of money from international organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank.

Lastly, new artisans have emerged from outside the traditional backgrounds, most with education outside the visual arts.

“Stressed and tired from the demands of contemporary life, hectic jobs, and regional trauma, they found healing in the handmade,” said Dabbous, offering the output of Ziad Halwani, manager of a local theater in Beirut, but also the son of a school instructor abducted during the Lebanese Civil War. He has since found peace by building a silversmithing workshop in a small blue van, where he creates handmade knives in reviving an art that is near extinction.

“I can share my own story, too,” said Dabbous. “I am a journalist by training [and] always wanted to tell stories and bring peace and change the world. Today, I make adornments inspired by tribal art in my region and beyond.”

As a maker herself, Dabbous is like others who migrated to handmade arts in “looking for healing [and] have a very different profile from traditional makers: We are usually exposed to global markets, we are research and marketing savvy, and we are not bound by tradition because we were not necessarily trained in a workshop or at a university. Although I have a textile degree from FIT, I never took embroidery classes there, and what I do with Kinship Stories is entirely self-taught. This, of course, is bound to create a new aesthetic and a new kind of handmade, free from the bias of tradition.”

That freedom from bias has begat an evolution in handmade patterns, colors, materials, textures, also “a migration of patterns across objects,” per Dabbous, pointing to a gold and enameled ring bearing a pattern usually found in tilework. “The origin of the pattern and the identity of the wearer,” she noted, “have nothing to do with each other.”

Dabbous closed her presentation by examining the current handmade category market.

“There are people who choose to add touches of handmade to their houses or their dress. Whether their furniture is contemporary or classical, [having] an embroidered pillow, a Syrian blown glass lamp, a piece of pottery and a Turkish towel add a beautiful handmade nuance to the overall feel.”

Other consumers, she added, “go for statement handmade pieces--conversation starters that will surely be noticed and admired. Whether you add them to your table, your space, or your outfit, they will acquire centerstage because they are noticeable.”

“Finally,” Dabbous concluded, “there are people who go for a full handmade lifestyle. Their living spaces or their gardens, in their entirety, will be largely furnished with handmade items. But then again, we are talking about the new handmade: contemporary, fresh, livable, with toned-down colors and breathable spaces.”




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