Dialogue with the Saudi artist about traditional crafts and spirituality
Dana Awartani, a Saudi artist of Palestinian origin, carries in her genes veins from Syria and Jordan, all threads of a rich cultural heritage. The artist chooses to express her methods immersed in heritage. In Islamic motifs and their geometrical formations, she finds a haven and a sound. She uses shapes, whose secrets she learned through years of study and training, to express new visual methods that she uses to serve her artistic projects and subjects. In her participation “Where the Residents Lie” in the “Desert X” exhibition in Al-Ula, Awartani chose to return to building the ancient tombs in Madain Saleh, and used stones that fit the general scene around the work, but rather became like a mirage that appears and disappears to the beholder. The artist used stones from the area and followed a construction method that resembles What the Nabateans built in Mada’in Saleh.
For the topic of her participation in the Diriyah Biennale, she chooses to comment on the loss of ancient monuments such as the Great Mosque of Aleppo, which was built in the 13th century AD and became the city’s icon, until it was destroyed by the clashes that took place in the mosque’s square in 2013 and its minaret, which is more than a thousand years old, was destroyed. She brings her craft and all she has learned from Islamic craft methods to make a mudbrick version of the mosque’s courtyard. The bricks are made from local clay and kneaded using traditional methods. In the work, elements from the local environment are combined with a visualization that transports the viewer to Aleppo. The artist chose to use the traditional construction methods of mud houses in Diriyah…another heritage that is on its way to disappear.
A work displayed in an exhibition in Jeddah
The love of Islamic engineering
If we want to understand the artist’s passion for Islamic architecture and traditional crafts, we must go back to the recent past. In July 2011, she met Awartani at her graduation ceremony at Prince Charles’ School of Heritage Crafts. At that time, Awartani presented her graduation project to Prince Charles, who then toured between the graduation projects for master’s students at the school. Since that time, Awartani has been busy developing her love of Islamic architecture into various artistic projects, and the ten years have witnessed her development to become one of the most important emerging artistic faces in the artistic scene in the Kingdom. I come back to this year where I had the opportunity to see the artist’s work at the Diriyah Biennial, and I went to her with many questions about her artistic career and her love for traditional crafts, and this time she had a lot to tell about, about artworks that she participated in local and international exhibitions, about her learning new traditional crafts and her recent participation. At the Diriyah Biennale for Contemporary Art and after it at the “Desert X” exhibition for contemporary art held in AlUla.
Back to the beginning
In my interview with her in Jeddah, I go back to the beginnings. What attracted her to Islamic art and traditional crafts, and how this had to do with her artistic work? She answers that the beginning was always from Islamic architecture, which she adored since her childhood: “I have always been attracted to Islamic architecture and art. I remember when I was an undergraduate at St Martin’s College in London that my work and study were always related to Islamic geometric decoration, and that was before I received extensive training in the origins of that art, and after that I joined Prince Charles School of Heritage Crafts, there the resounding discovery occurred. I knew at the time that Islamic mathematical engineering was not only for decoration and decoration, but also had a deep philosophical language behind it. Islamic geometry is a visual expression of the world around us, manifested in nature, the human body, and plants. I see it as a mathematical way to understand the creation of the universe. What I love about that language is that every star, every number, and every shape has a meaning. as much as I can.” The artist believes that Islamic art resorted to these mathematical forms to compensate for the drawing of living creatures: “This is why geometry enjoys sophistication, and for this reason it has thrived.”
Geometric shapes in Islamic art may be seen by some as more decorative than deep meanings. Do you think that her works have brought about changes in people’s understanding and appreciation of this art?
“I must point out that my work has changed drastically since we met ten years ago,” she says. “My craft and my art have evolved. In the first five years of my artistic career, my concern was focused on shedding light on hidden meanings in the geometric form, in a way, returning the traditional crafts and arts again to the public, as I see them as a field of knowledge that we have lost for a while.”
Part of making a video entitled “I Went Away and Forgot You”
What strikes me during the dialogue is the artist’s emphasis on the importance of learning first, as she was not satisfied with obtaining a master’s degree from Prince Charles School of Traditional Arts and Crafts in London, but continued to learn everything she could in the craft dear to her heart. She says: “I see Islamic engineering as my craft, It took many years to master it, like any handicraft that must be trained and practiced in order to master it.” After training and studying, the artist devoted a long time to a deeper understanding of the meanings and symbols of Islamic architecture: “It was an educational journey for me and the audience of my works.”
To create works that depend on the basics of the Islamic craft, the artist cannot be lenient. Rather, she delved deeper into Islamic decorations and studied at the hands of a teacher in Turkey and received the license that qualified her to enter the field with confidence: “I wanted to learn more, and for this I went to an artist who still practices the art of Qur’an and manuscript decorations, as she is like All crafts require constant practice so that the hand does not forget everything that it has been trained on, it is important for me that my hands and my eyes remember all that training.”
Standing on the ruins
I remember what some people told me during the tour of the Biennale’s works, that Awartani was working for continuous hours with her hand in the installation of her work, she says: “This is what I do in every work of mine that depends on manual work, I feel that many artists have become separated from the details of their works, We have become more thinkers than manufacturers, and thus we have moved away from the skills required by manual work. Some resort to artistic production companies to carry out work, which is something I do not do. I like to be involved in the details. I think that the development of work is more important to me at times than the result.”
For those who see Awartani’s huge work in the Diriyah Biennial, which depicts the courtyard of the Great Mosque in Aleppo, entitled “Standing on the ruins of Aleppo,” the artist used what she learned over many years to create a work of art that used Islamic forms and extracted meanings from them that touch each of us, and expressed in her own unique way the beauty that Exposed to destruction and a past that does not respect the shovels of violence its antiquity.
Dana Awartani… “Standing on the ruins of Aleppo”
The work is huge and very impressive. The details of the mud bricks that formed the floor transport the viewer with his eye and his heart to that heritage place in Aleppo. However, the beholder will not cover all the details from any angle from which he looks, and to encompass the work as a whole, he must go up a few steps to what looks like a balcony overlooking it to get an integrated view.
For her part, the artist links her work with Diriyah, where the Biennale is being held. She says: “I chose to implement my work in the Biennale by using mud to reflect the historical mud buildings in Diriyah, a material that is not used now and knowledge of it has disappeared and people no longer use it for construction. In my work I used the old method of making bricks, and added a little detail of my own. I chose to abandon the straw that was traditionally used with the clay to make it stick. My goal was to crack the stone used because I wanted to show the fragility, which is related to the theme of the work.”
To carry out the work, the artist tried to get pictures of the courtyard floor, but she did not find anything useful for her on the Internet: “I made a copy of the courtyard with the same design. the yard”. She points out that she decided to use a different material to carry out the work: “I did not want to carry out the work using the same materials that were used in the courtyard and decided to work with mud, in reference to the ancient Diriyah buildings.”
I ask her: “In your work, you used a lot of tools and materials such as paper, cloth and clay. How do you choose the right material for each work?”
She brings us back to her practical study of materials and says she chooses the ones she can understand: “I think it is important for me to understand the craft because it means that I can solve any problem that may arise in the course of implementation.” Perhaps this may explain why she resorted to skilled craftsmen in some crafts that she did not master, such as weaving, which she did to implement a work for her entitled “Listen to My Words,” which she implemented in cooperation with an Indian weaving craftsman: “I worked with him to produce embroidered textiles, a well-known heritage technique, which I added to her The modern side with the addition of sound effects, it is an old and modern work at the same time.”
“Listen to My Words” by Dana Awartani
Sufism and poetry
In the idea of manual work, a kind of meditation and immersion in the moment, we feel that the artist has taken a spiritual and contemplative aspect from the traditional crafts, which she confirms to me by saying: “Meditation is rooted in traditional crafts, most of them are made slowly and repeatedly, the technique takes a long time. I did a similar work that was shown at the Rabat Biennale in Morocco called (Standing on the Ruins). I worked there with craftsmen who were from a Sufi sect and were working in pottery, for them the craft was like prayer, they sit every day to make thousands of pottery. I liked that”.
One of Awartani’s favorite topics is the preservation of traditional crafts. Do you think of her craft and what she learned as a legacy that he learned to others?
“Where The Residents Lie” at Desert X AlUla (Photo: Lance Gerber)