New creative cultures: in conversation with Dubai's acclaimed female designers
It’s a good time to be a designer in Dubai, with increased support from both the public and private sectors. Initiatives such as the five year-old Design Days Dubai fair, the establishment of the Dubai Design District and Design Week have all contributed to a robust cultural ecosystem. With that, a growing crop of emerging local and UAE-based designers is being cultivated and they are making waves, not least for being young pioneers or women for that matter, nor for their fusion of tradition and modernity, but rather for their ability to wear many hats: as visual artists, designers and architects.
'There’s a very strong female presence and there’s a lot of support for that. It’s hard for me to think about how being female affects my identity as a designer,' says Rand Abdul Jabbar, an Iraqi-born designer with architecture degrees from the universities of Dalhousie and Columbia. 'There is a sense of support and a discourse around design more than architecture. What’s lacking is constructive criticism.'
Zaha Hadid was Abdul Jabbar’s primary source of inspiration and she completed two internships at the late architect’s firm. Raised between the UAE and Canada, Abdul Jabbar created 'Forma' in 2015, a chair and table derived from sectional templates of the traditional dhow ship, the construction method of which is passed on orally. 'The dhow is a national icon, but at the same time, the spaces that support this craft are being threatened,' she says. 'I wanted to shed light on this beautiful craft in a different way. A chair goes back to this idea of habitation.'
Talin Hazbar, a Syrian-born designer who was raised in Sharjah, also took inspiration from a traditional element: the desert. 'I was interested in it as a landscape. It’s an alive but dead space. I am also intrigued by the behaviour of sand,' she says. 'Sand is delicate and by its own nature, wants to do something else.'
Being a woman, she says, is a non-issue in Dubai; 'I feel the city’s support, there are so many opportunities,' says Hazbar, who took part in Design Days Dubai 2015 and the Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation Fellowship programme in collaboration with the Rhode Island School of Design in the same year. Later this year, she joins three other UAE-based designers who have each been commissioned by the Abu Dhabi government to create artworks and installations for the opening of a rather notable local unveiling.
Hazbar’s colleague in this initiative is the Emirati-born Zeinab Al Hashemi, who will be working on an installation using glassblowing as a technique. She has also been commissioned by Swarovski to create a work using the house’s crystals but will incorporate elements from Emirati heritage. 'My work is so affected by design and design solutions, and I emphasise the use of Emirati materials,' says Al Hashemi, who has created a sand dune made of camel hide for the biennial 'Emirati Expressions' exhibition in 2015 and a rug made of treated camel leather for Design Days Dubai the year before.
'It’s amazing to be recognised by a lot of influencers and I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not been in and for Dubai,' says Al Hashemi. 'But I think now is a critical time as I wonder what’s next for me? Dubai’s done a great job of promoting me locally and regionally but I’m curious and nervous about the international arena. At this point I need time and guidance.'