The Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council is on a mission to empower women practicing craft skills across the Middle East, North Africa and South and Central Asia by building a female-driven artisan economy while preserving the area’s cultural heritage for future generations.
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“Heritage crafts are usually performed by women in communal groups,” explains Irthi’s curator, Farah Nasri. “Championing the role of women in the crafts sector is vital in creating a new narrative and social standing for women within marginalized communities. Investment in specific areas, identified as centers of knowledge for crafts, in the form of the BIDWA Centers has a noticeable effect on those communities.”
Craftswomen benefit economically as well as receiving support to develop new opportunities and undertake vocational training. Irthi’s most recent efforts have led to Sharjah being recognized as a city of Crafts & Folk Art for the craft of Talli in 2019 by UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network.
The Bidwa Social Development Programme, employs 40 artisans, provides them with vocational training and helps them to find new markets for their skills through commercial collaborations and regional artisan exchange programs.
Irthi runs Design Labs – along the same lines as art residencies – to enable an exchange of crafts, design and knowledge between international or regional designers and Bidwa artisans and trainees. “The designers bring in new production techniques and crafts into the Bidwa Centre, while the Bidwa Centre offers the space and productive capacity of Emirati artisans and trainees for collaboration, and product manifestation,” says Nasri.
“The most valuable insight the artisans practicing crafts at the Bidwa Center gain is the confidence and trust in the design thinking that they have acquired through the many design exercises they have taken up,” says Nasri. “Sometimes the designers might be asked to engage with a craft or exercise a craft in a non-traditional manner – at that time I’m sure they didn’t always entirely grasp why they were doing what they were doing or weren’t fully convinced that the design process they were taking up would eventually lead to the magnificent products that they have created.”
The resulting Design Labs collection is now available to purchase at digital craft and design gallery Adorno: “Irthi has launched two significant collections on Adorno, bringing craft traditions that have defined Emirati making for centuries to the attention of the wider world, and making Irthi crafted products commercially available to its biggest audience yet,” says Nasri. Featured artists and designers include Meher and Farhana of The Lél Collection, Kazuhito Takadoi, Patricia Swannell, Dima Srouji of Hollow Forms Studio; Nada Taryam, Faisal Tabarrah and Khawla Al Hashimi of Architecture + Other Things Studio, Alia Bin Omair of Alia Bin Omair Jewellery; Jennifer Zurick, Khuloud Al Thani of Bint Thani Studio; and Adi Toch.
The second collection is Crafts Dialogue – which is, in fact, a series of four limited-edition collections – the result of collaborations between Emirati and European designers. “Crafts Dialogue seeks to merge the arts and crafts of the UAE with global crafts,” says Nasri, who co-curated the collection with Samer Yamani. This collaboration sparks endless possibilities and opportunities.” Again, Crafts Dialogue is available to purchase on Adorno and this time, featured designers include Fatima Al Zaabiof Studio D04, Matteo Silverio, Sheikha Bin Dhaher of Abjaad Studio, Adrian Salvador Candella of Estudio Savage, Ghaya Bin Mesmar, Mermelada Estudio, Abdallah Al Mulla, and Pepa Reverter.
Both collections can be explored at Irthi’s Virtual Gallery – a chance to escape the reality of lockdown for a while and take a stroll around the sun-drenched Hamriya Studios in Sharjah, see the pieces in situ in the courtyard garden and the gallery itself, as well as enjoying a full multi-sensory experience as you listen to audio recordings of Bidwa artisans singing as they weave.
But what effect has all of this had on the craftswomen of the Middle East, North Africa and South and Central Asia? “It wasn’t difficult to visualize the positive impact these initiatives would have on the craft and culture of the region and specifically the craftswomen themselves, as they went through a laborious learning curve in less than a year’s time and can now just about respond to any design request or bespoke order,” says Nasri.
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“But what I did find surprising was the international brand positioning that these collections, designers and artisans managed to attain through the UAE Pavilion launch at the London Design Fair, gaining Guest Country Pavilion of the year,” she continues. “The artisans of the Bidwa Social Development Programme are capable of catering to the international market – their skills have been honed to compete at international standards.”
Despite the contemporary international success each collection has earned, Irthi is still committed to the region’s traditional craft practices and finding ways to balance the two. “Linking traditional crafts to today’s luxury and design markets means retaining the heritage process of making whilst decontextualizing, deconstructing, or infusing the craft with new functionality to fit today’s modern aesthetics and needs,” Nasri explains.
Hopefully, this balanced approach will mean future generations of craftswomen will have the same opportunities to honor and explore the traditions of their ancestors while taking their place in a growing female-driven artisan economy that crosses national boundaries.