Raw materials: crafting as fine art

The use of traditional crafts is a significant trend among UAE artists, finds Laura Egerton

The distinction between ‘art’ and ‘craft’ today is ambiguous, and nothing to do with materials. So how does an artist choose their medium? It’s becoming less common to be defined as simply a painter or a sculptor; artists instead learn new techniques or find artisans to collaborate with because the concept of a piece requires it.

Funding can enable artists to do this: winners of The Abraaj Group Art Prize – recognising artists from MENASA – have had stained glass made in the UK, ceramic vases in China and textiles in Tehran. 

Grayson Perry
An installation by Grayson Perry, who has previously said: "Craft and tradition are very firmly linked, that must not be denied."

I was fascinated to visit The Flying House gallery in Dubai, a foundation promoting contemporary art, and meet artists such as Hassan Sharif, a 64-year-old Emirati who creates sculptures from, say, old plastic sandals.

Latifa Saeed, an artist and designer working in a variety of media, has researched khoos (palm-frond weaving), creating furniture and sculptural toys using laser-cutting techniques

A contemporary of hers, Zeinab Al Hashemi, is a young visual artist born and based in Dubai, and specialising in conceptual art and site-specific installations. She takes materials from cultural traditions, such as fishing nets, producing modular furniture of recycled cardboard tubes or wire.

Using humble materials is often related to preserving heritage. Challenging the century-old inferiority of traditional crafts, artists have found innovative ways of using natural materials and processes, combining skills learned from local artisans with modern technology.

Naz Shahrokh
Naz Shahrokh's 'Spice Wall'. The Iranian artist uses detritus in her installations to comment on issues such as sustainability

Naz Shahrokh, an Iranian artist based in Abu Dhabi, uses detritus and organic materials in her installations, commenting on issues such as sustainability. We’re All Connected (2015) is a photograph of two trees in a desert, upon which she has sewn silver thread. It is reminiscent of the Emirati artist Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim’s land art project where she wrapped palm trees in coloured cloth, seen at Art Dubai in 2008.

Farhad Ahrarnia, meanwhile, combines digital images and stitching. Sewing – repetitive, feminine, domestic – becomes subversive: dead soldiers in Iraq, Gaddafi on the cover of Time.

Being an artist is about articulating a fresh response to the world – to begin by thinking what material does that best means you’re halfway there.