When sculpture and social space convene

Khalid Shafar’s The Nomad, on display in London, offers the public the chance to socialise in an update on the traditional Gulf house

It’s unlikely anyone ambling across a strange, spidery structure in one of London’s newer public squares – the largest open-air exhibition space in Europe – will immediately understand that the sculptured, skeletal installation at its heart has its roots in the UAE. And that’s just the way Dubai-based designer and artist Khalid Shafar likes it. “What I wanted to do was suggest a new way of looking at a Gulf design,” he says. “A re-appropriation.”

The Nomad is very much the result of his interest in how old and new collide in the Gulf. An installation for the London-based Shubbak festival of contemporary Arab culture, its genesis is in the Arish – the traditional Gulf houses made from palm trees and fronds. But you won’t find any palm coverings here – Shafar wanted to expose the materials to the elements so their beauty could be enjoyed. Neither does a stripped-back Arish look much like Shafar’s final design, although the palm trunk in the middle of The Nomad is perhaps the most obvious reference.

“When you look upwards, you feel like you’re under a palm tree,” he says. “But The Nomad is more about the architectural process for me,” says Shafar. “The Arish was basically an enclosure for people constantly moving around. So I wanted this to be a space which people could enjoy and, hopefully, use to interact with one another, talk to each other.”

Throughout his career, Shafar has often re-appropriated traditional Gulf designs and techniques for the 21st century – his chair at the Design Days Dubai festival last year, for example, had a seat made of pearls, and other furniture uses Islamic octagons or camel leather. But it’s a subtle approach, rather than bashing people over the head with familiar Arab cues.

Khalid Shafar
The sculpture/social space is set in the iconic grounds of the Rootstein Hopkins Parade Ground at Chelsea CollegeImage: Khalid Shafar/Shubbak Festival

“Take minimalism, often connected to Japanese design,” he says. “In the 21st century, different materials might now be used, it might have a new, more practical function. This is what I like to do in my work – it’s not just about bringing the past back.”

The Nomad, then, is very much a product of Shafar’s impressively thoughtful approach. He embodied this insightfulness in an event on 20 July, with Sandra Piesik. The author of Arish: Palm-Leaf Architecture, she has swiftly become the authority on indigenous building in the UAE.

“Sandra has done so much research over the years, so it’s all about setting the structural integrity of the Arish she knows so much about against today’s styles that I’m interested in,” says Khafar.

And encouragingly, The Nomad won’t just exist in a London festival bubble, either. It will be installed at Dubai Design District (d3) in October 2015, and next year it moves to Abu Dhabi for the Festival. Both organisations have supported this installation in London. “That’s one of the reasons we called it The Nomad,” smiles Shafar. “And it will be really interesting to see the reactions to it a bit closer to home.”

The Nomad is on display at Rootstein Hopkins Parade Ground, Chelsea College of Arts, 16 John Islip Street, London until 27 July