ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Dana Awartani as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Dana Awartani (b. 1987) is a Saudi-Palestinian artist, living and working in Jeddah. Her oeuvre aspires for the revival of traditional geometry and historical modes of making through crafts and artisanal practices which are enacted in the contemporary. Traditionally trained at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, she received her Master’s after her BA and Foundation degrees at Central Saint Martins. She is currently furthering her practice and commitment to preservation of the Islamic illumination skills through the completion of an ‘Ijaza’ certificate, in order to be eligible to transmit these skills.
Her work has been part of numerous group shows at institutions around the world. She participated in the Lyon Biennale, Lyon, France (2022), the Diriyah Biennale, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (2021), Rabat Biennale, Morocco (2019), Sesc_Videobrasil Biennale, Sao Paulo, Brazil (2019), the Jakarta Biennale, Indonesia (2017), the Marrakech Biennale, Morocco (2016), the Yinchuan Biennale, China (2016), and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India (2016). Her solo exhibitions include: The Silence Between Us, Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah, UAE. (2018); Detroit Affinities: Dana Awartani, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Detroit (2017); and The Hidden Qualities of Quantities, Athr, Jeddah (2015).
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Dana Awartani: Ranging from painting and sculpture to performance and multimedia installation, my practice imbues forms, techniques, concepts, and spatial constructs that define Arab and Islamic cultures with contemporary awareness. My work spans a variety of materials and techniques and often revolves around the highly codified and symbolically laden language of geometry in reference to notions of universal interconnectedness and spiritual harmony. The timeless relevance of forms and the wisdom embedded in traditional crafts are harnessed to tackle issues of gender, healing, cultural destruction, and sustainability in a constant effort to straddle continuity and innovation, aesthetic experimentation and social relevance.
AE: Tell us about your installation at Al Ula? What was your experience putting together your first public installation?
DA: Producing an artwork outside the white cube gallery or a museum space was a challenge, but since Al Ula itself was also incredibly beautiful, I was not working with a clean slate but instead, an open landscape that was at times overwhelming. I felt that I couldn’t compete with the environment because it’s not a backdrop, it’s a wonder. I wanted to create an artwork that was both in harmony with the environment and that engaged with the public. Generally most of my work is very fragile, I do a lot of work with silk and embroidery, or with clay earth or sand, that is quite ephemeral in nature. But here, there were several things to take into consideration when making this piece, from the history of Al Ula to its environment. I had to create something that was sustainable, that could withstand the elements, and could withstand people touching it.
The caves of Al Ula are also home to Nabataean tombs that date back to the first century, and I wanted my piece to pay homage to them as well. I ended up working with local sandstone to create the piece and pattern of the sculpture was inspired by designs of the tombs. It was important to work with a material that belonged and that could age with the environment. Rock carving is an important tradition for communities around Al Ula, and I wanted the locals to feel connected to the work. Finally, the placement of the sculpture was also important. It was on a hill and there was a vantage point where people could look out onto the beauty of the landscape.
AE: Tell us about the work that will be in the next Sharjah Biennial 15.
DA: The piece I’m doing for the Sharjah Biennial is a continuation of a piece, Come Let me Heal Your Wounds (2019), in which I archive different monuments across the Middle East that have been destroyed due to violence in recent years, from ISIS and other groups. After that first piece, I did a work at the Dariyah Biennial called Standing by the Ruins of Aleppo (2021), which looks at the Grand mosque of Aleppo. In Sharjah, I am specifically looking at the craft of stone masonry within Syrian monuments or buildings. I’m not looking at a specific religious monument per se, but I’ve archived quite a few buildings ranging from mosques to churches, and from pre-Islamic sites like Palmyra, to a memorial church that was made to commemorate the Armenian genocide. I’m collaborating with Syrian stone masons who are currently based in Jordan, and we are going to be recreating sections from these monuments in stone carvings.
There are many different facets to the work. First of all, there is an NGO called World Monuments Fund, they are based in New York and they safeguard heritage around the world. They have different programs, but let’s take for example the recent floods in Pakistan, the World Monuments Fund will come in and do a survey of the status of various heritage sites there. If anything has been damaged, they will raise funds to restore them true to the way they were built using traditional methods. The first one they did was in a city called Mafraq in Jordan where they opened up stone masonry workshops where Syrian refugees were trained in this traditional craft. The idea is that they will learn a skill that they can use and work with while in Jordan, and upon hopefully returning to Syria, they can be part of conservation efforts to rebuild monuments. This program has since expanded to Lebanon as well. I am now collaborating with various craftsmen who came out of these programs. This was important to me, that instead of going to a company that works with stone, I really wanted to work directly with the craftsmen and they get 100% of the proceeds, it doesn’t go to a company that pays them a salary.
What I have found is that there is a lack of craftsmen in the Middle East, because when there are conflicts in the region, people, including craftsmen, naturally leave. As refugees it’s very difficult to pass down the knowledge of your trade as it had been done for centuries in the past. So often, that knowledge dies with them. Something else that was important to consider was that the knowledge to redraw the designs geometrically and accurately has also been lost. The ability to draw with a compass and ruler and the grasp of proportions and symmetry is no longer something that people know. Everyone is doing this on the computer using Illustrator. So what I’m doing is archiving and redrawing everything geometrically. I am falling back on my training as a geometer in traditional arts, and I then give the craftsmen the blueprints so that we can work on creating these stone pieces together.
There are around 15 different carvings varying in sizes from different monuments, along with a series of drawings. I am not installing these tablets as they would be traditionally displayed, pinned with hooks on a wall in a museum. I want these works to be seen on the floor. I saw a very upsetting image of one of the monuments, called Beit Ghazaleh after it was bombed in Aleppo. There were boulders of rocks from the ceiling that had fallen, and in a way, I am recreating that image with the tablets installed on the floor, and the drawings that will be hung on the wall.
AE: Can you elaborate on the importance of material and craft that you incorporate in your practice? What is your approach to presenting craft within a fine art context?
DA: My background in education really pushed me in my current direction. I studied Fine Art at Central Saint Martins in London and in our course, there was only myself and another Arab female student, and there were other students from around the world. I found that instructors did not know how to guide us about contemporary Middle Eastern Art or refer us to contemporary artists from the region beyond Shirin Neshat and Mona Hatoum. It felt as though they were the only representations of what a Middle Eastern artist should be and I was not necessarily interested in making my whole art practice about my identity. Central Saint Martins was great in the sense that it really taught us how to contextualize work and how to develop it based on theory, but we did not learn about how to make things. How an object was made or what it looked like was not important.
I then did my Masters Degree at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts. The first thing that they told me when I arrived was that I was not coming there as a contemporary artist but as a craftswoman. This was a very different way of learning, because it was not about what I wanted to say as an artist, it was about me humbling myself to master techniques that had been around for centuries. I began touching upon different crafts like gilding, geometry, Persian and Indian miniature painting, woodworking, ceramic, icon painting, etc. It was a very broad spectrum of traditional crafts. I loved the rigor but I also felt it was lacking because from what I learned, much of it was simply copying what already existed. There was no innovation and I felt that it was stuck in time. I wanted to bring both my contemporary and traditional practices together.
The word “craft” in contemporary art is seen as something negative, something pretty and decorative that you have in your home. It’s not elevated to having a place in contemporary museums and it’s not written about by critics. I felt this was not fair and not accurate, because the more I learned about the theory behind Islamic geometry, for example, they were not just meaningless shapes. There was a language and symbolism to the system; you can tell the story of a building through its geometry.
Now, what I do in my practice is use traditional mediums in a contemporary way and talk about contemporary issues in society. I also collaborate a lot with craftsmen. Historically, craftsmen used to be very important members of society, if you look at calligraphers or illuminators, their patrons were the royal courts. With the industrialization of the world and mass production, the need and desire for the hand-made is no longer present. Craftsmen are no longer able to make a good living and earn a high income to sustain themselves. As crafts are usually taught within families, from parents to children, the children now prefer to become engineers or entrepreneurs as opposed to wood workers, for example, and this is one of the main reasons that crafts are dying out. It is very important for me to preserve this knowledge for all our communities, because it’s part of our heritage and identity. I think that collaborating with craftsmen is not only a way to empower them but it’s also a way to show that these skill sets are important. I find it much more enjoyable working with craftsmen than with a production house to produce my work. This means however, that I cannot mass produce and it’s a much slower process. The way my work is made is sometimes more important than the end result. It’s the story of how it’s made.
I usually innovate with crafts within the gallery setting. If we look at the work Standing by the Ruins of Aleppo (2021), I was inspired by adobe mud bricks. Abode is a traditional form of architecture for building mud houses. Normally, when you make a mud brick, it’s made of clay earth mixed with hay that is sun-baked. I purposely eliminated the hay, so that the bricks would crack once they dried. Instead of using it as a building material, I used it in an installation. So it’s about incorporating the essence and techniques of the craft or materials but innovating them to present it in an alternative way. The first time I produced that work for the Dariyah Biennial, I was responding to the architectural history of old Dariyah, which was all mud houses. It was a form that the local audience would understand and it was made with soil from different parts of Saudi Arabia. It took a lot of effort just to find the different locations to get the correct soil. It ended up being very visceral and connected to the locality.
Another example is Come Let me Heal Your Wounds (2019), where I was working specifically with textiles. There are two components in the work that I was engaging with. First was darning, which is a global craft and technique that everyone in the world is familiar with. Historically, if we look at our grandparents’ generation, when there was a tear in a dress or shirt, the garments were not thrown away, they were mended. People had a different relationship to their belongings, it was as though they respected objects more. Now, with fast fashion, there is a normalized tendency to just throw away old things and buy a new replacement. For this work, I looked specifically at the art of darning. After some research, I identified around 350 different monuments that had been destroyed during the Arab Spring, spanning across Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. I created a map pinpointing the locations of the monuments and then transferred them onto the textile. I then ripped the textile and mended it using the darning technique.
The second element of this work was the dyeing. I worked with a community of dyers in Trivandrum, South India who have developed a technique called Ayurvedic dyeing. They consult the properties derived from traditional medicine to create dyes that are used to make healing cloth. The Indian government has even commissioned scientific research to study these textiles and they found that it is in fact more beneficial to use ayurvedic cloth as opposed to artificially dyed cloths. The beauty of this technique as well, is that it is completely eco-friendly. In India, the leading polluters of the water are the chemical dye runoffs from the textile industry. In Trivandrum, the herbs and spices are collected locally and they are then turned into natural dyes. Any leftover dyes are bio-degradable and become fertilizer for the land. These are some examples of taking these very traditional techniques to broach a critical issue that we are dealing with which is cultural cleansing in the Middle East.
AE: Can you talk about your performance I Went Away and Forgot You (2017)?
DA: In Saudi, I have found that when people want to decorate their homes, there is this idea that things from the West are “better.” They will get silk from Italy, or there is a draw to Western designed architecture. Middle Eastern architecture and heritage is really rich but there is this sense that it’s “inferior.” In my work I try to shift perspectives of the communities I am working in and show that our heritage is beautiful and important, that it should be valued as much as other cultures.
In the performance I Went Away and Forgot You (2017), I address architectural neglect in Jeddah’s Al-Balad neighborhood. In the late 50s and early 60s a lot of families lived in the old city, Al-Balad, which was dominated by local Hejazi architecture. These buildings were built with stones, they didn’t have any AC, they often had mashrabiya windows–they were suited to the needs and climate of the locals. Now, Jeddah is filled with generic modern buildings. When those wealthy families left Al-Balad, they began building French or Italian-style homes which were very alien to the landscape.
I did this performance in one of the first homes that was built in this European style. I wanted to create something that was visually very Islamic within this European home which, now, is completely abandoned and dilapidated. I dyed sand with natural dyed pigments and created an Islamic pattern on the floor–in the same way that Bhuddist monks create mandalas. The performance was to create something so labor intensive and then destroy it in an instant by sweeping it away. The means of destruction was intentional in its slow, meditative nature. For me, it is a reflection of what we have done: slowly left Al-Balad, neglected these buildings, and allowed for this legacy to fall in ruins. This work was a cautionary tale about what we are doing to our history.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
DA: First and foremost, my biggest influence is traditional crafts and the people behind them. I continuously fall in love with all the different historical techniques that craftsmen use. Historic Architecture is another major influence. Crafts are very linked to architecture of the past, they were incorporated into the construction of buildings in our region and beyond like the Mughal Empire in India, North Africa and Andalusia. These places are a big inspiration for me.
Within contemporary art, there are artists that I look to like Monir Farmanfarmaian. She is an excellent example of using a traditional craft in a very contemporary way. She was very true to her craft and that’s what I love about her practice. Michael Rakowitz is another artist I look to, he looks at cultural destruction in the Middle East.
My work is inspired by so many things, including poetry, literature and Sufi poetry in particular (Ibn Arabi, Rumi, Hafez, Mahmoud Darwish).
AE:What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2023-2024?
DA: There are a few projects that are pending and that I can’t share at the moment. Currently, I’m part of a show at the Louvre Abu Dhabi called Art Here 2022, on view until February 19, 2023. And as I’ve mentioned, in February, I’m taking part in the Sharjah Biennial 15.
DANA AWARTANI ONLINE: