Saudi-Palestinian Artist Dana Awartani Discusses Cultural Deconstruction And Mending Through Ancient Craft

BY Nour Hassan / Jul 1 2020 / 09:45 AM

A conversation with the artist reveals the liminal lines between identity, destruction and revival

Saudi-Palestinian Artist Dana Awartani Discusses Cultural Deconstruction And Mending Through Ancient Craft
Dana Awartani. Standing by the Ruins. 2019. Compressed earth. 450x1130cm

"Growing up in a multicultural society allows you access to a plethora of tastes, cultures and mentalities. It gives you a superpower – to be able to feel empathy for what is other and what is foreign,” comments Saudi-Palestinian artist Dana Awartani, on growing up amidst a melting pot of cultures in Saudi Arabia.

I spoke to the artist over Zoom for this feature as we are still in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic – I’m based in Cairo and she’s based in Jeddah – the city where I grew up. Jeddah is a city we both call home. The conversation was expansive, touching on topics that looked at her artistic practice, her research on cultural destruction, her work with healing materials and how the art world can strive to make space for sustainability and the preservation of identity in a moment where we are all grappling to find our way back ‘home’.

Dana Awartani in her studio

“Living in Jeddah and attending an international school – I feel I had no connection to the larger community of Saudi Arabia except through extended family. Otherwise we grew up in this bubble, which was great as it allowed for exposure to so many other things,” notes Dana on her upbringing in Jeddah.

Middle Eastern art is more than the sum of its parts – there is a misconception that art coming from our region, specifically from female artists, tackles topics of either suppression or exile, exclusively. Dana’s art breaks free from these constructs of suppressed identity and adopts a transformative style that feels almost liberating. “If you’re a Palestinian, you must be a refugee and therefore your art must talk about topics of supression; these are narratives I didn’t really relate to,” admits Dana.

After a university trip abroad and encountering Persian architecture, Dana fell in love with Middle Eastern craftsmanship and the idea that we can change our narrative through showcasing, preserving and emulating our heritage through the transcendence of craft.

Dana Awartani. A detail of Come Let Me Heal Your Wounds, Let Me Mend Your Broken Bones, As We Stand Here Mourning. 2019. Darning on medicinally dyed silk. 630x720x300cm

She began studying and looking at geometry from traditional housing in Asir and Abha in Saudi Arabia, which were adorned with decorative craft implemented and pioneered by women in the Asiri area. After reading Orientalism by Edward Said, the reasons for people fetishizing the East and putting the West on a cultural pedestal made more sense to the artist. As a pushback on these constructs, Dana began a search to find her own artistic style – a style that would come to act as an arch or a cultural bridge between the East and West, as well as both heritage and contemporary aesthetics.

“The first day at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, they told me that I was here not just as a contemporary artist but as a craftswoman – so I had to switch off the critical thinking skills I had acquired at Central Saint Martins and rather just embrace the process of simply making,” says Dana, of diving into a Master’s degree rooted in traditional craft.

Dana Awartani. Come Let Me Heal Your Wounds, Let Me Mend Your Broken Bones, As We Stand Here Mourning. 2019. Darning on medicinally dyed silk. 630x720x300cm

“Why didn’t we study Arab or Middle Eastern art in school?” I asked her, as our conversation deviated towards the crux of Dana’s work, which is a pushback on the tragedy that is cultural destruction across our region. “As a region we have a notion of self-colonisation almost, where we act as though Western culture is to be aspired to and that our own culture is lesser than or not enough. We almost believe that Western culture is better than our culture; you can see this in architecture.

My 2017 video installation I Was Dreaming touches on this topic of adopting foreign aesthetics and tossing away our own – it specifically talks about cultural destruction, pertaining to architecture when wealthy Saudis in Al Balad left the Hegazi buildings behind in lieu of more modern structures with Italian shutters and French balconies,” explains Dana. 

“The contemporary world kind of frowns upon craft, they see it as something decorative and so I wanted to merge both. Try to elevate craft in a contemporary way, because part of our collective identity is craftsmanship,” she says of her quest to become more immersed in craft.

An initial sketch of Standing by the Ruins artwork by Dana Awartani

One specific question I asked Dana was, “How have you cultivated the patience and humility required to be able to learn and acquire these intricate craftsmanship skills?”

“So there’s this quote that says ‘Craft is made by man for God, so it’s always a form of worship. Contemporary art is made by man for man’s ego.’ I love the discipline and rigour of craft – I wanted to become accredited to be a master in manuscript illumination,” explained Dana. “Similar to an ijaza, a certificate to be a Master in a craft, after which you are able to hand down this knowledge. I was really drawn to that way of learning – you approach a master and if they say yes then you work closely with them in their home even. It’s a long process that requires a lot of humility as no one else can teach you these skills.”

Cultural destruction is a prominent theme throughout Dana’s work – she moved on in recent years to using Islamic arts, crafts and aesthetics as a medium to express these concepts of deterioration. Dana’s work acts as a form of cultural preservation and innovation – helping traditional craft grow and making it part of a relevant contemporary aesthetic. Inspirations from regional and historical art, culture, philosophy, mathematics can all be seen in her body of work – such as the poem of Abjad Hawaz – those pieces used a mathematical mystical Sufi idea where every letter of the alphabet has a numerical value.

Standing by the Ruins artwork in progress

One of Dana’s most recent works entitled Standing by the Ruins (2019) at the Rottembourg Fort at the very edge of Rabat touches on notions of deterioration. A work on modern day cultural destruction, Dana became immersed in the events of the Arab Spring and the side effects of the demolition that resulted in the sweeping away of our culture. Aside from the catastrophic loss of human life and the refugee crisis, the region’s rich culture was demolished. The artist meditated on what this means and the effects it has on us as collective people.

In order to create this site-specific installation, Dana discovered that gathering earth from different countries in the region was not legal; as a result she used naturally coloured earth from different parts of Morocco, a place that proved to be a perfect source of raw material for this piece. Dana visited a Zawya in Morocco – not a mosque but a family that look at the art of clay-making as a form of religious practice – and sourced the clay from them.

The clay-makers take part in a repetitive, meditative, almost religious process that connects the humans with the earth. For this piece Dana purposely chose not to turn the earth into clay, omitting steps such as filtration and pounding and leaving the earth to eventually crumble and the piece to fall apart. As part of the methodology for this piece Dana looked into Adobe building – missing all the other steps to make it a solid structural built mound.

Dana Awartani. I Went Away and Forgot You. A While Ago I Remembered. I Remembered I’d Forgotten You. I Was Dreaming. 2017. Single-channel video. 24 minutes and 48 seconds

“We created hundreds of tiles and the piece spanned almost ten metres in length. It took two to three weeks working in the sun everyday. The process was long and grueling, it was created with a lot of love and labour. I had 150 moulds and a few thousand tiles had to be made. This process echoed the craft tradition of dedication. Similar to the buildings that were created in our region and now destroyed, they were made by craftsmen over years and years, not just construction companies that build compounds in a few weeks,” says Dana of honouring the true process of creating through craft. The work is site-specific and it is not for sale.

Come, let me heal your wounds. Let me mend your broken bones, as we stand here Mourning, another 2019 piece by Dana, which was showcased at the Al Burda Endowment at Abu Dhabi Art Fair in November of 2019 acts as a continuation of the work done in Rabat.

“The piece looks at continuation and sustainability. History, tradition, craft and the contemporary. I created an archive of all the monuments that were destroyed, during the Arab Spring and onwards, a database, of how they were destroyed, and by whom. I mapped out each city in seven countries that have faced purposeful cultural destruction. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Tunisia,” says Dana of her in-depth research on cultural destruction in our region.

Dana Awartani. A detail of Come Let Me Heal Your Wounds, Let Me Mend Your Broken Bones, As We Stand Here Mourning. 2019. Darning on medicinally dyed silk. 630x720x300cm

She then used naturally dyed silk fabrics infused with healing properties from herb-dying techniques to represent each affected country; the fabrics were hung in relativity to one another on a vertical plane, each piece of fabric overlapping the other slightly. The maps were transferred by Dana onto the fabric, and at each spot of destruction on the map she created a tear or a rip. Each tear was then mended using an ancient traditional technique called Retta or Rafugari in Hindi.

Rafugari is a forgotten invisible craft – a common form of mending clothing in Lebanon, Saudi, Egypt and other countries in the region. “In a global and contemporary sense our relationship with textiles has changed completely, in India if you tear a pashmina shawl that took two years to make you don’t buy a new one or throw it away, you mend it using Rafugari,” says Dana of this whimsical technique. Dana used silk textile to represent each country’s landscape, but mended the tears in cotton – so you could truly see the attempts for repair and revival of the fabric as a viewer.

“This is how I can come to terms with what’s happening: it’s not a solution, just a meditative way of attempting to heal something that has been tarnished,” says Dana. “Retta, if done right, is a form of mending that the viewers should not be able to see. It’s as if the garment is brand new again – erasing and perfectly concealing all signs of destruction through the intricacy of craft. A cathartic technique used to preserve what we deem to be sacred.”

All Images courtesy of the artist

From the summer 2020 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art