Graduates of the school—founded by the UK’s Prince Charles—also have a chance to discuss their work with the Prince himself, who attends the exhibition every year. Addressing the student’s at this year’s show, he said: “I admired enormously all that I saw today and I enjoyed the talk I had with some of you during my tour. This has given me hope that the rules of nature, a foundation for traditional arts, are not dead thanks to such wonderful people as well as others around the world . . . they have maintained these traditions and arts, and kept them alive. I congratulate each of you for all that you have achieved. I wish that everyone, each in his craft, will remember, as I do, that his inspiration should be drawn from the wisdom that [exists] in the system of nature.”
Sara Al-Abdali, a young Saudi artist who has participated in a variety of exhibitions in Saudi Arabia, Venice and London, opted to study the principles and rules of traditional art in London. Her final project consisted of a gypsum model of an old-fashioned wooden door accompanied by a set of drawings depicting the door’s design and decoration. Though the door is of a similar design to those seen fronting old houses in Jeddah, Abdali drew inspiration for her project from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, she explained that she enrolled at the school because of her interest in the traditional architecture of the Hijaz, the westernmost area of modern-day Saudi Arabia which includes the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. “When I thought of this project, I searched for the elements that have been lost in our architecture,” she said. “Coincidently, I saw this door from Old Jeddah City [Al-Balad] during my visit to the museum. I came to learn that Lawrence of Arabia had brought it with him to England. I took a photo of it with my mobile phone and relied heavily on that photo when creating the model.”
Abdali said the most significant elements of her study were the architecture and geometric design components of the course. “According to what we have learned, architecture constitutes the basis of Islamic and traditional ornamentation, and so I tried to understand all the motifs of geometrical drawings and then I transferred them to the designs.”
When asked if the study of traditional art had improved her craft, she said: “Knowing different traditional Islamic art crafts is a big benefit, particularly that now there is no specific place where you can see these crafts being practiced, and they seem to be vanishing. It was an honor for me to learn and practice such crafts by myself and go deeper into the [underlying] philosophy of Islamic art.”
Abdali now intends to return to Jeddah to continue a career in handicraft, particularly the ceramic and gypsum arts she studied at the school, and intends to find a workspace that is large enough and that contains the necessary equipment for making ceramics.
Shaheen Qasamani from London says her interest in studying fabric painting prompted her to quit her job as a part-time English-language teacher and enroll on the school’s Master’s program. Qasamani’s graduation project consists of a door made out of fabric adorned with Islamic ornamentations. Explaining the concept, she said: “This design is drawn from one of the doors of the University of Al-Karaouine in Fez, Morocco, founded by Fatima bint Mohammed Al-Fahri. I wanted my project to incorporate two aspects: women and education.”
Qasamani colored the ornamentations by hand, which took months of work. She was also exhibiting a set of artifacts, including panels with geometrical Islamic designs. Pointing to a small cloth panel depicting drawings of traditional sewing machines, Qasamani said her next project would express the sufferings of laborers at clothing factories in Bangladesh, Indonesia and elsewhere. “This panel is an acknowledgement of the laborers who have spent their lives working in difficult conditions,” she said.
Ahmed Angawi is a Saudi artist known for his interest in traditional arts and architecture, especially in Jeddah. A number of his artifacts inspired by this craft have been exhibited around the world. Angawi, who also works as a designer, decided to join the Master’s program at the school during a stay in London while he was participating in an art exhibition. “Although the visit should have lasted only three days, my stay extended to two years,” he said. “I decided to learn architecture and other crafts. I decided to document, analyze, master and develop a link between art, design and architecture.” He gestured to a framed wooden fragment on the wall at the exhibition “I found this piece thrown on the ground in Al-Balad. It was part of an old house that had been destroyed. I kept it and wrote some information next to it to show what it is and where I found it”.
While many lament the disappearance and dilapidated state of some of the historical districts of Saudi Arabia, Angawi believes his role should be a much more positive one. “The easiest thing to do is to point out a fault, but I want to be part of the solution. I focused on a simple craft in which I have found wonderful aspects.
“For example,” he said, holding a long piece of wood, “this piece is carved in a manner that makes it need a complimentary part to strengthen it. This is because an individual piece is fragile, but becomes strong and cohesive if stuck to another piece. It is such a wonderful symbolism which we see in wooden windows in Old Jeddah and which we do not know much about. I have learned many things here and there are more things that I consider as new challenges.”
Discussing his next step, Angawi said: “I want to return to Jeddah and focus on one Hijazi craft. I want to produce artifacts with my hands. I have a small workshop in the Old City in Jeddah, and I will return to live in [this] historical area, as it shouldn’t just be used for observation; its crafts should be revived.”
Shoresh Saleh, an artist from Kurdistan, dressed in traditional Kurdish clothing, was receiving visitors to his corner with a broad smile. Prince Charles had liked one of his carpet designs so much that he decided to commission one for himself. He said: “Prince Charles spoke to me about Kurdistan and the situation in Iraq, as well about art and my Kurdish background. I explained to him my project and the carpet, whose drawings are drawn from the description of heaven, and its rivers and birds. He liked it, and asked me to visit his garden to design a carpet corresponding to it.”
Many bemoan the erosion of traditional crafts in the Middle East. Institutions such as the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts may help to revive such crafts is they continue to draw in students from the region searching for a way to reconnect with their heritage.