Dubai Design Week: Abwab

An initiative at the fair that brings together creatives from six MENASA countries

The inaugural Dubai Design Week—on this week in the ever-changing Gulf city—is proof of how important design has become in the UAE, a nation supporting and expanding its creative industries with great fervor. The ambitious event features plenty of international work from big design names, but it’s the chance to see local designers from the MENASA (Middle East, North Africa and South Asia) region that’s really the thrill of the show.

Dubai Design Week’s Abwab is the perfect example. It’s an initiative that brought together creatives from six MENASA countries (Jordan, UAE, Pakistan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia) under the theme “Games: The Element of Play in Culture.” According to creative director Rawan Kashkoush—who, as she tells CH, is very much from the region: half Palestinian, half Kuwaiti, carries a Lebanese passport but grew up in Jordan)—one of the reasons for Abwab’s existence is that while there’s a lot of talent in the region, nobody seemed to be aware of anyone else’s. “We’re kind of moving independently, so this was an opportunity to empower us all; the design industry and the young designers, and to highlight the nuances and differences between the cultures. We wanted a theme that felt like it could be universal,” Kashkoush explains.

Abwab is set to become an annual module, with the participants and themes constantly changing. The idea is to focus on the differences between the countries, and draw attention to areas where contemporary design is still an emerging industry. “Abwab is Arabic for ‘door,’ and it’s literally about being able to access the culture. But it’s also about that culture being showcased to the rest of the world, so it’s a two-way door,” says Kashkoush. It’s fascinating to see the different ways in which the participants interpreted the theme. The Kuwaiti pavilion features graphic design and looks at the variety of games being played in the region, and how they prepare children for life, while the Tunisian one treats play as a form of abandonment and release from reality, and contains just the one playful, jigsaw-like sculpture. Jordan’s pavilion, curated by Arini Creative Platforms, is probably the most immersive and interactive: the space is filled with sheer white fabric, hung from the ceiling and covering the walls. In between the cloth hang swings, or “murjeihas.”

Mohammad Aljabi—part of Arini, the curators of Jordan’s pavilion—tells CH the idea was to help adults create their own worlds, something that comes naturally to kids. The swings are made of stones from the Jordanian mountains, and when they’re in motion, they set off sounds and video content starts playing. It’s an exciting, joyful experience to swing under the white fabric; like playing beneath your parents’ laundry line. One of the installation’s four designers, Dina Haddadin, says they deliberately used simple building materials for the piece: “We used Jordanian stone that has a grounded-ness, and then we gave flight to this heavy material, to bring the space alive.”

One of the reasons why the MENASA area doesn’t have much contemporary product design is that there isn’t really a furniture or product design option at many of the region’s universities. These installations were an opportunity for the participants to work in new ways. “A lot of these designers are actually architects that were working within a limited space. They’re producing furniture items for the first time and, in doing so, changing the scale of their work. What they relied on—and this is something very specific to the Gulf and Middle Eastern region—is the relationship between themselves and the craftworkers who made the pieces,” says Kashkoush. She believes that the opportunity to compete and compare themselves to other designers in the region, and to get international exposure, will help inspire more emerging MENASA creatives.

As the UAE becomes more of a design force, Abwab will continue to promote the countries where the industry is still in its early stages: “I look forward to picking more of the underdogs in the future,” Kashkoush says.

Dubai Design Week is on now through 31 October 2015.

Images by Cajsa Carlson