Middle Eastern exhibits center stage at this year’s London Design Biennale

LONDON: From Arabic calligraphy and Islamic geometry to the tragedy of lost cultures, Middle Eastern exhibits are center stage at this year’s London Design Biennale.Saudi Arabia’s installation at the event, “Being and Existence,” explores the relationship between language and the emotional state, in particular the effects different forms of language have on the messages being communicated.For the work, Saudi artist Lulwah Al-Homoud developed an abstract form of language, derived from the Arabic alphabet and taking the form of a geometric pattern that is a symmetrical web of fine lines and symbols.“When I did my master of arts at Central St. Martins, I did my research in Arabic calligraphy and Islamic geometry,” she said. “That’s when everything clicked; I thought, this is the highest form of art, the most abstract art that speaks about something much higher than just the outer appearance of things.”Al-Homoud, from Riyadh, said her work is based on language and different forms of knowledge.“I got interested in mathematics,” she explained. “Once you become interested in Islamic geometry, there are so many layers of knowledge under that, such as maths, the universe, astronomy, astrology, physics and different sciences.”Her inspiration stemmed from the wealth of research in traditional theories of Islamic art.“People think beautiful compositions of calligraphy only come from practice,” she said. “But they don’t. They’re based on mathematical equations and the golden ratio. But I didn’t want to reproduce what had been done before, I wanted to develop it and push the boundaries a little bit, so I created new codes for each Arabic letter.” This process took a year, she added“It’s important to get Arabic art out there,” Al-Homoud said. “There’s so much ‘shocking’ art at the moment, where artists just want to create something out of the ordinary for fame, but when you create something with that, it will be timeless. It’s also a way to take people back to the amazing theories and advanced form of art that’s been done before and create something contemporary that can be understood by everyone.”In the past year, the Kingdom increasingly has been opening up to an ever-widening range of cultural activities. Al-Homoud, who has been creating art for 20 years, said the country is on the right track and boasts a lot of talent, despite lacking much in the way of proper education in the arts until now.“Having all these cultural institutions and authorities is really pushing art forward,” she said. “I feel that they’re not looking at art now as complementary but as a priority; culture is a priority, which is an amazing step forward, especially in the national branding.” Al-Homoud also spoke of her hopes for the creation of a cultural heritage for the generations to come.“It’s not just a movement right now that’s going to vanish,” she said. “Artists should be very responsible when they create art because it’s something that will remain.”The Egyptian installation at the biennale, “Modernist Indignation,” mourns the loss of the country’s modernist architecture, a rich heritage that has been left to fall into ruin or violently erased, as seen through the prism of the first Arabic design magazine.Commissioned by Zein Khalifa and curated by Mohammed Elshahed, the exhibit won this year’s London Design Biennale Medal, which is awarded each year to the most outstanding contribution.“We were able to deliver something we thought really put Egypt on a par with many of the other 40 countries that exhibited this year,” said Suzanne Gaballa from Lund Gaballa Architects, who was a member of the design team. “It was important to show that Egypt from the 1930s to 1950s was a pioneer among many of its European contemporaries to this new type of architecture and design, and raise much more awareness about Arab countries and the relationship they used to have to society and culture. Unfortunately, preconceptions by many have meant that people always undermine in some way the richness that, both then and now, these countries have and still hold.”She said modern architecture and design events are, unfortunately, not currently a priority for Egypt, which made it challenging to raise funds for the country’s participation at the biennale.“Our generations are moving back, trying to create a home for themselves and create the future that they want,” Gaballa said. “There will always be challenges but there is a design culture there, and a strong new wave of artists and designers who are moving back — the question is how does the country support them and how will their presence be heard by countries outside of Egypt.”The installation aims to encourage visitors to challenge their preconceptions of Egypt and Arab countries.“One of Mohammed’s main areas of research is modernist architecture within Egypt, and this era of architecture has been lost within Egypt itself, so we are trying to put that back on the agenda,” Gaballa added. “A lot of people see it and are shocked by the architectural merit that (has) a strong presence in Egypt’s modernist past.”Nathalie Harb represents Lebanon at the biennale with her “Silent Room” project, which was created in response to the environment in Beirut, which is saturated with data, information, sound and visual pollution.“In the absence of public spaces, I wanted to create a space where you can shelter yourself from these influxes but still be in a public space,” she said. “It’s also a reflection based on the fact that silence has become something affordable only to the privileged, and it’s a consideration of the urban sonic environment, which is mapped now through noise and silence.”She also spoke of pushing design beyond furniture and using it as a tool to improve people’s lives.“The Middle East presence is as important as the European,” Harb said. “It’s great because it makes you look into specific issues of specific countries with specific tools they have developed. This makes the Arab world considered as a partner in the dialogue on improving cities.”The team from the UAE, meanwhile, explored the theme of time with its installation, an evocative piece featuring sand and rows of spinning hourglasses, inspired by a desert culture that is subject to rapid change.“We are interested in sharing surprising stories from this diverse group of countries, which are encouraged to explore the specificity of their design histories,” said Christopher Turner, artistic director at the London Design Biennale and keeper of design, architecture and digital at the city’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).“As an international platform, with a truly global vision of design, we also want to initiate conversations between all the institutions that take part, and that dialogue is a real legacy of each edition.“We also have large diaspora communities in London, and rich shared histories with many Arab-speaking countries, and we want to explore and welcome those here.”He added that such countries are subject to rapid development and change, and design plays an important role in making that process more palatable and human-centric.“Many of the biennale’s installations explore themes of place making, but also ask big questions about the kind of world we want to make,” Turner said. “The proliferation of design organizations, events and venues in the MENA region is very exciting and encouraging.”The V&A collaborated with Forensic Architecture and Art Jameel for the UK pavilion, which explores the destruction by Daesh of the Yazidis’ cultural monuments in 2014.“We worked with the Yazidi community to digitally document and map the shrines and mausoleums that were blown up in a systematic attempt to destroy Yazidi culture,” Turner added. “I very much look forward to working further with colleagues in the Middle East to explore such important questions of culture, preservation and change. We share so many of the same concerns and have so much to teach each other.”The London Design Biennale continues at Somerset House in the Strand until Sept. 23.

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