DUBAI: In January this year the London-based Moroccan pop artist, photographer and designer Hassan Hajjaj headed to the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh in southern Lebanon. He was there to meet a group of women working with the UAE-based social enterprise 81 Designs.
“It was quite intense,” says Hajjaj, recalling his visit to Lebanon’s largest Palestinian camp. “It reminded me of places in Tangier where I used to live. My parents lived in a shantytown with no electricity and no water, so I kind of understood that. There was a similarity. And the women kind of reminded me of my auntie — the way they dress, the cultural side of things, you know? It really took me back to something familiar.
“But at the same time it was shocking, in the sense that I’ve only seen refugee camps on TV. It was a real eye-opener. Not only the place, the women too. There was a nice human connection between everybody.”
The women were recreating 14 pieces from Hajjaj’s “Graffix from the Souk” collection using a traditional cross-stitch technique called tatreez. The collection, spearheaded by 81 Designs and the mother-and-daughter team behind it — Nesrine El-Tibi Maalouf and Nadine Maalouf — was shown for the first time at Art Dubai in March.
Now 81 Designs has collaborated with the Beirut-based surface fabrication studio Bokja as part of Abu Dhabi Art, with five female totems created for an installation called “Standing Tall.” Each totem, which can be dismantled into six-to-eight poufs, is being sold for $8,000. A further 100 fragments that can be worn as scarfs are being sold for $500 apiece. The money will go towards paying and empowering as many skilled female artisan refugees as possible.
“It’s been so insane in the run-up to this week, but it’s been such a great ride,” says Nadine, the co-founder of 81 Designs, which was created to preserve the art of tatreez and “to bring art and humanity together.”
“Tatreez is a folk art that’s been around for centuries, but the way it’s always been captured has been quite commercial, in the sense that it’s always been traditional garments, pillowcases or small objects. It hasn’t been given a wider platform.
“So (we thought) why not give it that platform and be able to modernize it? Let these ladies showcase their creativity. To be able to modernize it through design is something that I’m passionate about.”
The Bokja collection is 81 Designs’ third artist collaboration after Hajjaj and the French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed, who kick started the 81 Designs initiative at Art Dubai in 2017. During Dubai Design Week earlier this month, the social enterprise also hosted interactive tatreez workshops as part of a collaboration with Facebook. The founders had been working on 81 Designs for two years prior to its official launch.
“It was very challenging in the beginning,” admits Maalouf. “First of all, we needed the right ladies to work with, and when approached different NGOs in Lebanon they thought the idea was just ridiculous. They said our idea was too abstract and they couldn’t really visualize it the way I was seeing things. But we got lucky when someone from one of the NGOs reached out to us and connected us to the women. So, we were fortunate in that aspect.
“They’ve had a lot of hardships in the camp that they live in,” says Maalouf. “Sometimes it’s quite volatile and it’s difficult for them to leave — it’s almost like they’re quarantined there. And obviously they buy their material from outside. So those are the challenges.
“But we’re taking it one step at a time. We just hope to work with people who share the same vision as us. That’s the most important aspect to partnering up with anybody: (finding) somebody who wants to give back and who has the same passion about working with the women that we do.”