lest we forget

Emirati Adornment: Tangible & Intangible

What happens when material culture, documenting and archiving meets art, storytelling and design? A wonderful project that showcases personal adornment from all angles, through exhibitions, short films, and a book: Emirati Adornment – Tangible & Intangible.

The Lest We Forget-project is an initiative of the Sheikha Salama Foundation in Abu Dhabi. The aim of the project in the widest sense is to document Emirati history and identity through objects, but even more so through the stories and memories attached to these. The exhibition curated in 2016 featured personal adornment as its central element, and the book Emirati Adornment – Tangible & Intangible shows how personal adornment is closely interwoven with memory, feelings and personal histories.

The book is divided into two sections: tangible and intangible adornment. Both sections revolve around personal memories, collected through many interviews. That is also how the selection of objects in this book came to be: it is a cross-section through objects of everyday use that the community itself put forward. The interviews reflect the values attached to these objects, and as such the book presents a bottom-up curated selection of living heritage.

First, the section on tangible adornment shows 34 individual objects with their stories. Here, we find items of jewellery and dress, but also a pair of tailoring scissors wielded by a grandfather who created a garment for Sheikh Zayed, or popsicle sticks that remind the interviewee of how her grandmother used to reinforce her burqa with these. The second section zooms in on 26 objects and artworks associated with intangible adornment. Here, we find topics such as henna, perfumes and incense, but also strength and grace, a tree, or the swaying movement of hair in a dance. Throughout the book, all of these objects and memories are presented based on personal histories, showing how much personal adornment is part of everyday life.

This approach to personal adornment, through collective memory and storytelling, results in a different selection of objects than a narrower focus on only objects of adornment would. Through the many personal anecdotes and memories shared, the world of adornment expands into that of sewing machines and popsicles, of pearl powder and wedding gun shots, of tooth polish and perfume. These objects are shown in this beautifully designed volume as photos, but also as artworks, collages, and drawings. Each object is presented with not just an image and its accompanying text, but features an opaque sheet in between the two with an additional layer: a drawing, a quote… Together, they show how images and memories overlap. Where the photographs of objects are by their nature static, the drawings on the overlays often show movement: a hand holding a kohl stick, a branch swaying in the wind, a dancer moving on an invisible rhythm. The insertion of the overlay also steers how we experience the story: first, we read the memories and personal history of the interviewee, then we see the drawing on the overlay, and only after turning that page do we see the object. As such, the design of the book makes the personal experience the central element, instead of reducing it to a mere explanation that goes with an object. A great example of how design actively influences our looking at things.

I absolutely loved this approach to personal adornment as part of everyday life and of the collective memory. The short stories introduce the reader into the intimacy of the family circle: we learn of grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers, fathers and siblings through their preferences for this or that use of personal adornment. The stories in this book present a wealth of information on not only objects, but their place in society and the values that that society attaches to them.

The volume is an artwork in itself by its wonderful design, and a treasure for anyone wanting to learn more about Emirati life and the power of adornment. If you want to understand how objects, people and memories interact, this is an important book that will have you dwell in its pages for hours!

Emirati Adornment. Tangible/Intangible, edited by Dr. Michele Bambling, 2017.

281 pp, full-colour, in Arabic and English. Available with Dukkan421

The book was a much-loved gift by Marie-Claire Bakker, who contributed to the volume

Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. She considers jewellery heritage and a historic source. She has authored several books on jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, and on archaeological jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the Society of Jewellery Historians, the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, among many others. She curates exhibitions and teaches online courses on jewellery from North Africa & Southwest Asia.