Irthi Elevates Emirati Heritage Crafts

With 11 design-led cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary crafts collaborations, 14 new collection launches, and 10 programs initiated during 2021, UAE-based Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council, an affiliate of NAMA Women Advancement, has made a powerful statement on national and international platforms with its exceptional creative work and unearthed new opportunities for Emirati craftswomen to develop and preserve local crafts in a sustainable and economically viable manner.

The Emirati artisans’ works have been made accessible to an audience of more than 15,000 individuals and crafts enthusiasts who participated in Irthi’s local and internationally organized events during 2021.

Irthi’s ongoing efforts in revitalizing crafts and taking the indigenous handmaking heritage of the MENASEA and Central Asia regions into the future has paved the way for the creation of an innovation ecosystem where the infusion of a modern spirit and design interventions are expanding the traditional crafts vocabulary. Through social development programs, vocational training, and collaborations with designers from different cultures and artistic backgrounds, Irthi continues to provide a fresh narrative for women and empowers its artisans to tap into contemporary global markets.

Her Excellency Reem BinKaram, Director of NAMA, said: “Under the guidance and vision of Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, wife of His Highness the Ruler of Sharjah, and chairperson of NAMA, Irthi has stepped up efforts in bringing Emirati crafts to the world stage to help preserve and protect our heritage crafts for future generations. The artistic and design-led collaborative explorations led by Irthi have seen the introduction of novel materials and techniques that are today enriching the artisanal heritage of Sharjah and the UAE and taking the exceptional craft traditions of Emirati artisans in exciting new directions.”

The NAMA Director added: “The future of craft is determined by its ability to embrace the shifting needs of contemporary culture and throughout 2021, Irthi has adapted to the needs of the global market and a digital-savvy generation to foster innovative pathways that support sustainability, employment, and craft and cultural preservation. The synergy between designers and artisans are creating new audiences for traditional craft practices while the multi-pronged approach of our crafts documentation is further filling the gaps in knowledge and making heritage crafts accessible to the present and future generations.”

2022 began on a very promising note for Irthi which was announced as an entity with legal personality and full capacity to carry out the legal actions necessary to achieve its goals and exercise its competencies, with its financial, administrative, and technical independence.

Pottery Making
Anne Nygard via Unsplash

Achievements in 2021

Irthi left a firm imprint on the international design scene throughout 2021 with new collection launches at Design Miami/ Podium x Shanghai; the unveiling of fashion and jewelry collections on the global digital portal ‘Elevenish’; collaboration with London-based fashion brand QASIMI; and partnering on a handcrafted urban installation project with Beirut-based architecture and design studio, T SAKHI, amongst others.

The Irthi Series was launched at Design Miami/ Podium x Shanghai with two curated contemporary handmade collections of uniquely designed yet functional objects and marked an important new chapter in Irthi’s efforts to safeguard the region’s crafts legacy. The Zenobia Collection drop – in collaboration with Levantine designer, Nada Debs, integrated the worlds of Talli and Marquetry while the Thaya Collection drop – created in collaboration with Bahraini and Emirati designers and a Pakistan-based artistic collective – offered a contemporary interpretation of Safeefah (weaved palm fronds).  

The curated ‘Zenobia Collection’ drop was also the subject of a panel discussion hosted at The Arts Club Dubai where experts commended Irthi’s efforts in initiating a dialogue between two crafts from two different worlds. 

The third cohort of 10 Emirati designers trained under ‘Azyame’ – Irthi’s flagship fashion entrepreneurship program, have set off on exciting entrepreneurial journeys with the unveiling of their fashion and jewelry collections inspired by Emirati crafts on ‘Elevenish’, an international e-commerce site.

Irthis’s efforts in supporting local crafts and artisans in the MENASA region led to its selection as a collaborative partner for London-based QASIMI’s SS22 collection which featured the unique Emirati crafts of Safeefah and Faroukha (a handwoven tassel).

The ‘Sayr Yaay’ pattern of Safeefah also inspired the 2,000 scented handcrafted pouches made in recycled felt by 37 Emirati artisans for the urban installation project designed and curated by Beirut-based T SAKHI that was unveiled at the 5th edition of The European Cultural Centre that opened in parallel with the Venice Architecture Biennale.

Collaborations for mutual knowledge exchange

Irthi’s bold vision to open dialogue, share skills and explore new alternatives, has led to collaboration opportunities with several multi-sectoral entities, expanding the scope for networking and embracing new knowledge.

Irthi teamed up with luxury Italian jewelry brand, Bulgari, in a panel session to discuss the significance of curating and documenting cultural heritage, while it offered a distinct take on Safeefah and Talli for the Irthi x Cartier Ramadan 2021 Collection that featured handcrafted baskets and the Misbah (prayer beads). 

Four bespoke creations celebrating indigenous craft heritage and produced by Emirati craftswomen at Irthi’s Bidwa Social Development Programme have been acquired by the House of Artisans as part of its permanent collections housed at Abu Dhabi’s historic Qasr Al Hosn. 

Ever-expanding archival collection in the spotlight at Expo 2020 panel sessions 

The Women’s Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai set the stage for four stimulating discussions hosted by Irthi to sustain and advance the craft, textile, and design industries in the UAE, and formed the backdrop for the unveiling of research findings initiated by the Council.

At ‘The Art of Weaving Connections’ roundtable, Irthi highlighted the need for the creation of a collective global framework to ensure fair trade and wages for artisan communities everywhere. The session saw the participation of Reem Bin Karam, Director of NAMA (representing the UAE), Maywand Jabarkhyl, CEO and Board Member of the Fatima Bint Mohamed Initiative (FBMI), Sheikha Bibi Duaij AlJaber Al Sabah from Kuwait, and Rosy Greenlees, Executive Director of Crafts Council, UK.

‘The Cultural Power of Sustainability’ explored Irthi’s advanced palm fiber research and the development of a biodegradable palm textile prototype and launched two publications– one, which focused on Irthi’s date palm research and the second, a collaborative venture with the Alchemy of Dyeing that documents natural and sustainable recipes for dyeing palm leaves.

Highlighting the importance of documenting the UAE’s signature perfume traditions including old recipes, mixing techniques, and ingredients, Irthi launched The Future Essence at ‘Connections Through Culture’. The bi-lingual publication also outlines the ongoing multimedia and design-led projects being implemented by Irthi in collaboration with the American University of Sharjah.

At the session titled, ‘Crafting the Future’, Irthi launched Hiraf – an iPad game targeting the tech-savvy younger generation and is designed to master the complex weaving techniques of Talli and Safeefah . ‘Hiraf’ was developed in collaboration with Netherlands-based Opera Amsterdam, Studio Louter, and Studio Shosho.

Empowering artisans with skills exchange programs 

Irthi has broadened the creative and professional horizons of 13 young female Emirati artisans with the skills of 12 types and techniques of Jordanian and Palestinian embroidery at a 12-month artisanal training program held in collaboration with Jordan-based Saru Fashion label. 

Through a series of hands-on art workshops led by Irthi’s Hirfati Youth Programme at the Dubai Design Week’s vibrant Making Space, young participants gained an introduction into traditional Emirati as well as modern sustainable crafts. The crafts were inspired by the cultural revitalization projects undertaken by Irthi’s Design Labs and Crafts Dialogue initiatives.

Hand sewing
Kris Atomic via Unsplash

Immersive, interactive ‘Virtual Experience’

A 360-degree interactive ‘Virtual Experience’ on Irthi’s website is showcasing a curated selection of the new and yet-to-be-released collections that are modeled three-dimensionally and set against the backdrop of Sharjah’s magnificent desert landscape to reflect the landscape from which these crafts have emerged.

Press Release: Irthi

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