Old mosque at Al Jazirah Al Hamra.
From documenting traditional UAE crafts for future generations, taking visitors back in time through virtual tours of local heritage sites, or establishing a world-first open source database exclusively for Arabic typography, American University of Sharjah (AUS) is actively equipping the next generation to preserve the UAE’s tangible cultural heritage. The call to responsibly steward and celebrate the nation’s heritage is woven throughout the curriculum of the AUS College of Architecture, Art and Design (CAAD), which is home to the UAE’s top programmes for architecture and design, according to the QS World Subject Rankings 2022 (QS World University Subject Rankings, 2022). The rankings represent the most diverse collection of institutions from around the world, with almost 4,000 individual university programmes assessed. Ranks are based on research quality and accomplishments, academic reputation and graduate employment.
A recent research collaboration with Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council (ICCC) has seen multimedia design students from CAAD documenting the craft of perfume making in the UAE. The project explored the link between the craft of perfume and the Emirati identity, the diversity of ingredients used, and the handcrafting traditions of creating perfumes. Students also investigated the meaning and value of perfume in daily rituals in Emirati society, the variety of shapes of incense burners as well as the origins of the exotic ingredients. “Perfumery holds a special place in Emirati society and Irthi’s collaboration with AUS looks at the craft of perfume making in a holistic manner,” said Farah Nasri, Acting Manager of Curation & Design at Irthi. “By exploring the underlying memories, identities and rituals traditionally associated with the craft, the goal is to inspire future creative output. This important research has paved the way for the exploration of a strategic direction for the economic sustainability of the perfume market in the UAE by introducing young designers to the narratives and heritage of perfumery in the UAE.”
The research enabled teams of students to highlight current market gaps and develop design concepts to address ways to preserve culture and identity. One group completed a six-month internship at Irthi to further focus on the art of crafting dukhoon — a traditional black incense paste made from a blend of oud oil and other perfumes that is burned for its fragrance — to further develop a product that is a right fit in the contemporary perfume market.
Comprised by a group of AUS alumni, Irthi aims to strengthen the UAE’s design and crafts industry by preserving artisan skills and cultural heritage through initiatives that include exchange, skill development, youth engagement, training and mentoring for aspiring designers, collaborations and artist residencies. An ongoing collaboration between Irthi and CAAD includes the Irthi Research Fellowship at CAAD as part of ICCC’s second cohort of its Design Labs initiative. AUS alumna Raghad Alali has been appointed as the Irthi Research Fellow at CAAD, where she will participate in a project that looks at traditional materials and their application in design.
The project involves conducting field studies that uncover the unique history of the region, redefining, reinterpreting and reimagining the future of vernacular materials and crafts of the UAE, through design and material experiments.
UAE heritage as seen by an artist.
Alali will also examine how design can be a significant driver in raising awareness on craft preservation, while also focusing on local issues such as heritage, environment, cultural identity, and sustainability. AUS alumnus and Associate Dean of CAAD Faysal Tabbarah, said the college is committed to making meaningful contributions that ensure traditional crafts and heritage inform and shape the way design is practiced and taught at AUS.
His own teaching and research has focused predominantly on activating Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) material and environmental practices to drive innovative contemporary design and building solutions.
“While CAAD students get the opportunity to experiment with new techniques and materials using some of the most advanced design tools, we encourage them to also experiment with traditional materials, practices and techniques as a means of learning from and preserving the past, and bringing this knowledge into the future,” said Tabbarah.
In recent years, CAAD faculty, students and alumni have contributed a range of novel solutions to the preservation of cultural heritage through multimedia design, visual communication, architecture and interior design. AUS Associate Professor Zlatan Filipovic utilised multimedia and virtual reality technology to create and enhance an interactive experience of Ras Al Khaimah’s architectural heritage. “ReImagining the Past” integrates virtual reality and augmented reality digital platforms and storytelling to preserve the non-material and material cultural heritage of Al Jazirah Al Hamra, making it accessible for future generations.
Earlier this year, students of Associate Professors Hala Al-Ani and Riem Ibrahim presented a series of new Arabic typography fonts in an exhibition in Qatar, with plans to launch “Huroof Central”— a new open source platform that focuses exclusively on experimental Arabic typography. The platform aims to fill a major gap in current design curricula. From an architecture and interior design perspective, CAAD alumni such as Ibrahim Ibrahim, Ammar Kalo and Rand AlDrei, have also drawn inspiration from UAE tradition by developing new materials, handcrafted furniture and lighting design pieces that have been recognised regionally and internationally.