Jewelry is intimately connected to resistance in Palestine. On a recent trip to the West Bank, the designer Annelys de Vet learned of how prisoners smuggle little gifts out of jail. The most prized possessions among Palestinians include beautifully hand-decorated jewels that prisoners make for their children.
De Vet is a curator of the Disarming Design project, which aims to bring to market collections of Palestinian design products for the bedroom, kitchen, living room, garden and even a collection of toys.
Prototypes of the products have been developed at a workshop hosted by the International Academy of Arts Palestine in Ramallah. Disarming Design is supported by UNESCO, the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and the Dutch anti-poverty organization ICCO.
De Vet is head of the design department of the Amsterdam-based Sandberg Institute and runs a design studio in Brussels. The project’s coordinator, Majd Abdel Hamid, studied art in Ramallah, as well as in Malmö in Sweden.
Hamid and de Vet spoke to The Electronic Intifada contributor Adri Nieuwhof about the project.
Adri Nieuwhof: How did the project Disarming Design come about and does the name express the meaning of the project?
Annelys de Vet: Mieke Zagt from ICCO approached me with the question if I could think of strategies to make Palestinian products more attractive for a contemporary international market. She explained how many beautiful products she sees in Palestine, but never finds them in Dutch warehouses [department stores]. I came up with the idea of developing a collection of Palestinian products by contemporary artists, designers and local craftsmen, creating new possibilities out of the existing resources and production methods.
The project has a slightly provocative title: “Disarming Design from Palestine.” It is an artistic project with strong conceptual thinking [behind it]. In that way it shows the quality of the Palestinian people without portraying them as [only] victims.
At the same time, it [the project] does not ignore the situation but reflects upon the situation. The products can unveil parts of the Palestinian reality, tell a different story to an international audience. I approached Khaled Hourani, the director of the International Academy of Arts Palestine, to develop this project with him and the academy. He responded more than enthusiastically.
Majd Abdel Hamid: About the name Disarming Design, there is a cultural aspect of language. I like the name. I know what it means. But the problem is that “disarming” always takes you to an idea that something is armed and this proved to be a little controversial when I was talking to and inviting artists. We are still thinking about the title, how to maneuver around it, play with the name without creating some kind of controversy of talking about Palestinian design as armed design. Disarming Design is a working title.
AN: What are your impressions of the Palestinian artists and craftspeople you have met?
AV: Both the craftsmen and the artists responded very enthusiastically to our project, and especially to the opportunity to experiment. It’s not a common thing for artists to think about collaborating with craftsmen. In general they are separated groups. Just by visiting the workshops, the artists and designers got many new ideas. There were already some brilliant ideas and projects, that can get a new platform through our design collection. In western societies most small workshops and [associated] skills have unfortunately disappeared. And with them the knowledge and respect for resources and processes of making also vanished. Craftsmen have knowledge in their hands and express that through the material. It was enriching to meet many highly skilled and committed craftsmen in Palestine.
AN: Does the Israeli occupation or the Palestinian nation play a role in the design?
MA: Of course, occupation plays a role even in how you perceive things, I mean visually speaking. My generation, we have a distorted perception of space. It is distorted in how you see, how you look at things. You have many affiliations, you have the wall, you have all these boundaries on movement. You talk about the last ten years where people were mostly living in one city, they don’t really move around the West Bank. They are just living with one community. So the occupation has a lot of influence [on the design], but it is indirect. You can see it visually, in the language, in the development of the work. You can find traces of this. But at the same time it should not be literal, it should not be like one layer, as “an occupation” or “against occupation.” It is not about the just cause of Palestinians, or a political debate. It is about a beautiful product and the history of it and the people who are doing it.
AV: Yes, very much. For instance, only some resources are easy to get and for most it is difficult, impossible or too expensive. That plays a role in the project. But also in the meaning of all the products themselves the occupations plays a role, because they reflect on the situation. What I see with Palestinian artists is that it is impossible to deny the reality outside the [studio]. You can’t “just make art.” You have to take a position in what it means to make art in a situation of occupation, in this political impossible reality. That clearly influences the art and design works.
AN: Did the cooperation between the artists, students and craftspeople from Palestine and the Dutch Sandberg Institute bring new energy?
MA: It is very interesting to see the relationship. For instance, we had three students from the Netherlands who were staying with me [in Palestine]. I was telling them that I know that this experience is intense. It does not matter if this is the first time or fifth time you are in Palestine. It is a charged atmosphere. Politically, the situation is now unstable, and with all these demonstrations. There is this collaboration but it takes a little bit of time to develop knowledge about what you can do, how we can work, to actually see the country, understand the layers. I think they bring something really important and they also get something very important. The collaboration brings out a very interesting dynamic, a kind of visual debate between two very different visual languages. Someone with a western background and someone from here, it is very different. Then we have this negotiation and this is interesting, to see how it works.
AN: What did the cooperation bring the Palestinian craftsmen, students and artists?
MA: I have been dealing with craftsmen and I think they are really excited about this project. They feel really marginalized, which is true. They have this threat of China that is ruining all these small shops, all the production of the craftsmen. Everyone is importing cheap products from China which have overtaken the market. There is this aspect of showing the craftsmen that we care they are there, by working with them. I really appreciate the personal contact with these craftsmen, to see them interested in the work and trying to find solutions for the problems that come up with the product.
The other part is that the artists themselves, when you think about what it means to create a fork or a table spoon from olive wood from Bethlehem. This brings a lot of questions. It helps people to grow, to have a fresh perspective on the esthetics of this country and the products, and on us as cultural practitioners what are we producing. It influences the discourse of art as a culture itself. I am really optimistic about this project, because it is a continuation, it is not just two months and then you stop. Hopefully, we can introduce a design program at the art school [in Ramallah]. No one is studying design. We have technicians who know how to use software, but the concept of design as an art as philosophy does not exist.
AN: Can you give an example of an idea for a product that came up during the workshop which stands out or made you feel enthusiastic?
AV: Palestinian designer Wafa Meri created a contemporary interior for a hotel in Nablus in cooperation with Rashid Abdel Hamid, traditional manufacturers and female embroiderers. From this project Wafa will make a special “bedroom collection,” consisting of a pillowcase and a duvet cover with embroidered borders, a hand-woven bed-runner, a carpet in similar colors and a bed lamp made of olive tree branches. They all use production processes embedded in the cultural heritage.
MH: I am enthusiastic about the product I am working on. We were working with a jewelry designer and were talking about jewelry, rocks and precious stones. And then someone told about this small stone [jewel] he had made in jail. We developed the idea to use instead of precious stones or diamonds, we would use a rock that someone had sent out from prison, and make a very elegant, well-made necklace from it. It is playing on the idea of precious stones this personal relationship with a stone that is “worthless” but then we have the personal relationship. Then you can wear it. I am critical also of the commercial aspect of it, of selling this. At the same time, it is a statement. It is negotiation, it is not like it is good or bad.
I am also trying to develop a sand-clock, an hour glass made from crushed cement from the wall. It is completely Palestinian-made. So you have five minutes of the virtual life of the wall, but at the same time it is infinite because you can keep turning it.
AN: Do you think Palestinian investors will show interest in the products?
MA: I don’t see why not. With all the movement around the costs of living, there is this aspect of being part of the community and giving back, basically. It is not just about talking and demonstrating. It is about daily life, to work with the people, as many as possible, to actively create some help, so that people can still live, not suffocate or just emigrate out of the country. It is very important to invest in this.
AV: Yes, although it’s not an easy time for investors. But for this in particular we are collaborating Sam Bahour from AIM [Applied Information Management]. He is a business investor and joined the final presentation of the results of the workshop. He said that he was shocked by the quality of the presented prototypes and ideas. He said that it is the first time that there is a collection of contemporary design products from Palestine. Of course contemporary products exist, but they are never presented in a collection like [this]. Our design label will have a kitchen collection, bedroom collection, a garden and interior collection and even toys. Presenting the products in this context is a strong marketing tool, because of the bigger story it tells.
AN: Do you think it is possible to market the products outside Palestine?
AV: Yes, that’s the aim of the project. For the distribution of the products we collaborate with Alhoush [House of Arab Art and Design] in Amman [Jordan], who have experience with international distribution. We work with the Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans who already have a lot of international orders. But first we will exhibit the collection of prototypes during the international Art Biannual Qalandiya International in November. Qalandiya International is an ambitious contemporary art event taking place in several Palestinian cities and villages. Seven prominent Palestinian cultural institutions that are focused on contemporary art and the Palestine cultural landscape collaborate to organize the event. The prototypes that we have developed for the Disarming Design collection will be presented by the International Academy of Arts. From there on we will investigate in taking products into production and develop a mobile and online design shop. Summer 2013 we expect to present this temporary shop in outstanding international museums and cultural platforms. And on the Internet, of course.
Further information on the Disarming Design project can be found on www.sandberg.nl
Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.
Disclosure: The Electronic Intifada has received grants from ICCO.