Memories of colour
Interview with Reem Tariq el Mutwali
Dr Reem el Mutwali is an interior designer, scholar and creator of an archive of Arab textiles. sister-hood asked her about her life, her work, and her new project, the Zay Initiative.
You’ve talked about growing up in a rich cultural environment. How did that shape your interests?
My parents, both of whom are Iraqi, moved to Abu Dhabi, UAE when I was five years old. I think most families who leave their home country and never return are left with a longing to hold on to their heritage and identity through their possessions. My earliest memory – I might have been about four or five – is of colour. Lots of colour: ruby reds, emerald greens, whether found on my mother’s fingers or on the rugs, paintings and tapestries that filled our home. As such, my appetite for all things artistic was solidified at home and continued to develop as I grew up.
For my undergraduate degree, I majored in interior design. I continue to practice as an interior designer through my firm, creating sanctuaries and establishing individual art collections for select clients. For my Masters, I read Islamic architecture, which led to a survey of the forts and fortifications in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, culminating in the publication of the book Qasr al Husn, An Architectural Survey (1995). This anchored my role in promoting culture and art. I headed the Exhibition and Arts department for over twenty years, at the Cultural Foundation Abu Dhabi. For my doctorate, I studied Islamic art and archaeology, continuing this notion of preserving tradition and protecting our heritage. The subjects I chose to pursue – consciously or unconsciously – drew from my life in the UAE, and for the blessings it has bestowed on me. And so, I specifically chose to research the topic of dress and its evolution in the UAE.
You launched ‘The Zay Initiative’ which preserves Arab textiles, clothing and jewellery. What drew you into this project?
I think realising that my interest lay in a constant assemblage of collecting and managing art in all its forms. These pieces tell the story of people from all walks of Arab life, mainly women, who came into this world and left little traces behind. Textiles, clothing and jewellery present a bountiful and constant plethora of rich and valuable resources that are at risk of being lost or wrongly classified due to a lack of accurate documentation.
Through the preservation of these pieces, The Zay Initiative plays a significant role in fortifying, encapsulating and sustaining a small but important part of Arab history.
You’re adding written histories to the items in this collection. What does that add to the experience?
I believe that it is my duty as a custodian of this collection to make sure it is substantial, not just in terms of collecting and preserving items but by providing them with context and their rightful place in history. This way they are even more cherished, valued and understood.
In this fashion – pun intended – these previously inanimate objects suddenly come to life and perpetuate the colourful and distinctive stories of people who have passed on.
How has your collection grown and evolved since its launch?
I began gathering the UAE collection (Sultani) organically. As I worked on my doctorate, I found myself in the fortunate position of being the recipient of many of the dresses illustrated in my thesis (which later was published as Sultani, traditions renewed; Changes in Women’s Traditional Dress in the UAE during the reign of Shaykh Zâyid bin Sultân Âl Nahyân 1966-2004.) The first edition of the book was issued in 2011. At the time, the Sultani collection encompassed 180 traditional UAE dresses. Today, thecollection encompasses 315 artefacts from the larger Zay Initiative collection – which is home to more than 800 pieces from all over the Arab world!
The Zay Initiative is now on the internet. How has that changed the project?
As I witnessed how the book and collection inspired and attracted many followers, I started the Instagram account @sultanibookuae. The influence of new technologies and social media on the subject of national heritage and culture was an interesting and unexpected outcome. I managed to provide a daily interactive platform featuring this body of cultural and historical significance with live dialogue between followers from all walks of life. Consequently, I began to engage with a wider audience through @thezayinitiative, collecting facts and documenting the culture and history. This led to a blog and the digital archive which culminated in The Zay Initiative.
The Zay Initiative would not exist if it weren’t for the internet, the seamless accessibility and inspiring connections it has brought. I am grateful to modern day technology for allowing The Zay Initiative to act as a method for sustaining and providing context to Arab culture, heritage, and dress in perpetuity – facilitating the method by which we safeguard these articles of dress that otherwise would be thrown away.
Is there an item in your collection that resonates with you particularly?
A red Syrian traditional outer body cloak (Abayah/’Aba). This ensemble was given to the original owner’s late husband by the Emir of Cyrenaica in Libya during the late 1930s. Her husband had been crossing a bridge in Paris in 1937 or 38 when he saw a young man attempting to commit suicide and stopped him from jumping. The rescued man was the son of the Emir and the cloak was given by the Royal family as a gift of thanks for saving his life.
It is a wild and fascinating tale, exemplifying how a simple article of dress can have a lifetime journey that incorporates different cultures and countries, carrying stories of people that have never met, nor will ever meet. It illustrates how interconnected our society is, how important it is to provide context to an ensemble, and how thrilling it is to piece it all together for the next generation.
There are complex symbolisms in Arabic clothing. Can you outline some of these?
‘Eat according to your taste; but dress according to people’s taste,’ is a very popular proverb used in Arab culture. This illustrates how symbolism is infused into dress, reflecting regional, religious, social and at times marital status.
What we wear both consciously and subconsciously reflects so much about us: added layers of clothing can express modesty and the use of vibrant contrasting colours can reflect love of nature. In the UAE, wearing the Burgu’ (face mask) was one clear symbol of coming of age and transitioning from girlhood to womanhood and marriage.
How has the way Arab women dress changed over time?
In the UAE specifically, during the period following the discovery of oil in the region, change occurred rapidly and profoundly. The wealth that resulted created a culture that is constantly chasing after modernization and globalization. In such a rapidly changing environment, where women were and are still rarely photographed or interviewed, many details of their clothing can go unrecorded. On the other hand, a fortunate and vital consequence of rapid change is the availability of first-hand records from generations that experienced the culture before the oil boom. The answer to your question, in my opinion, is a varied, complex and long undertaking I recommend people read my book Sultani, linked above. If you prefer an abbreviated version you can find it on the blog located in The Zay Initiative website!
What can we learn from studying the clothing of various cultures and time periods in the Arab world?
Clothing is used to cover the body, to make a person feel attractive and to communicate with others. People wear clothes for many different reasons. Some of these reasons are physical, functional or just for show. You may wear clothes for comfort and protection; others wear clothes for psychological and social reasons. Clothes give you self-confidence and express your personality. Clothes also help you identify with other people.
In other words – yes clothes tell stories and reflect cultures, so they can definitely help us learn so much about the economic, social, religious, political, cultural and, at times, individual tastes of any group of people in different times and places.
Do you have other projects you’re working on?
The Dress Collection Digital Archive: The Zay Museum Collection, will be accessible online directly starting from October 2019, as each article is added piece by piece, establishing a unique regional digital archive free of charge for everyone to explore. It is easy to navigate so that scholars, researchers, designers and educators – truly anyone – can search the archive by decade, by country, by country, by garment and more.
Who are you hoping to reach through this project and what impact do you hope to achieve?
The effect of modest fashion and how it is taking over the world is evident. Today, one can find elaborate Abayas for sale via western luxury brands.
The publicly available archive presents a useful tool and bridge between retail and academia. Furthermore, documenting the names and stories and giving women and men a voice that transcends time is an exciting and meaningful endeavour.
I believe these empowering stories need to be told via platforms, be it exhibitions, installations, magazine articles, documentaries and so on. The possibilities are endless. This collection has the ability to reacquaint younger Arab generations with their roots, bridge cultures, dispel misconceptions and sustain legacies.