Can a handicraft or artefact be considered authentic to a country if it is not made using local materials and manpower? A QF graduate searches for the answer.
For someone who prides herself on her clarity of thought, Asma Derouiche wasn’t comfortable not knowing.
A year ago, the Master of Fine Art in Design student at Virginia Commonwealth University of the Arts in Qatar (VCUarts Qatar) – a Qatar Foundation partner university - was on one of her occasional trips to Souq Waqif in Doha. A Tunisian who hailed from a village renowned for its local artisans, she found herself drawn to the little shops that sold Qatari artwork and crafts.
“These are 100 percent authentic Qatari art and craft,” she was told by the shopkeeper. Impressed, she enquired about the resources that were used to create it – only to learn that the raw materials used were not sourced from Qatar, nor was the artisan a Qatari.
“Growing up in Tunisia I was used to a homogenous culture where the word ‘authentic’ was used to describe an object that was made by local artisans using local resources, and inspired by indigenous tradition and culture,” says Derouiche.
I couldn’t understand how a handicraft or object could be called authentic to a country, unless most of the material and manpower involved were local sourced.
“What I saw in Souq Waqif puzzled me. I couldn’t understand how a handicraft or object could be called authentic to a country, unless most of the material and manpower involved were locally-sourced.”
Curious by nature, Derouiche was so intrigued by this contradiction that she decided to follow up on it. At that point, as she made subsequent trips to Souq Waqif to gather further information and talk to more artisans, little did she know that what started out simply as an urge to quell her curiosity, would turn out into a research project.
After further visits and conversations with local artists, she realized that what she was exploring – the question of authenticity – was something that she would like to delve into for her Master’s thesis.
Given the green light to proceed by her faculty advisors, Derouiche began questioning shopkeepers and local and expatriate artisans on the subject that had piqued her interest.
I designed a card game which would even out the participants and their roles (…) thus ensuring that both the artisans and the faculty were equal contributors in the process of design and manufacture of artefacts.
Over the next few months, her investigation deepened, and she systematically researched the background to her “authentic puzzle”, as she had come to call it. And the more she dug, the more she realized that her understanding of the word ‘authentic’ was ready to be challenged.
“I’ve always been comfortable with the unexpected,” she says. “But it took me a few weeks to accept what I myself had unearthed: that where Qatar was concerned, ‘authentic’ meant using available materials and manpower – irrespective of country or culture – to replicate the country’s antiquity and traditions.
“In a way, it resonates with the identity of the country. Qatar is cosmopolitan and welcoming, and it seemed to adopt this same outlook towards preserving its heritage – a mix of cultures contribute to the ‘authentic’ art and crafts sold in Souq Waqif. It’s the new authentic.”
If that inadvertent discovery wasn’t startling enough, Derouiche stumbled on another aspect: expatriate artisans in Souq Waqif, due to their specific work demands, did not have the sort of creative leeway that they had back in their respective countries, and often felt stifled. As her mind flicked back to the creativity of the artisans in her home village in Tunisia, she thought of a way to fix this.
“In my conversations with Souq Waqif’s artisans, I sounded out the idea of teaming them up with designers from VCUarts Qatar to create Qatari artefacts,” explains Derouiche.
“Likewise, I approached faculty in my university – who were designers themselves – and asked them if they would be willing to collaborate with these expatriate artisans. Much to my delight, both parties agreed.
But that wasn’t enough. If Derouiche wanted to build a sense of trust and understanding between them, she first had to ensure that there were no barriers in communication between two groups of people who were strangers to each other.
I doubt if I would have had the courage to explore such a contradiction were it not for my time in Qatar Foundation’s Education City where discussions and debates were part of our daily life.
“I designed a card game which would even out the participants and their roles,” she says. “As they played the game, which I named SILLA - in Arabic, the word means ‘connection’ – they would be encouraged to collaborate with their partner, ensuring that both the artisans and the faculty were equal contributors in the process of design and manufacture of artefacts.
Asked about the success of the project, Derouiche beams as she answers. “When I started out, I had no idea that my plan would run smoothly, and that I would enjoy it so much. I held a workshop for them, where we explored possibilities, and where they used the card game I designed to generate further ideas for authentic Qatari artefacts.
“The entire process was highly interactive, and proof of their collaboration can be seen in the unusual twists they’ve applied in their interpretation of design – such as the geometric design of a leather prayer rug.
I never thought that I would end up accepting that authentic could mean embracing other cultures to preserve your own
“In fact, riding on the success of this project, I will be launching an initiative at Msheireb – a platform where designers and artists from the wider community can collaborate to create similar artefacts and artwork.”
And she adds, “What surprises me just as much as the success of the project is that I had the confidence to broach this topic to my university’s faculty. I doubt if I would have had the courage to explore such a contradiction were it not for my time in Qatar Foundation’s Education City where discussions and debates were part of our daily life.
“I joined VCUarts Qatar because I wanted to be authentic in every sense; I wanted to have my own style – my own approach to art and design. I never thought that I would end up accepting that authentic could mean embracing other cultures to preserve your own.”