Abeer Baghdadi: Advancing Art Jewellery in Saudi Arabia

Published: 20.06.2021
Saskia van Es
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Abeer Baghdadi. Necklace: Al Azba, 2019. Sterling silver, leather.. Photo by: Rel P. David. From series: Mycelium. Work in collaboration with Zahrah Al Ghamdi,
. Image: courtesy of the artist.. Abeer Baghdadi
Necklace: Al Azba, 2019
Sterling silver, leather.
Photo by: Rel P. David
From series: Mycelium
Work in collaboration with Zahrah Al Ghamdi,
Image: courtesy of the artist.

© By the author. Read Copyright.

Where you do what you do, determines the degree of professional solitude. Abeer Baghdadi makes big bold art jewellery, in Saudi Arabia. And she keeps her spirits up. She sees a change in her country, similar to what jewellery makers in Italy had to fight for a few decades ago. And she seeks alliance with like-minded people.
Abeer Baghdadi was a goldsmith and a teacher in Design (Jewellery Design, Rendering), until, in her late thirties, she discovered "art jewellery". She participated in jewellery courses in Europe with, for example, Stefano Marchetti and Ruudt Peters. When her family was based in Londen for a while, she seized the chance and pursued an MA in Jewellery. Back in her hometown Jeddah, she met regularly with Ruudt Peters (hurrah for video calling!) to be coached and getting to talk art jewellery with someone who understands. She taught classes to connect to the community and to promote this kind of art discipline. For the same reason, she offers places to studio assistants. In Saudi Arabia I don’t use the word "contemporary jewellery". Over here I prefer to call it "art jewellery", Abeer Baghdadi says, maybe it will be easier to understand that jewellery is an art discipline arising from art theories like colour, layers, composition, and an expression of emotions. It is not just about silversmithing techniques, stones, and prongs.

Abeer Baghdadi, Al Asala, Necklace from Mycelium series. Brass, leather, 2018. In collaboration with Zahrah Al Ghamdi. Photographer Rel P. David. Image: courtesy of the artist.

In Fine Art, in Saudi Arabia, Baghdadi sketches the situation, the struggle of the past fifty years has started to pay off in the last ten years. There are galleries; there are art institutions. The discipline of jewellery has not yet benefited from this, in terms of opportunities to exhibit. Wouldn’t this exclusion of jewellery from the art category be recognisable in other parts of the world? Well, Saudi Arabia has an especially long way to go, she thinks, jewellery here is strongly connected to gold, silver, and accumulated wealth. If pieces are made of non-precious materials, they are regarded as accessories, comparable to some brass thing you buy on the market for a few riyals. I sometimes think we are suffering the same situation as Italy was in. Gold and silver as a part of wealth were always very important in Italian society. Contemporary jewellers like Francesco Pavan, or even younger generation colleagues such as Stefano Marchetti, used traditional jewellery techniques and precious materials. But they used them to express their artistic concepts. The public did not understand it and most of their work was exhibited outside Italy until recently.

Abeer Baghdadi, Untitled. Brooch from Hirz collection. Sterling silver, gold, silk, 2014. Photographer Lina Qummosani. Image: courtesy of the artist.

A longing to fling open some windows shows in her work, even if she departs from tradition. Typical Bedouin jewellery consists of a horizontally worn tubelike container, Hirz. This silver cylinder can hold supplications. In Abeer’s version, the idea of a vessel remains. Only here, she combines silver with white silk that ties in a knot. There are no protective texts inside, but she sometimes includes Arabic words. As in one of the silk pendant necklaces in this series, on which she embroidered the word Amah. It means servant in the religious sense and at the same time nation. There is a famous poetic concept that if you raise a woman well, you raise a nation. Abeer Baghdadi: Conventional Bedouin jewellery is still being produced today. But we have moved on. I want my ‘Hirz’ to relate to our day and age.
Abeer Baghdadi, Untitled, Necklace from Hirz collection. Sterling silver, silk, 2017.
Photographer Lina Qummosani. Image: courtesy of the artist.

A chance encounter with a Saudi visual artist, Zahrah Al Ghamdi, has changed her work enormously. Al Ghamdi had created an installation, Mycelium Running, of hundreds of hollow and pierced leather shapes that appeared to be taking over the walls like a fungus. At an event, the two artists got talking. Al Ghamdi clearly believed in Baghdadi’s jewellery and handed her a quantity of the mushroom puffs. Later Baghdadi learned that some visitors of the installation had apparently remarked that they would like to wear the mycelium elements as jewellery. What’s more, the collaboration pushed Baghdadi to go outside of her comfort zone and work on a larger scale.

Abeer Baghdadi's story of her collaboration with a Saudi Fine Artist Dr. Zahra Al Ghamdi.

The nostalgic tone of Zahrah Al Ghamdi’s installation, which referred to abandoned Saudi villages slowly eaten away by decay, was not what caught Baghdadi. She sees fungus as a force of regeneration. A force that operates in silence, a force that is sometimes only noticed after it has done its work for years.
When Abeer mounted the leather elements in a collar-like necklace, it was this remarkable silence that determined the design. No hooks, bails, or other dangling connectors could create a sound. She wanted to avoid that it looked made up. So the second restriction was to only use techniques that a pre-industrial metalsmith would have had: no soldering, no riveting, just sawing, bending, and hammer-texturing. Alexander Calder’s jewellery was a big inspiration: I felt like Calder could make his primitive-looking jewellery anywhere, without a torch, just by manipulating sheet and wire. Baghdadi decided to leave all goldsmith skills behind to solve this project. The leather puffs slide over raised tabs that can be pressed tight. In some parts, the textured mount is in view. She adds: I bring out more characteristics of the metal than just polish it to a shiny surface.

Abeer Baghdadi, copper frame for Necklace Hazna from Mycelium series in collaboration with Zahrah Al Ghamdi, 2019.
Photographer Rel P. David. Image: courtesy of the artist.

With the silence of the mycelium in mind, it is a fascinating paradox that Abeer’s work has quite a presence: you don’t even have to come near to see it, it is shouting, it has an individuality. In this video, she wears it on the outside of her black abaya. In Saudi Arabia, in urban settings, women used to throw on this cloak when leaving the house, to cover their beauty and adornment. The rules have become a lot looser but many women still choose to wear black garments, making it hard to distinguish individuals in the street. The adornment of the large mycelium necklace is in stark contrast with the neutral black. Wearing jewellery inside or outside the house, visibly or underneath your outer garment - these are aspects that might not be perceived as distinct in other places in the world. Having said all this, an occasion to wear the jewellery in public, like an exhibition with Zahrah Al Ghamdi’s work, has not presented itself yet. And family get-togethers? Abeer Baghdadi laughs: I am not courageous enough. My mom is bugging me: go back to your old traditional goldwork!

Abeer Baghdadi, Hazna, Necklace from Mycelium series Copper, leather, 2019. In collaboration with Zahrah Al Ghamdi.
Photographer Rel P. David. Image: courtesy of the artist.

Al Ghamdi remarked that the rectangular shape of Baghdadi’s necklaces followed the decorative rim of another garment, the traditional festive Thoub. This tradition is at my core too, but I was not aware that I am connecting them. Not everything that I want to express I can explain. But I can feel this work gives me power. To be worn by a woman who, like me, wants to feel strong and unique.
Abeer Baghdadi, Untitled, Necklace from Hirz collection. Sterling silver, gold, 2014.
Photographer Lina Qummosani. Image: courtesy of the artist.

One thing that keeps her going is seeing artists at work online and talking about their work, such as at the Art Jewelry Forum Live sessions. But the most important development is at home, with real people. Abeer Baghdadi is not completely alone anymore. Not long ago, she met with Saadah Shehab, a Saudi jewellery maker trained in Japan who has been in exhibitions in several countries except her home country. However, Abeer's aim is not to look abroad, but to form a Saudi community and start to exhibit in their own country. There are more, mostly female, jewellery makers she wants to contact: Only a community can raise a loud enough voice to draw attention to jewellery that has a story.
Abeer Baghdadi, Untitled, Necklace from Hirz collection. Sterling silver, silk, 2017.
Photographer Lina Qummosani. Image: courtesy of the artist.

About the author

Saskia van Es​
(Amsterdam, 1972) is an art historian. She writes texts on contemporary jewellery, such as exhibition reviews. Her fascination: jewellery materials. She was a board member of the Françoise van den Bosch Foundation.
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