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Interpreting Traditional Jewellery. A Journey Across The Omani Desert

Published: 01.05.2020
Amal Al-Ismaeli Amal Al-Ismaeli
Author:
Amal Al-Ismaeli
Edited by:
Klimt02
Edited at:
Barcelona
Edited on:
2020
Traditional shahid.
Traditional shahid

© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.

Intro
After a preliminary literature review, I started by designing rings to explore issues related to Omani and Islamic identity, and to explore how I could work with material and new processes in my work. I decided to design rings because they have a specific relation to Omani society and to Islam. In this work, therefore, I produced new forms of the shahid ring using digital technologies such as laser cutting and 3D printing. In contrast with traditional production, I felt that I had taken out the soul of the long handcrafting process.
Design Development overview

My background of Omani cultural and Islamic traditions, coupled with my studies in the Western world, means that I have interacted significantly with global culture. This has allowed me to identify the shift that has occurred in the meaning and value of jewellery circulating in the community of Oman since the 1970s until now. The style of new imported jewellery is growing and developing in the community, shifting and replacing the old patterns.

As a contemporary jewellery designer, I realise that an item of jewellery I have made could be regarded as a meaningful artefact that represents my world view, not just that of an individual, but also as a representative of a community or group. As a jewellery designer living abroad, I have a very important role in promoting a social reality which is not observed by others because it is considered normal in my community. My jewellery designs can have deep meaning with strong cultural and historical roots. Jewellery can be a social record that provides a lot of information about the structure of social life in a particular community. It involves many aspects; social, religious, cultural, economic and even political. As a designer of contemporary jewellery, I have also recognised that the development of modern design skills corresponds with the developments of technology, science and, most obviously, human needs. These needs can be physical, emotional, or spiritual.

After a preliminary literature review, I started by designing rings to explore issues related to Omani and Islamic identity and to explore how I could work with material and new processes in my work. I decided to design rings because they have a specific relation to Omani society and to Islam. In this work, therefore, I produced new forms of the shahid ring using digital technologies such as laser cutting and 3D printing. In contrast with traditional production, I felt that I had taken out the soul of the long handcrafting process.

During my first period of fieldwork, I started to explore the concept of value of jewellery, and how social contexts relate to traditional and cultural identity, by interviewing owners of jewellery and craftspeople involved in jewellery production such as the expert women who made the traditional headdress (shaabook). I identified a range of subjective values related the jewellery. I began to understand the value and aesthetic importance of leather and explore areas of potential design inspiration such as smell, weight, sound, and storage of jewellery.
 
Traditional headdress (shaabook).
 
Traditional headdress (shaabook) from the back.


This fieldwork led to the production of a series of three rings using traditionally processed leather produced during the fieldwork in Oman. The rings explored concepts related to gender, religion, and sound, breaking new ground for me in how I combined design and material influences from traditional jewellery with a reflection on Omani cultural issues. The change in my design approach was inspired by the ‘wearable stories’ project that was led by Hanson and Hutton in 2015. Wearable stories activities required the workshop participants to observe, select, photograph, gather, collate and print.
 
New interpretation of the traditional shahid; series of three rings using traditionally processed leather.


I returned to Oman in 2016 and began the first phase of my fieldwork. I started to work with a group of Omani participants to create jewellery. My engagement with these women played a major role in my practice. This work attempted to connect different crafts together to produce contemporary jewellery, celebrating the hybridity of the traditional Bedouin jewellery and exploring the relationship between the past and present. This first engagement led to the development of a co-creation group and the design and production of work exploring the potential of the leather thread and traditional meat products.

This cooperation between me and those participants was an important point in the research. For me, contemporary jewellery not only concerns the maker. I am interested in the connection between my role as the maker and the people who inspired me to do something unique.
 
Work in progress: Workshop with different Omani Woman.
 
Work in progress: Workshop with different Omani Woman.


My practice was changed and affected by the women who I worked with. This cooperation is an important element of traditional culture. It would appear that, to a certain extent, the social interaction between the women is as important as the actual finished product. The artefacts the women produce are crafted for their own pleasure; they are not commercial items. Even so, the experience of working together, producing jewellery and receiving acknowledgment for their effort a valuable and rewarding experience. The process of my ideas is related to that journey with the women. Influences from their ideas affected my work; which changed my practice as I learnt from them.
 
Work in progress: Workshop with different Omani Woman.
 
Work in progress: Workshop with different Omani Woman.
 
The finished necklace from the workshop.


After finishing the second phase, I came back to the UK and started working on designs which reflected upon my experience in the co-creation group. The jewellery concepts originated from the group work with the settled Bedouin women, while the design development was also informed by knowledge and understanding of contemporary studio jewellery in Europe.

In the last stage, I undertook the collection of objects (400 water bottle tops) to create a necklace in the Sheffield Hallam University jewellery studio combining elements of traditional jewellery with found objects, exploring themes of recycling, modularity and value. Overall the final necklace encapsulated all my experiences through my research and gave me my starting point for future research.
 
Amal Al-Ismaili, Necklace: Saqal, 2019, Awarded at: Enjoia't Awards 2019, First Finalist Enjoia’t Awards Student 2019.


Dr. Geff Green, his current role is Deputy Head of Department (DHoD) in Media Arts and Communication at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU). He wrote a quote about my final piece.

I think this piece is a valuable conceptual end to Amal’s PhD journey in terms of her own jewellery practice in the way it uses a modular appropriation of the products of globalisation to provide its component parts. This is the case in terms of globalisation’s archaic sense and in its newer sense with its use of both the silver beads and the reworked beachcombed bottle-tops. There is a successful aesthetic dimension to this work in the arrangement of colour along with its use of the woven leather techniques derived from traditional practice by women Bedouin makers in Oman. This work speaks both to the movement of nomadism and to the movement of global trade to which Bedouin culture has always had a part. It also serves as a statement against the ethnocentric museological discourse which aestheticises past adornment practice as frozen in time. As well as providing an endpoint and culmination to this research, it should also serve as a starting point for other work with its additional resonances of sustainability and irony of industrial detritus used as decorative components. 
 
Enjoia't 2019 Award Winners.


Klimt02 was able to ask some questions to the author Amal Al-Ismaeli, to seek out more about her understanding of contemporary jewellery:

What means the term contemporary or contemporary jewellery for you personally, and/or regarding the jewellery work in Oman? 
My jewellery starts from memory, a place where I was born, where culture and social issues meet, where the ambition to investigate deeply by living with people, by collaborating, engaging, creating and developing all come together.
 
About the final necklace, how did it change your way of working? And what is the achievement for future research? 
My findings have been presented in a number of academic conference papers, and I have exhibited my work in Oman, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain. In 2019 I became the first Omani, and the first Arab, to win an Enjoia’t Award from the Fomento de las Artes y del Diseno in Barcelona in my Saqla necklace.

Most importantly, and as a direct result of winning the Enjoia’t Prize Barcelona, I now have the opportunity to extend my research in different areas of Oman. I hope to be able to recruit a team of research assistants from among the students at Sultan Qaboos University and use them to collect data about traditional Omani jewellery from different regions.
This thesis has focused entirely on the Bedouin women of the Sharqiyya communities, such as those in Ibra and Al-Kamel. A second question is whether the women who contributed to this study come from a different jewellery culture if compared with the women from coastal settlements along the Batinah coast, or from the inland settlements (Nakhl, Rustaq) of the Batinah, or the inland towns of the Dhakliyya (Samail, Nizwa).

To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever investigated these areas, nor have they considered the jewellery cultures of the “outer” areas of Oman. Musandam, the Jabel Akhar and Dhofar are well known to have different cultures from “mainstream” Oman, but the extent to which jewellery reflects these cultural differences has never been explored – other than in passing, anecdotal references to the obviously African influences in Salalah in Dhofar. The differences between the women in Salalah and those from the pastoral communities in the mountains, however,  has never been examined.

With access to funding, I thought it must be possible to investigate at least some of these differences, and it may be that the accession of His Majesty Sultan Heitham bin Tariq bin Taimour will see enhanced interest in the traditional culture of Oman. During the reign of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the current Sultan held the portfolio for the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture, and he may wish to preserve some of the “bookless” knowledge that existed before the Renaissance of Oman began in 1970.

To that end, I hope to be able to continue with co-creation groups, linking traditional craft skills from the past to the production of modern-day artefacts. Here again, my Enjoa’t Prize from Barcelona may give enough kudos to persuade the authorities at Sultan Qaboos University to offer me exhibition space and that may encourage a new generation of undergraduate students to take an interest in the skills of their grandmothers.

About the author

Amal Al-Ismaeli is an Assistant Professor of Handicrafts. She teaches in the Department of Art Education in the College of Education at the Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) in Oman. She took her first degree from SQU and then completed her Master’s degree at Coventry University, specializing in jewellery making as a contemporary craft. She is currently (December 2019) in the final stages of completing her Doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University.
Amal has conducted research into the meanings and functions that are inherent in the creation of traditional Omani jewellery, and she has extended those signifiers into the creation of contemporary artefacts.
Her findings have been presented in a number of academic conference papers, and she has exhibited her work in Oman, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain. In 2019 she became the first Omani, and the first Arab, to win an Enjoia’t Award from the Fomento de las Artes y del Diseno in Barcelona.
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