Tales of the desert

Liwa Desert, Empty Quarter (Rub Al Khali) Arabian Peninsula, UAE

The importance of the space and materials that are present in the immediate surroundings of designers and makers is revealed in their artistic practice. My inspiration is often rooted in the poetry and energy of the places I inhabit, as I’m searching for the visual definitions and sensory language of my present environment. I’m translating this into visual forms through the disciplines of jewellery, sculpture and painting. I am a Natural Born Vagabond, originating from a rural and richly verdant area of Poland. Since my childhood, I have moved around quite a bit. After living for a few years in various cities around the United States, including the Big Apple (New York), and then hopscotching across several continents with my Cantonese-Canadian husband, I found myself living in the desert city of Dubai. Surrounded by the vast sand dunes and salty waters of the Arabian Gulf, I contrived a methodology for digging into the roots of the Peninsula and translating the influences of the environment into my new creations.

Dubai, UAE, January, 2017

Traditional Middle Eastern wind-towers, as seen from the rooftop terrace of my art atelier in Bastakiya (Al Fahidi Historical District, house no 10), Dubai, UAE

My studio is set along the west bank of the old Dubai Creek, in what remains of the town known as Bastakiya, currently referred to as Al Fahidi Historical District. The town was named by Iranian traders after their home town of Bastak. To reach the studio you will have to find your way through a maze of narrow walkways (called sikka in Arabic) which are flanked by characteristic Middle Eastern wind-towers. The houses in this neighbourhood were formed from native coral rock, river mud and barasti (palm leafs). Bastiakiya is a sleepy neighbourhood. It picks up energy when an occasional passing group of curious tourists becomes astounded by the contrast between the well-advertised shiny iconic glass skyscrapers with the sandy walls of this historic neighbourhood. Bastakiya charms them for just a split of a second of their tightly packed sightseeing schedule. The high, gritty beige walls with their tiny eyes formed by the gently decorated wooden doors and windows seem to peek at the scattered visitors with. Behind seemingly anonymous walls are hidden courtyards with shaded cloisters, providing tranquility and reprieve from the harsh desert climate. The old town is perhaps the city’s only architectural reminder of Dubai’s arid desert location as it sits along the edge of the vast sands of the Empty Quarter (Rub Al Khali) and the Arabian Gulf shores, once rich in sea life and lined with beautiful coral rock. Not too far away are the footsteps of rigid Hajar mountains, which feature an abundance of limestone as well as lush green wadis (seasonal stream valleys).

View from the atelier. Christ Thorn tree (Zizyphus Spina) in Bastakiya.
Dubai, UAE, 2017

Bastakiya, an oasis of idleness hidden within the hustle and bustle of the fast-growing Dubai metropolis. The call to prayer sounding from nearby minarets fills the air several times a day. One of the entry ways to the complex is shaded by a historic tree, Zizyphus Spina – Christ Thorn, in Arabic, colloquially called ‘Sidr’. In the Middle East, the tree is praised for its therapeutic properties, its parts, including its roots, bark, fruit and seeds have been used in medical preparations. Flocks of birds find their retreat from the desert heat in the impressive a tree’s crown. Their jaunty chirped birdsong provides a cheerful welcome to a visitor making his way through the busy streets of Bur Dubai – the local Little India – to the studio every morning.

I make my way through the maze of tiny streets to find house number 10. I see the entry, marked with a wooden sign above the door that reads: Tashkeel. It is a branch of the art hub and gallery, providing affordable work spaces for artists and makers in the region. The sign beautifully incorporates both the Arabic and Latin spelling of the word. (“Tashkeel” or “Harakat” is a mark signifying a short vowel in Arabic). I cross the ornamental door, which leads to a tiny dark corridor. Pigeons are nesting in a niche located in the wall above my head. They startle me with a loud take off, almost touching my hair with their wings as I enter. I feel the breeze of the disturbed air on my face. As I close the door behind me, the hallway opens up to a spacious courtyard surrounded by a white colonnade and a shaded gallery with entrances to artists’ private studios. It’s quiet. There is a feeling of emptiness. But I can almost hear the sounds of the past. I look around and imagine floor cushions of the traditional majilis, the smell of Arabic coffee with cardamom and kids running up and down the narrow staircase leading to the rooftop terrace. At the moment the only visible signs of life are pigeons peeking at me from the rooftop railings and patiently waiting for me to walk away from their territory. I climb my way up the very steep and very narrow staircase of this historic home. I find myself on the terrace overlooking rooftops of the neighbouring houses, Ruler’s Court and a White Mosque. If I stand on my toes I can see the wooden dhows (arabic trading vessels) on Dubai Creek and hear the sound of the ferry honks on the water as well as the hum of passing passenger airplanes. We are only fifteen minutes form the largest hub in the region, and yet inside these walls it is peaceful and quiet.

My art studio is a solitary room, placed on the rooftop. One side of the studio is adjacent to the walls of a wind tower (in the past used for cooling traditional Middle-Eastern homes), the other walls are filled with old school windows. When the shutters are open, natural soft day light fills up the cosy interior. The room is very simple. Wooden furniture, lounge chairs, an easel and a couple of work tables. My deconstructed watercolour landscapes done in a geometrical layered style fill the walls. Most of them are new works, inspired by the architecture of both the new and old Dubai. I was working in the studio only a bit over one year but its already filled with new work. My studio became “an incubator of ideas”.

“Marks of the desert” — wood and coral objects on sand.

The work bench, somewhat worn-down, solid wood table with shared purpose: it’s a jeweller’s bench and wood working table in one. The hybrid table was designed based on my experience and research into the functionalities of historical tools. The table was made by a local carpenter out of Red Meranti wood, known as Philippine Mahogany, widely used in the boat building industry. The jeweller’s leather apron was made out of a Moroccan goatskin, which I bought from a leather-smith who makes shoes and bags in Marrakesh’s Medina. It reminds me of that special trip to the country of roses I made with my husband back in 2015, during which we attended our dear friends wedding and climbed Mount Toubkal, 4,167 m (the highest peak of the Atlas Mountains).

Wood carving in progress.

The studio is equipped with tools and materials acquired during my travels. Based on their origins I could draw a map of my escapades. Among the items are: lapidary faceting machine from Sri Lanka, hand made chisels from Poland, a stone-setting and engraving ball-vise from Antwerp, micro-drills and diamond polishers from Hong Kong. There are also locally sourced materials. Coral, rocks, pieces of limestone and tiny pieces of desert-dried juniper branches, picked up in the mountains of the Arabian Peninsula.

I am a maker who often travels the world. During my travels I absorb colours, shapes, smells and sounds of everyday life in a present locality. The influence of the current place passed through the prism of a very personal experience is often reflected in my works. It brings a certain depth of the intimacy and the emotional content to my art (and design) process. I often find myself in a deep meditation in connection to the place and material I’m working with at the moment. The intensity of the manual labour and focus on my work turns into a transcendental and cathartic experience with all senses involved.
— Dominika Durtan

Christ Thorn logs, preparation process.

My newest project is just about to unfold. Deeply inspired by the regional environment, I went on a search for natural materials that could be found in the immediate surroundings. Wood, which is a material close to my heart, was an obvious first choice, however, it can be difficult to come by in the desert. I had to research species of trees and shrubs found in the region and began searching for samples. Luckily, I came by landscapers performing maintenance on the historical trees in Bastakiya. They agreed to share otherwise to-be-disposed-of logs with me. I picked, still heavy with fresh sap, logs of the precious Zizyphus Spina, known also as a Christ Thorn, tree. A magical tree, surrounded with many legends and beliefs across Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures. The preparation process took quite a while. I began preparations by manually debarking the logs, and while doing so I felt close to a maternal connection with the fleshy and fragrant wood of the Zizyphus Spina. Before it can be used for sculpting, the wood must be dried and cut into workable pieces. The drying process is slow. In moderate outdoor conditions, logs need around one year per one inch of thickness to dry into a decent workability. The Dubai heat provided near-kiln conditions, and material was ready for a first trial after a year and a half of supervised outdoor seasoning. Visions of the shapes started flowing freely when I began working on a series of sculptural forms made from this beautiful wood, which pulsed with an incredible energy. As if the form was dictated by the material.

The sound of the handheld chisels was heard until late at night above the roofs of Bastakiya, under the moonlight of Arabian nights: knock, knock, knock…