MFA Projects of VCUarts Qatar Explore Cultural Identity

Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar (VCUarts Qatar), a Qatar Foundation (QF) partner university, had on show the BFA + MFA Exhibition 2024 till May 12 after it was formally launched on May 5, 2024. We throw light on two of the MFA presentations.

The BFA + MFA show every year is a collective presentation of the unique and often convention-breaking works of VCUarts Qatar’s senior students from the undergraduate programs of graphic design, interior design, painting and printmaking, and fashion design, as well as the University’s postgraduate programme in design, revealed the University spokesperson.

Culture, language, identity, mental health, physical well-being, and the environment were just some of the themes researched by the Class of 2024.

Some students explored the notion of cultural identity shaped through memories, highlighting history and heritage, while others examined the implications of displacement and colonisation.

The psychological effects of being a third-culture kid (TCK) continued to be a popular topic for investigation.

Students used a variety of media, resources and tools that allowed them to incorporate techniques such as light, sound, video, animation, textile design, silk printing, fabrication technology, visual language, product, print and website design, typography, coding, interior graphics, printmaking, digital painting, screen-printing, lithography, computer programming, and photographic stencil techniques, in their final projects.

Reflecting on the diversity of themes and subjects explored by the students, Amir Berbić, Dean of VCUarts Qatar, said, “This class began their studies with VCUarts Qatar through the early days of the pandemic and their artwork tells their story, inviting each of us along on their journey. The themes of displacement, colonization and duality are found in some pieces, while others encourage exploration of the expat experience, and the questions surrounding the balance between utility, creativity, and personal artistic expression.

“Our students have explored traditions and influences of life in Qatar. Many of them chose to celebrate cultural identity shaped through memories, amidst explorations of audio, linguistic, visual, local and historical heritage.”

“The Process is as Important as the Product”

Destarte Prieto

Destarte’s exhibit Capiz Reborn, is an instant crowd-puller, a light installation attracts attention and the materiality and the story behind the material research makes this project even more interesting.

With a deep interest in fabrication and materiality, Destarte dipped into the support system that the University offered to complete her project.

“The University has not only been accommodating but has joined me in my journey of material development. I’m quite humbled by the resources and support that VCUarts Qatar have shown me throughout the MFA programme and has helped me grow as a designer, artist and practitioner,” she says.

Material preperation.

Even though every project displays a deep understanding of technology, the underlying story is often the connections to each one’s roots and their pride for their motherland. Here, Destarte has based her research from one of the traditional materials that is in use in her country of origin which is fast getting obsolete.

“The capiz shell is a thin, translucent material, which comes from a mollusk found in the Philippine Sea. Traditionally, capiz shells were made into window panes and home decor, used so widely they became an iconic part of Philippine identity. Today, the influx of cheap, mass-produced merchandise threatens the capiz shell industry. My research demonstrates new possibilities for the capiz shell and encourages renewed interest and sustainable revival of this long-standing industry, ,” says Destarte.

We ask her about the research behind this mollusk. She says, “The biomaterial that I developed for my thesis research was through a series of experiments and exploration. There is still much to learn and refine about the material. Although it is in the early testing phase, the material can be developed depending on its application. It is a new material that has the potential to be developed and manipulated as required by the desired intention.”

While this sustainable material seems to have a lot of scope to be developed into new materials, it all depends on the creator on how she would scale up the material production, “The material was developed with the idea of revitalizing the capiz shell industry, but for now I would like to continue testing and refining the material and other ways it can be used for,” says Destarte.

“Although in a business sense, I believe the material has great potential when this research is shared to capiz shell artisans in the Philippines. First, because there is a market for it as there are consumers that are looking for more sustainable products; second, the process is easily replicable by anyone; and third, the ingredients are readily available. On top of that, a collaborative concept with artisans who are masters of their craft can add so much more to the product’s innovation.”

But for the designer, the process is as important as the final outcome of the exhibition and that shines across in the presentation which she credits to the efforts of the entire VCUarts Qatar community.

“Most of the time we exhibit outcomes as finished polished pieces but the bulk of the learning and knowledge is through the process. To me it was important to show how the material is able to be developed and the learning process that led to the outcome. In truth, the outcome was more of the research rather than the product itself (lanterns). This research hopes to inspire makers, designers, consumers and people of a green and conscious design process.”

“Rooted in Memories”

Naima Almajdobah

Naima Almajdobah has been a high achiever throughout her stint at VCUarts Qatar. Her projects are laced with a history of displacement and there is a strong need to create memories of perseverance in the face of atrocities. This project of Naima has an interactive element with each visitor taking home a part of the story, thus embedding the story over a larger segment of people. She expresses her gratitude to all the help she had from her incredible committee members and the faculty of the MFA department of the VCUarts Qatar for their guidance in moulding her to be the designer she is now.

This project of Naima’s is hinged on the relationship between the olive tree and uprooted Palestinians. It reveals a rich tapestry of narratives that encompass the quintessential and everlasting relationship between land and people.

“My installation consists of three parts that intertwine together and complete each other. The first part is the circular pedestal with the resin olive pits which are story activators. Each olive pit is an audio story told by a storyteller. The stories are about the relationship that this storyteller has with the olive tree, whether it is historical, cultural, emotional, or physical,” explains Naima.

Complementing the narratives is a plotter that maps the geographical areas of the storytellers’ origins. This visual representation adds a layer of depth to the stories, connecting the audience to the places that hold significance in the storytellers’ lives.

“The continuous performance of the plotter symbolises the ongoing resistance and endurance of Palestinians. Their determination and perseverance remain steadfast, despite the challenges they face. This metaphorical representation highlights the resilience of the Palestinian people and their unwavering commitment to their heritage,” she stresses.

That’s why it’s essential for the plotter to keep running; it’s akin to preserving memories ensuring they remain fresh and vibrant. Here, we feel, the plotter takes the role of the creator, Naima and her ceaseless efforts in preserving stories of the Palestinian land and customs.

 “As all good storytelling captures its listeners’ attention through physical sounds, gestures, and eye contact, the plotter similarly enhances the storytelling experience by engaging the audience visually, sparking their curiosity, and encouraging them to stay and listen to the entire story just to be able to see what the final illustration will look like,” explains Naima.

This interactive approach creates a synergy between what is heard and what is seen, enriching the audience’s overall experience.

After experiencing the storytelling and plotter performance, the audience has the opportunity to take a piece of the installation with them. The stories are plotted on circular paper coated with Palestinian olive oil, with English stories available in English and Arabic stories available in the Palestinian dialect. The paper is immersed in olive oil, just as the stories are immersed in the olive.

“This tangible takeaway allows the audience to carry a piece of the installation’s narrative and symbolism with them, extending the impact of the installation beyond the exhibition space. When handling the paper, the audience’s hands may become slightly oily. This serves as a metaphor for the impact and influence of cultural preservation, as you are literally touched by the connections being made,” explains Naima.

Naima’s sense of purpose and deep commitment to preserve the stories and traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation in uprooted Palestinian families is evident through her project.

“The ongoing occupation, with its deliberate efforts to erase Palestinian identity and history, poses a serious threat to these traditions. As older generations pass away, they take with them stories and memories that are not written down, leading to the gradual loss of our cultural traditions. This loss highlights the urgent need to archive these stories before they are lost forever. These narratives are not just stories; they are the essence of our identity and resilience as a people. This archival project is critical to the survival of Palestinian culture, especially in the diaspora, where ancestral stories form the foundation of identity. It stands as a protector of traditions, knowledge, and stories, bridging the gaps and preserving the legacy for posterity.”