Not Just Design Projects; but a Reflection of Life

The final year projects of the graduating cohort of Fine Arts students of 2023 from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar (VCUarts Qatar), a Qatar Foundation (QF) partner university is a medley of convention-breaking design creatives that delve deeply into subjects that are close to the students through creative approaches that examine the mystery of existence.

From exploring identity of third generation immigrants, to looking at the core idea behind cultural practices and throwing light on social issues in the community, the final year students of VCUarts Qatar showcase not only their immense talent but also a discerning sense of observation that then tries to find solutions through design. The BFA + MFA Exhibition 2023 opened to the public on the evening of May 7 and  was open to the public till May 20.

The exhibition was displayed on the ground floor of VCUarts Qatar’s building within Education City.

The show is a collective presentation of the unique work of VCUarts Qatar’s senior students from the undergraduate programmes of graphic design, interior design, painting and printmaking, and fashion design programs, as well as the University’s postgraduate programmes in design.

Students used a variety of media, resources and tools that allowed them to incorporate techniques such as animation, textile design, silk printing, fabrication technology, visual languages, product, print and website design, typography, home fashion merchandising, building code requirements, interior graphics, printmaking, digital painting, screen-printing, lithography, computer programming, and photographic stencil techniques, in their final projects.

But most of all, the students showcased talent, profound empathy and understanding of the world around, a deep-rooted bond towards their own land and a responsibility of preserving their traditions.

Reflecting on the diversity of themes and subjects explored by the students, Amir Berbić, Dean of VCUarts Qatar, said, “The creative output of the graduating class of our BFA and MFA programs is a sensitive and profound study of humanity, tradition, community, and the eco-systems we live in. Our seniors have explored themselves, their cultures, and their environments to bring these complex and creative works together for this fascinating exhibition. This physical show, along with an online presence, offers industry and media professionals from across the globe a chance to view and appreciate the talent and creativity at VCUarts Qatar.”

The Materiality of Temporariness

Somaia Dorzadeh

The Memory Cabinet

Somia Dorzadeh is dressed in her traditional Balochi attire and seems camouflaged between the temporary cabinets that she has created as a memoir of her life as a foreign resident within Qatar; neither here nor from her country of origin, but hanging in the middle.

Somia Dorzadeh amongst her Memories of Permanent Temporariness.

“In the 1960s, when my father was only 13 years old, he undertook a perilous journey on a boat alone from Sistan va Balochistan, Iran, to Qatar, in the hopes of a better life. My father, like many long-term residents from Balochistan, has lived in the country for decades, predating the establishment of the modern state of Qatar itself, in 1971. His legal position in the country today is still subject to the Kafala system, his residency subject to his employment status, having to be renewed each year. Permanency is never guaranteed, nor is future planning. In 1984, my father, along with others from our country was mandated to move to Al Baluche Camp, then, a hidden place on the outskirts of Doha. Reinforcing this permanent-temporariness, the contract stated that residents of the camp were required to use only three materials (plywood, construction-grade lumber, and corrugated metal sheet) to build their houses, which were officially designated as ‘temporary’,” explains Dorzadeh of a situation that no one who has lived in the country has heard of until now.

Her project stems from this painful setting where she uses the same materials that the government has designated as construction material to establish the family’s temporariness to create furniture that carry a lifetime of memories. From a kitchen cabinet to a cupboard that houses the clothing, every piece of furniture is designed to be moved around if the need be. For a life of the permanent-temporariness.

Dorzadeh delves into this issue with much clarity: “Thirty-eight years later, some 15,000 residents of the camp are now facing permanent displacement from their camp—their only home—according to a new official mandate. My work highlights the plight of this misunderstood and marginalised community in the country, uncovering the permanent-temporariness and hiddenness of the Baluchis in Qatar, through the construction of a series of symbol-laden cabinets, relying on the same three basic materials used to build our “temporary” homes.”

Ayah Elnour

The Living Legends of Sholoukh: Facial Scarification in Sudan

A collage of images of the beautifully scarred individuals.

Ayah Elnour celebrates Sudanese rituals with pride.

Ayah Elnour is a Sudanese graphic and interdisciplinary designer born and raised in Qatar interested in exploring different aspects of design through learning from my surroundings and exploring different cultures that communicate with others. Her studies has brought her closer to herself and her culture.

She says, “Though I go to Sudan only during holidays and have lived my entire life in Qatar, I have a strong attachment to Sudan, that is where I am from and these people look like me and speak like me.”

Elnour started conducting researches on the topic of Sholoukh—ritual face scarring— a dying art form in Sudan. Used to distinguish members of one tribe from another, Sholoukh reflects the tribal pride of an individual. In the past, Sholoukh was seen as important as having a passport for a tribe member, however, it was not always applied by choice. Using just a razor blade, the wisest, most senior tribal elder would scar the face of a child, initiating them into the tribe for life.

Elnour’s final research project is creating a set of knives and stamps for this process of creating scars. She says, “As this tribal art form fades away, the dwindling sholoukh-bearers have become living legends in Sudan. To honor them, I created a collage of images of these beautifully scarred individuals. To celebrate sholoukh and its symbols while giving choice back to the individual, I create a set of facial tools that allow someone to experience the beauty of sholoukh either temporarily or permanently, preserving this Sudanese cultural treasure and reviving it for future generations, celebrating the diversity that Sudan represents.”

Tasnim Rahimah

Behind the Gate: Syrian Women in Soap Operas – Perception vs. Reality

The wooden dowry chests that challenges media-propagated gender-biased falsehoods.

This project attempts to break stereotypes through design that highlights motivational Arabic adjectives. The final outcome is a set of three beautifully carved dowry chests.

Syria has witnessed what is known as Al-Fawra Al-Drameya, an outburst of dramatic TV shows since 2000. Every year, especially during Ramadan, dozens of Syrian soap operas like Bab Al-Hara (lit. “Behind the Gate”) are aired across the Arab World and beyond, depicting Syrians’ historical struggles as they fought for liberation from the French mandate at the beginning of the 20th century. “Although women of the day were a vital part of that liberation movement and had prominent societal roles, these historical fiction soap operas misrepresent them as submissive housewives. Such a portrayal reinforces the stereotypical image of the weak and subservient Arab woman,” explains Rahimah, “Based on research and interviews conducted among real Syrian women across generations, this thesis challenges these erroneous TV stereotypes. Inspired by these real-life counter-narratives, my work takes the form of three dowry chests, wooden boxes that usually contain a collection of preparatory gifts given to a bride before her wedding. Instead, each chest is engraved with Arabic adjectives such as “strong” and “able,” which are typically seen as positive traits in Arab men but not women. Thus, I reclaim these qualities as symbols of female empowerment while challenging media-propagated gender-biased falsehoods.”

The recent and ongoing genocidal war in Tigray, Ethiopia, has witnessed the looting and destruction of countless historical religious sites, ancient manuscripts, and artifacts, leaving Tigray’s remaining cultural heritage extremely vulnerable. Such cultural loss erases a shared understanding across generations, robbing them of their history and identity. My work seeks to safeguard Tigray’s cultural heritage and collective memory, informed by literature on cultural preservation efforts in post-war societies, and a series of interviews with Tigrayans in the diaspora and in Ethiopia.

Gabrielle Tesfaye

Frewayni’s Garden: Preserving Tigrayan Culture in a Period of Ethnocide

Gabrielle Tesfaye with her creations, the traditional Tigrayan clay coffee pots with a NFC chip that when scanned takes you to the history behind the rituals of the Tigrayans.

Gabrielle Tesfaye has recreated a Tigrayan living room at the Gallery at VCUarts Qatar. Beautifully represented, this make-believe setting takes you through the culture and traditions of a land that seems foreign to many but to Tesfaye is a layer of herself.

“Coffee is ceremonious in the Tigrayan household, representing a time of togetherness and intergenerational cultural exchange. This is embodied in my work in a series of distinct jebenas, traditional Tigrayan clay coffee pots, featuring near-field communication (NFC) technology—the same technology that enables wireless card payments. The NFC chip in the jebenas links to Frewayni’s Garden, an interactive online archive of Tigrayan culture. Each unique jebena’s form represents a different time, place, or piece of history, directing viewers to its specific story in the garden via the NFC interface. Frewayni’s Garden is inspired by the community gardens Tigrayan refugees have created in Sudan since being displaced by the war, poetically symbolising new life, beauty, and healing after pain. In this way, I illustrate how cultural heritage can be preserved, and passed down using the latest technology within traditional Tigrayan object,” she explains.

Tesfaye’s project is to safe guard Tigray’s cultural heritage and collective memory, informed by literature on cultural preservation efforts in post-war societies, and a series of interviews with Tigrayans in the diaspora and in Ethiopia. The recent and ongoing genocidal war in Tigray, Ethiopia, has witnessed the looting and destruction of countless historical religious sites, ancient manuscripts, and artifacts, leaving Tigray’s remaining cultural heritage extremely vulnerable.