Perhaps it’s a “millennial” thing, or simply a sign of the times, but contemporary artists have recently been thriving on bending genres, mixing influences, and living in a liminal space between not just different styles, but occupational fields as well. Palestinian designer, architect and filmmaker Bayan Dahdah literally and figuratively embodies this liminal space, and is creating exceptionally personal and impactful work – whether films, art, or even chairs – through it.
“I’ve worked with film, photography, art, painting, fashion design and back again, all the while being criticized for having a ‘lack of focus’,” Dahdah tells us, only a day after her talk in Dubai on scrapbook storytelling, an art form unique to her and to her vision of maintaining a fluid approach with her work. The talk was one of several in a series held by Apple throughout March, as a celebration of Women’s History Month. She Creates – the title of the series - brings Dahdah and other women from across the region, to talk about their fields of expertise, their work, and the processes that carry it to its fruition.
By scrapbooking I am trying to take the viewer back with me through this memory or story, by attempting to engage all their senses and emotions
Bayan features in a self-reflective mini-story of her own.
In Dahdah’s case, she used the session to focus on her unique brand of art, which now threads throughout her Instagram, as organised as it is chaotic. Her style - which she refers to both as scrapbooking and, individually, as “micro-stories” - is based around three-piece artworks that make use of photography, sketching, digital collaging, and words – often incredibly poetic – and always personal and nostalgic.“ For a while I was posting photography from my travels, then I would go through phases of posting illustrations and sketches until slowly I began merging them together,” explains Dahdah. “By scrapbooking I am trying to take the viewer back with me through this memory or story, by attempting to engage all their senses and emotions. Objects and belongings carry a lot of meaning, so I think that’s what I try to always include in the best way I can.”
Thanks to my mama for never letting me dye or straighten my hair, for never letting me overpluck my brows [...] and for always giving me dates and carrot/cucumber sticks with hummus while everyone else got Walkers crisps and sausage rolls
Most of her work is retrospective, visualising and reflecting on her – and her family’s – past. As a young girl, she grew up in Amman, where she attended a British school before going to the UK to continue her studies. That experience, and her coming-of-age both as a woman and an artist, weaves throughout most of her work. One of her micro-stories on Instagram recycles a note she herself had written as an 11-year-old, listing obviously European beauty characteristics as "the way [she'd] like to look." She captions that with, “Thanks to my mama for never letting me dye or straighten my hair, for never letting me overpluck my brows, for enrolling me in every sport possible, and for always giving me dates and carrot/cucumber sticks with hummus while everyone else got Walkers crisps and sausage rolls.”
Continuing to express vulnerability and reflect on her experience as a minority in a Western country, she writes with the second micro-story, which features a sketch of her on the bench seated next to three visibly whiter girls, “those feelings were never more prevalent than when I was playing sports, particularly netball. With legs out, sweaty hair and a competitive spirit going, it was easy to feel vulnerable. Especially since, more often than not, I was the only Arab girl on the team.”
I [used to think] that the further I drifted from the Arab world and culture, the more successful I’d become. This belief shifted entirely upon my return to the Middle East
Perhaps it is those stories – and the eclectic, visceral nature of her work, which is as artistic as it is entertaining to flip through – that make her designs so relatable. She comments on these past experiences, explaining their continued relevance for her and her work: “I [used to think] that the further I drifted from the Arab world and culture, the more successful I’d become. This belief shifted entirely upon my return to the Middle East once I had graduated.”
“I was finally aware of the immense cultural, historical, and societal material we had to work with, and how much had been done by people before me and how much there was left to do. I couldn’t believe that this was the world I was so verily trying to escape, when it was exactly where I belonged. So now, my work is a sort of re-discovery of my heritage, and all the things I had missed out on."
Another one of her micro-stories series is indeed a venture into her heritage, offering a glimpse into the life and work of Jordanian artist Ammar Khammash and architect who studied tribe villages in Jordan in the 1980s. She visits his house, which rests on top of the hills of Pella in Jordan, and paints in watercolour as a tribute to his own paintings. She joins the painting with an excerpt from his book, Notes on Village Architecture in Jordan, as well as his own sketches of the houses and structures in the village.
We are all nuanced human beings, so why shouldn’t our work be just as nuanced?
The different elements she uses in her micro-stories, which draw from various voices, as in this case with both her own and Khammash’s present in the work, is a fresh and interesting take on the more conventional forms of digital art saturating Instagram at the moment, which while incredibly popular and original, rarely make use of poetry, history and photography in one go. “I try to let the message or the story dictate the medium, not the other way around,” she says. “I don’t believe that sticking to one medium is the best method, it is an archaic belief. We are all nuanced human beings, so why shouldn’t our work be just as nuanced?”
Dahdah's design for a seated easel: the sarj.
When it comes to her other mediums of choice, she previously directed a short film for the Doha Film Institute in 2016, Shishbarak, and is now working on developing her design of sarj seat, a chair that is, as she describes, the product of what would happen “if an easel and a stool had a baby.”
Still from Dahdah's short, Shishbarak.
The seat is designed for the purpose of sketching outdoors, at peace, without the concerns of “losing sheets of paper to the wind or sitting on the floor or on dirty surfaces, and peering over obstructed views.” Dahdah explains that the seat can also be meditative, because of the fact that it allows artists to sketch and create in a real, unfiltered atmosphere, while maintaining a comfortable state of mind. Dahdah has held multiple workshops, where she takes participants to a scenic spot, and they sit in their chairs and sketch or paint, as a way of popularising the practice and its benefits.
These workshops offer a great opportunity for people to also be in each other’s presence as they create art, offering a glimpse into others’ processes – similar, even, to the kind of initiative that brought Dahdah to Dubai to discuss her own work. Commenting on that opportunity presented by Apple's She Creates, Dahdah says, “I think it’s a great platform to showcase the processes in which these women are creating the profound work they create. It’s one thing to have an audience to engage with one’s finished work, but its another thing to be walked-through their journey to where they are and truly understand how they’ve reached their style or niche.”
You can follow Bayan on Instagram.