‘Secrets’ of Emirati women revealed at new exhibition

‘Secrets’ of Emirati women revealed at new exhibition

Emirati artist Karima Al Shomely has created an exhibition offering a glimpse of the country’s historical wedding traditions, in a new showcase called ‘“Sahhara” Hidden Adornments’, with the aim of introducing these rituals to new generations.

Showing at the Emirates Fine Arts Society in the city of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, Al Shomely reveals the ‘secrets’ contained in wedding boxes, or “Sahhara” in Emirati dialect, where would-be brides would traditionally store their belongings. The items on display include elaborate gold jewellery, gifts, clothing and tin boxes. Al Shomely, who is Assistant Professor at the Sharjah University College of Fine Arts and Design, initially collected them for her doctoral thesis introducing Emirati women as icons of UAE culture. The exhibition also features videos, prints, photographs and fabrics belonging toEmirati women.

“I wanted to represent my culture in a different way – it is contemporary, it is modern, and it is unusual,” she said.  

Karima Al Shomely, sahhara

The Sahhara are elaborately decorated wooden chests used by Emirati women to gather and store personal items in anticipation of marriage, according to Al Shomely. The box was a bride’s treasured possession which, on the wedding day would be transported to her new house and placed within her private quarters, hidden away from the public.

Among the exhibits is a collection of colourful tin boxes of assorted confectionery. Al Shomely found that once the sweets were consumed, women would store their Burqas, or face coverings, in these tin boxes to preserve their fabric.

Al Shomely started collecting these tin containers in 2012 while conducting interviews for her research. Each tin box is carefully labelled with the names and locations of the interviewees, the oldest tin box being 70 years old. Each box has its own story and intimate ritual related to owning a Burqa, Al Shomely explains, and these are considered as personal and important as jewellery.

The exhibition also showcases a series of photographs of a woman wearing a Burqa and decked with gold jewellery, evoking the concept of inner and outer beauty with items contained within the Sahhara.

Al Shomely carefully picked out five large golden items to represent traditional jewellery worn by Emirati women. She focused on the intricacy of each piece – an earring, a hair clip, a closing brooch of a necklace, a ring, and a bracelet – and immortalised these by turning them into  hanging objects of art. Usually hidden safely within a wooden box, these types of jewellery were valuable possessions stored for special occasions such as weddings, Henna nights, or in some cases, sold when needed. 

Wearing a Burqa in the UAE: a dying custom

The Gulf Burqa is not to be confused with the garment used in Afghanistan that covers the whole body from head to feet. In the UAE, the Burqa is a traditional metallic-coloured cloth used to cover part of the face, from the forehead to the mouth, with openings for the eyes. Imported from India, the cloth is dyed blue or purple, and then rubbed down with a ball of glass until it gets a shiny, metallic finish that is often mistaken for gold. Traditionally worn by married women, it’s now only used by older generations.

karima al shomely

Al Shomely’s exhibition demonstrates how the custom is gradually dying out, such as with a video featuring a Burqa in water.

“When I submerged the Burqa in water, the indigo escaped immediately, as if the fabric was bleeding, much like the disappearance of Burqa in contemporary society,” she said. “The bleeding Burqa is both an object and a subject; a metaphor for a changing society. Representing the narrative of memory, it is an active witness of a lost past.”

“Sahhara” Hidden Adornments is permanently on at the Emirates Fine Arts Society

Ifath Arwah

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