The Draped in Heritage photographic exhibition curated by Dr Reem El Mutwalli was inspired by the UAE’s founding father’s statement:
“He who does not know his past
cannot make the best
of his present and future,
for it is from the past that we learn.”
- Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan
In this exhibition, twenty trailblazing Emirati women, draped in historic outfits from the Zay Collection, are pictured within the setting of their current fields of work showcasing their achievements as well as honouring the women that came before them, paving the way.
The exhibition celebrates the UAE’s 50th anniversary and showcases Emirati women achieving excellence across many disciplines, remembering the past whilst looking forward to the future. The exhibition is on display in the Invitation Room at the Women’s Pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020 until the 5th of November 2021.
Here Dr Reem shares how the exhibition came about as well as a few stories from behind the scenes.
As collectors of both the tangible and the intangible, it is a constant challenge to put across the stories of the women who owned and worn the dresses in The Zay Collection.
“We decided to choose twenty women from the UAE, representing all walks of life. But they all have to have one thing in common – they should have achieved something significant. Instead of aiming for women in top public positions who already receive recognition, we decided to feature the unsung heroes.”
It was important to tell the stories of two generations. The women who are featured in these images, as well as the generation that came before them. The outfits worn by the women in the photographs are ensembles of items with varied provenance. Some items belonged to educated women, others to members of the UAE ruling families, and some to simple rural women.
“In those days, a woman’s value was determined by children she bared and raised. These older women, represented by the clothes, produced the women of today. Their spirit and character are draped onto the young achievers. In this way, we are empowering and honouring both generations.”
Most of the women in the photographs know these outfits from their childhood as they can remember their mothers and grandmothers wearing them, but it is not part of their lives today.
“Looking at the behind-the-scenes videos, they are excited and engaged in putting the garments on. It was very interesting to see how everyone engaged with their chosen outfit.”
Juxtaposing the historical ensembles with the professional backgrounds of the women was not only a challenge but also a lot of fun.
“Working at the satellite station, in a television broadcasting studio, on the ski slope, and with horses ensured a lot of interesting moments!”
The four photographers responsible for the images are:
Dr Reem shares two stories that are close to her heart:
Husa Al Khaldi was the first female civil engineer in the UAE. She graduated in the USA in 1983 and contributed to the establishment of many institutions in the UAE including Abu Dhabi Business Women Council and Khawla Bint Al-Azwar Military School. She was active in the General Women’s Union and volunteered at the Emirates Red Cresent. She lost her battle to cancer in 2019. Husa was a childhood friend of Dr Reem.
“I asked her family to donate one of her thawbs for us to keep in her memory, which they did and it is now part of the Zay Collection. When we started working on this project I wanted her in it as she is one of the people who contributed so much to the country. She worked in different areas and was a pioneer in many fields. I wanted to capture her, but she had passed away.
There is a third friend of ours, Dr. Zaynab Farah, who also grew up with us and we all went to school together. Zaynab is of the same measurements as Husa so I asked her if we can put the dress on her. She was hesitant at first but later obliged. We photographed her with her back to us, looking into a mirror. We super-imposed Husa’s face in the mirror to give the impression that it is her, but she is not really the person in the dress.”
Both women are recognised and recorded in the credits.
Another interesting story is that of Khasiba Ali Al Dahmani. On the 9th of February 2021, the day the UAE Mission to Mars’s Hope Probe successfully entered its orbit around Mars, the people of the UAE were celebrating across the country. A young woman, Alia Bint Sultan Al Joker, was celebrating at her friend’s family home in Al Thaid where she photographed her friend’s mother, Khasiba, as she was waving a placard with the words We made it to Mars.
“She shared it on Instagram and that is where I discovered it. I was intrigued with this woman dressed in traditional Emirati dress, celebrating a mission to Mars.”
Dr Reem contacted the family to enquire whether they would be interested to donate the outfit and placard in the photograph to The Zay Initiative as a commemoration of the day. They agreed. Kasiba also later agreed to pose for this series wearing that same outfit. She was again photographed by her daughter’s friend, Alia Bint Sultan Al Joker.
Khasiba was born in 1953 and married at the age of fourteen. She gave birth to six sons and ten daughters. She never attended any formal schooling but managed to create a small business making and selling traditional perfume and incense. She is very active and participates in different cultural weeks depicting local UAE heritage.
The exhibition is on display in the Invitation Room at the Women’s Pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020 until the 5th of November 2021.
Future exhibitions are still being planned and will be announced as they happen. For inquiries about possible exhibition opportunities, contact our COO, Emma Farmer.
The full collection of images with information about the women, the garments, the photographers, and their stories can be found here.