As part of our webinar series Dialogues on the Art of Arab Fashion, our guest, UAE-based UK artist, Patricia Millns talked to Dr Reem el Mutwalli about the role inspirational adornment plays in her art practice. Patricia shared how life in the Middle East and her friendships with Arab women informed her art career.
It was while researching her P.hd in Medieval art almost 40 years ago that Patricia, who was born and raised in the UK, first visited the Middle East. Her research took her to Kuwait where she studied the al-Sabah Collection at the National Museum of Kuwait.
I was welcomed at the airport with a handful of jasmine, and when they asked me to stay, I did.
Patricia now works from her studio in Dubai. Initially inspired by the complex repetition of imagery within Islamic art and design systems, Patricia’s work developed into a study of symbolism within the cultural, textile and olfactory heritage of the region, focusing on woman’s studies and the significance of dress and adornment.
“My work changed when I came to the Middle East. I became very inspired by the world of women. The art world in England wasn’t a women’s world. Although I was studying talismanic and totemic symbols, I came to realise that clothing, in particular, the clothing of women was a vehicle of identity, even on a theoretical and academic level. Unlike Western clothing, the clothing of Arabia has deeper family connections, and it contained the wearer’s story. That is why, with only one exception, I don’t use the figure in my art. The woman is obvious in her absence.”
Patricia and Dr Reem’s conversation centred around a series of Patricia’s artworks and installations juxtaposed by items from the Zay Collection. Three themes – scent, stories, and immersion or participation – emerged that are present in both the artworks and the Zay Collection as well as in the lives of the women of Arabia.
Fragrance and carrying stories is a theme that runs through my work. Most of my work is interactive. I like the viewer to walk through my work and experience it.
Here we focus on only a few key pieces discussed during the talk, highlighting the themes of scent, story, and immersion.
In Emra’a Sequence, a steel mesh, space-specific installation exhibited in Tashkeel Dubai in 2009, Patricia reflects on the hospitality and sense of home that the Arab woman carries with her in the form of dress and fragrance. These dresses made from mesh contained items emanating the scents and fragrances of home, starting with rosewater, then flowers and culinary herbs, culminating in the smell of coffee. According to Patricia, the installation represented the ‘olfactory library of home.’
In the Zay Collection, scent and fragrance are preserved as part of a garment’s story. A unique item in the collection is a tunic dress or kandurah arabiyah that used to belong to the late Hamdah bint Matar al Muri, the wife of Ali Matar Obaid al Dhabah al Suwaidi, and was donated to the Zay by her granddaughter who requested that the dress be preserved with a vial of her grandmother’s perfume, to ensure that the garment continues to carry her scent, and thus her story.
Frangrance is complex. It is built in layers. Like stories. A women’s fragrance is her story.
In Adornment Second Skin, made of hand-stitched Japanese paper tea bags, exhibited at Alserkal Dubai in 2016, Patricia focused on unspoken stories. Each tea bag contained a handwritten note telling one woman’s story related to her clothes and subtly imbued with her fragrance. It created understated metaphors in its simplicity as it honours the unseen dimensions of women’s lives.
These unseen dimensions are perfectly illustrated by this Hashmi Thawb. It had a long journey across generations before the Zay Initiative became its honoured custodian. It was owned by Maedah Sabih al-Khdairi, daughter of Hajj Sabih al-Khudairi, son of Yassin Basha al-Khudairi, an Iraqi merchant and politician who was a member of the Senate and advisor to King Faisal I. Maedah was born in Baghdad in 1924 and obtained a BA in Arabic Language from Queen Alia University in Iraq. This garment was hand-stitched in Basra in 1940 and was later handed down to Maedah’s daughter, Alia Anwar Al-Qaymakji, who gave it to her daughter Maryam Istabraq al-Imam, who presented it to The Zay Initiative for safekeeping and preservation for the next generation of women in Maedah’s family.
The hospitality of walking into a home and being welcomed with rosewater fills my spirit.
Patricia does not only portray the stories of the women of Arabia in her work but also involves them in her projects. For her, immersion is not only for the viewer or observer but also for the Arab women, storytellers, and participants of her work. Every story, every garment, every scent and fragrance are obtained from a woman that Patricia knows in person. Someone she relates to, whose story she knows and share, and who’s lives had inexplicably became entwined with hers.
In the same way, The Zay Initiative collects not only garments and items of clothing, we collect the story and the narrative that goes with it. For every item in our collection, we preserve the provenance, the history, images, and personal anecdotes of those who lived with these garments.
As Arab women, we carry our wealth – our individuality as well as what we own – on our bodies through our clothes, jewellery and perfume. Here we’ve seen it through Patricia’s interpretations of it, and we see it daily in its original format through the collection. With the digital archive, we are now creating the opportunity for these stories to have a global audience.
Dr Reem el Mutwalli
Just like a hint of fragrance or a quote from a story, this post can not fully represent the essence of the conversation between Patricia Millns and Dr Reem el Mutwalli. To immerse yourself in the rich stories of Arab women and their dress, sign up to our mailing list. That way you will always be part of the conversation. More information on upcoming events can be found here.