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Meet the royal changing the art scene in the Arab world

HH Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum. Photographed by Ziga Mihelcic for Vogue Arabia, December 2018

Picture this: a dreamlike cloud of wool lands in Downtown Dubai, wrapped in a majestic net of Arabic calligraphy. Although it may sound like the effect of global warming in Arabia, it is, in fact, the result of a one-of-a-kind collaboration between Italian brand Loro Piana and HH Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum.

Founded in 1924 by Pietro Loro Piana in the Piedmont region, the Italian house is synonymous with the highest-quality natural fibers used in the label’s ready-to-wear and home collections. Since its inception, the brand has been working with leading breeders in Australia and New Zealand, supporting their efforts to produce the best wool in the world. Quality wool dates far back in time, when the Phoenicians started to trade in one of the oldest breeds of sheep, the merino. Later, in the 8th century, the Moors introduced merinos to Spain. By the 18th century, the Spanish kings were presenting the animals as royal gifts.

Originally printed in the December 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia

What makes this wool so special is its rarity and fineness. Measuring approximately 12 microns, merino wool is finer than cashmere and available in extremely limited quantities – about 3000 kilos a year compared with the 500 million kilos of fiber auctioned annually in Australia and New Zealand. No wonder it is called The Gift of Kings.

Photogrpahed by Ziga Mihelcic

It was precisely the excellence of this rare raw material that The Gift of Kings immersive installation celebrated in November. Resembling an unreal, ethereal cloud, the sculptural installation conceals chambers that offer visitors a glimpse into the secrets of this wool and its journey from raw fiber to woven fabric. “It’s one of the softest materials I’ve felt,” remarks the Sheikha, while caressing a tray filled with a braid of white fiber, with the texture of cotton candy. Wearing an elegant beige abaya that perfectly matches the surrounding space, the Emirati royal is visiting the exhibition for the first time, appearing entertained by the immersive experience.

For the past decade, Her Highness has been one of the leading figures in the art scene of the Emirates, firstly as a pioneering artist, and as the founder of Tashkeel. In the Nad Al Sheba neighborhood, the royal founded a hub that offers support and mentoring to regional and international artists – an incubator to some of the most well-respected names in the Arab world, from Zeinab Al Hashemi to Latifa Saeed. Her presence at Tashkeel is felt daily, in intense work sessions where resident artists are challenged with some required doses of tough love to take them to the next level. “They call me the art mother,” she laughs.

Explaining how the collaboration with the Italian brand took off, the royal shares that she always knew about Loro Piana, but that the partnership was nonetheless unexpected. “When Loro Piana first approached us, they wanted to work with artists from the region, and they knew about the work we have been developing. It is strange, because in my life everything is in ‘boxes;’ it was unexpected to have this crossover. Funnily enough, I knew the brand well, since it is one of my husband’s obsessions. His family travels a lot for falcons and hunting, and they always want to wear a wool that is not itchy, hot, or heavy.”

Artist el Seed with Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum. Photographed by Ziga Mihelcic for Vogue Arabia December 2018

Convinced by Loro Piana’s positioning of valuing the process and producing smaller quantities over mass production – “That resonated with me because it’s the same with the artists we look for,” shares the Sheikha – the royal patronage was granted, and the two parties started a dialogue in May. While the initial idea was to integrate traditional Sadu weaving within a specially designed Loro Piana piece, something of a larger scale was agreed instead. And what better way to offer The Gift of Kings exhibition to Dubai than wrapped in a work by Tunisian artist eL Seed – one of the first artists-in-residence at Tashkeel, who spent a year there. For the Loro Piana commission, eL Seed took inspiration from a poem by King Alfonso X, who ruled Spain in the 13th century and played a pivotal role in the history of merino. With eL Seed’s signature style that combines traditional Arabic writing with contemporary street art, the intricate piece makes quite a statement, being visible from meters away. A master of large-scale work, the artist has previously decorated the facade of Dubai’s Green Planet, and even used 50 buildings as a unique canvas in the neighborhood of Zaraeeb in Cairo.

Granting the patronage to the Loro Piana exhibition marks only the beginning of a collaboration between Tashkeel and the Italian brand, who are now joining forces on a program that will bring an Italian artist to the UAE for a four-month residency each year. This appears to be the opportune moment for any artist to visit the country, now that the regional art scene is more vibrant than ever, with the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Art Jameel, and the development of Alserkal Avenue. But it was not always like this. Commenting on the current regional creative ecosystem, Sheikha Lateefa still remembers when she first considered a life in the arts. Her family tried to persuade her to choose a more conventional path, such as “graphic or interior design, or archictecture.” Today, the general curiosity around the Arab world, combined with the opening of attitudes towards the arts, offers the perfect landscape for blooming careers, especially for women. “Remember that some years ago, there was so much going on that Emiratis had to guard themselves. Even the idea of just going to a restaurant was taboo for many girls. Now, it’s OK to discover. The Emirati culture is all about curiosity,” she says. “Being an artist has always been acceptable for women, but we were not taken seriously – as if art was only a hobby. Painting or sculpting was something we would do while men had the ‘serious jobs.’ Now, you see more and more women with serious careers.”

Artist El Seed enclosed the installation with his signature contemporary Arabic calligraphy

When asked how the art world would become even more mainstream in the Gulf, the Sheikha states that although there’s a general appetite for the arts, more education and talk programs are needed. And from the artists’ side, it is essential that individuals continue to be honest in their work, and not fall into the dangerous cycle of producing to satisfy current trends. “Everyone wants to know what stories are being told and artists are being more selective with where they show their work,” she concludes. “I want the artists that I invite to produce pieces that are real, and not products they think the outside world wants to see. Commercial galleries will tell the artist to do what sells better and faster, but if you work with me, the priority is to uncover stories that haven’t been told and that are truthful.” Decidedly, the “art mother” doesn’t plan to forgo her maternal side anytime soon.

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