An ancient art revived for modern times, pottery offers a therapeutic process to relax and create.
An ancient craft that has lived through the ages as an artistic medium and practical necessity, pottery is now being rediscovered. Emerging in the Middle East around the 9th century as a result of trade with China and the heavy import of porcelain, the first fine pottery was produced in Baghdad and elsewhere in the caliphate, with prominent production centers sprouting up from Damascus to Tabriz.
“Pottery was one of the first inventions in human history,” says Ream Saksouk, owner of Dubai-based ceramic studio Yadawei, meaning “handmade” in Arabic. “Before the Neolithic period, people invented ways to carry and conserve their food in vessels made from mud or clay.” Its uses have evolved dramatically in the current day. Established five years ago in the city’s Al Quoz district, Yadawei was one of the first pottery concept studios in the GCC, providing a purpose-built space for members and students exploring clay as a medium of art expression and design. This modern pottery is made of the same reddish brown clay that originated in ancient Egypt and that was used at the time to manufacture small lamps, children’s toys and ships, and pottery game boards with clay pieces. Today, “Participants can use the wheel, a machine that rotates to create a rounded vessel, or the hand-build technique where they can shape the clay with their hands to create plates, cups, or statues,” Saksouk explains. Luxury brands like René Caovilla are finding parallels between their sculptural designs and the age-old craft, inviting guests to enjoy pottery workshops in collaboration with the likes of Oka Ceramic Studio in Dubai.
Across the region, prominent potters and ceramicists are emerging with their own unique styles and take on the traditional craft. From Laurence Leenaert in Marrakech, whose whimsical creations and enigmatic forms have sparked global attention for her brand Lrnce, to Emirati potter Hessa al Ajmani, who uses plants and flowers to create patterns in her pottery, molding colorful homeware objects like cups, plates, and a selection of other pieces that can be found in her Ajman-based Clay Corner Studio. Palestinian-American artist Lena Kassicieh has been dabbling in pottery for several years, using it both as a creative outlet and a means to relax. She has found inspiration in global artists, including South African ceramicist Hylton Nel, whose work is funky, strange, and imperfect; Danish Maria Lenskjold, with her quirky and unbalanced pieces; and Swedish Joakim Ojanen, who creates ceramics that are whimsical, a bit scary, and colorful. “I started working with ceramics several years ago, but didn’t take it seriously,” Kassicieh says. “I would make plates, cups, and bowls as gifts for friends and family, and then I began taking classes to improve and learn more.”
The making of pottery or ceramics itself, the Dubai-based artist adds, is quite a time-consuming practice that requires many stages. “One ceramic piece can take weeks to finish, so it definitely tests your patience. It is also exciting as sometimes you’re not quite sure how the end result will look, as there are elements you cannot control,” she explains. “It’s taught me a lot about letting go a bit, and not expecting perfection. With digital art or collaging, I feel a lot more in control, but with ceramics, you have to let go of some of that.” Saksouk agrees that sculpting can be therapeutic, and can even help during stressful periods. “Nowadays pottery is becoming a relaxing activity, like yoga, painting, reading… The more you blend and shape it, the more it relaxes you. And the final result gives you a high sense of self-esteem and pride.” It has been especially helpful during the Covid-19 pandemic, when many people across the world have been feeling stressed, lonely, and anxious. In the beginning, Saksouk says many of her members were frustrated about not being able to go into the studio. But as they had taken their clay and tools home, they continued to work. “I created a WhatsApp group with my members, which kept us in touch and helped us send pictures of our work the whole time,” she says.
For Kassicieh, the process has taught her to let go of perfectionism. “Especially now, when many of us have realized that control is an illusion, pottery is a great way to remind ourselves that we’re not really in control and we have to accept that and work with it. There’s also something wonderful about making artworks that have a function and purpose (like a bowl, plate, cup, vase) that can be decorative but also useful,” she says. “I’ve enjoyed putting energy into that, and then gifting items to friends and family. Seeing the pottery in their homes makes me happy, like a piece of me lives with them everyday.”
Originally published in the April 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia