Abeer Seikaly — Reconnecting Through Matter

Written by Sophia Schall. Published on 15 December 2022.

“Since a very young age, I’ve been working with my hands. It’s something I inherited from my mother, from my aunts, from my family. And throughout the years, I realized that working with my hands created some form of an embodied experience that really expanded my horizons and allowed me to think and understand things in a different way, because there’s that connection of touch, which I think is very essential”,  explains Abeer Seikaly when we met in her apartment and studio in Jabal Al-Weibdeh in Amman (Jordan), where we talked about her artistic practice, how it developed, and what inspired her.

Abeer is a trained architect and artist whose work spans different disciplines, from design to contemporary art, architecture to cultural production. The tangible experience of working with her hands while exploring the characteristics of different, mostly natural materials and traditional craft techniques is central to her practice.

I have come across Abeer’s work for the first time during the Amman Design Week in 2019, where she exhibited her work “Meeting Points”, a composite three-dimensional structure and material system that derives its inspiration from the archetype of the Bedouin tent. Abeer used a combination of wood and fiber, where the wood created the skeleton upon which the fabric, made from goat hair yarn, was knitted. I remember being intrigued by the aesthetics of this work, with its sharp symmetry that reminded me of a modern architectural steel structure, combined here, however, with the warm qualities of the knitted fabrics. The use of these materials and techniques which are usually found in traditional craft practices created an interesting contrast with the modern design of the structure.

What touched me particularly about “Meeting Points”, is the way in which it was created. Abeer realized “Meeting Points” through collaborative work with 58 members of the Bedouin community, most of them women. These women produced the individual fabrics that were then used and fused through Abeer’s design to form the composite whole which literally and symbolically represented the process through which it was developed. It is that focus on the communal process of creation that not only shapes the material into a structure but also brings individuals of a community together which is at the heart of Abeer’s work and interest. It reminds me of the concept of “Social Sculpture”, a concept developed by Joseph Beuys, who coined a different understanding of artistic practice, one in which the medium of creation could also be the social realm, where the “artist” crafts social relations and communal processes. In “Meeting Points”, the creation of the material structure and community building stand hand in hand as the outcome of the crafting process.

In her approach, Abeer draws major inspiration from the indigenous knowledge of the Bedouin communities in Jordan, in particular, the craftsmanship of Bedouin tent-making that she has been researching extensively. Abeer tells me how she has observed that the Bedouin tent is, from the beginning to the end, crafted by women in a communal process. That process of craftsmanship, which she defines as “matriarchal architecture”, is not only a functional building process but also serves as a space for social interactions, storytelling, and creative expression. It becomes an integral part of the Bedouin women’s life. These observations led her to broaden her definition of architecture and her own artistic practice. She says: “Architecture is not just about buildings, physical structures, and material objects. It’s about the production of spatial experiences and social interactions. Architecture is a form of performance…”

Abeer also explains to me how the Bedouin tent is very well adapted to the climatic needs and the nomadic lifestyle of the Bedouin communities. It is a flexible structure that can be opened in the summer to let the air go through and closed in winter. It also facilitates social encounters and interactions, providing space for the community to gather. And while considered a temporary structure by modern eyes, it is permanent in a different sense, in its capacity to constantly adapt to its environment and the community needs it serves. For Abeer, the key to understanding the Bedouin tent’s social and environmental adaptability lies in the process of craftsmanship, in how it has been constructed, a process that is characterized by an instant engagement with the materials and the context around it. “If you look at indigenous cultures in general and at the way they live, it’s a completely embodied approach, which in a way responds to and adapts to the environment, in a very effective way,” says Abeer.

For me, this emphasis on the instant connection with materials and the social and environmental context in which they are situated is among the most crucial contributions of Abeer’s research and artistic work to questions of ecology. The importance she puts on an embodied experience, one that is informed by the physical contact with matter, enables a different kind of understanding and thinking, one that is sensitive, in a very literal way, to the ecological particularities of a given context and thereby breaks with the dichotomy between mind and body often found in modern/western epistemologies. It also resembles what biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber highlights in his book, “Matter and Desire – An Erotic Ecology”, describing the experience of physical connection with matter and environment as the essence of being alive, of constantly adapting, transforming, and creating connections through love. For him, the fact that we have removed ourselves from these instant connections with matter and the environment is at the heart of our global environmental crisis 1Andreas Weber: Matter and Desire – An Erotic Ecology. Chelsea Green Publishing Vermont (us) 2017 . This also connects to what Walter Mignolo has defined as decolonial aesthetics, where “sensing, thinking and doing” are understood together and are “breaking away from the European eighteenth-century distinction and hierarchy between knowing, rationality, and sensing, emotions.”2Aïcha Diallo: A conversation with Walter Mignolo – “Decolonial aesthetics/aesthesis has become a connector across the continents” On: C&. Published on 7 August 2014. Last retrieved on 15 December 2022.

Abeer does not readily reject modern technological approaches, which, according to her, come with their own advantages. Through her insights into the Bedouin tent making, she rather asks what we can learn from the indigenous ways of building and living for our modern way of constructing and what it means for community formation and our relation to nature. Observing processes of adaptation amongst the Bedouin communities themselves, most of whom have moved into villages and given up the nomadic lifestyle, she tells me: “For example, you’d see a family that had built a house, but then in the middle of the courtyard, they’d have an actual tent. And they spend most of their time in the tent and not in the house. (..) You’d see another condition where you have an intersection between the concrete and the textile. So instead of having the back of the tent as a textile, they build a concrete wall (…) These conditions reflect where we are today and are a commentary on the political, economic, sociocultural, and technological forces that govern Bedouin communities, but also on adaptability. (…) These intersections and contrasts between concrete, nomadic textiles, and even plastic canvases all within the same structure is a phenomenon that I am researching and  investigating, in order to build upon this discussion about adaptability, building materials, and their impact.”

Reflecting on her work on a more abstract level, Abeer continues: “My position is about flexibility. It’s about adaptability. That’s how I see myself as well. Technologies change the way societies behave and operate and as they say, change is the only constant. I think the question that begs to be investigated is, how can we merge those two worlds (traditional and modern ways of life) together in a way that becomes constructive? That’s how I see my practice, existing in this in-between space that addresses not what we design and build, but how we choose to design and build.”

Abeer sees her challenge as an artist in communicating these themes she investigates in a way that people can connect to. She says: “So rather than, for example, releasing an intellectual paper that the masses cannot read, what if you think of another medium where it becomes easier for people to look at or experience and then understand, and that’s what excites me about the creative process and artistic practices.  How do you communicate the idea of climate change, of ecology, all of these major issues that we’re facing today through an object or through the work or through the process of making? (…)”

While Abeer has already won two renowned design awards, the Rug Company’s Middle East Wallhanging Design Competition as well as the international Lexus Design Award, and has exhibited in places such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Vienna, she remains faithful to her focus on the process of artistic research and creation. This, in my opinion, is also where the essence of Abeer’s artistic work lies. Her refusal to be mainly concerned with the material outcome of production is a very strong statement in line with her emphasis on communal processes and her quest for a new relation to materiality and nature.