Discover the delicate art of Emirati ‘talli’ embroidery at Expo 2020 Dubai

Five elderly Emirati women rush into an open, sunny room with a purpose. They each sit in front of a metal stool with a curved center, surmounted by a cylindrical pincushion wrapped in spools of silver and gold thread. In their traditional attire, female artisans from the Sharjah-based Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council begin their respective ‘talli’ embroideries with nimble fingers.

Talli is the intricate yarn patterns that line the cuffs and hems of their ‘burka’, Dr. Hayat Shamsuddin points out details in the short, as she takes Gulf News on a tour of the design platform Emirati MENASA at Expo 2020 Dubai. This traditional craft is so elaborate that a yard (or nearly a yard) of talli could take an entire day to weave, adds the senior vice president of arts and culture at the Expo.

Once done, the women on screen wrap the finished product around their muscular hands – the same hands that have tirelessly taught the art of talli generation after generation.

A business platform for creators

As part of Expo’s arts and culture program since 2019, MENASA (Arabic for ‘platform’) brings together the works of more than 40 local and international designers. The collection curated for the World Expo tells stories inspired by the United Arab Emirates, with representation of the seven Emirates. What’s Behind the Doors is a modern take on the nation’s vibrant art scene dating back to the third millennium BC.

“To understand a nation, you would have to dig deeper into its culture, and you will find that craftsmanship is rooted in the identity of any society. At MENASA, visitors will have the opportunity to experience the Emirati identity and environment through the design collections displayed here,” Shamsuddin said.

Dr. Hayat Shamsuddin, Senior Vice President of Arts and Culture at Expo
Image credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Bespoke items, from stackable coffee mugs to metallic perfume applicators, decorate the space, some accompanied by short documentaries and others by text for the visitor. Each piece is unique and put up for sale: “We offer you [the designers] a business platform so they can be self-sufficient,” she added.

Tribute to Emirati craftsmanship

The talli meters from the documentary are actually part of an ornate gold dress at the heart of the MENASA store. With beaded gloves and a jeweled headpiece, the glamorous dress on display took seven months to complete. It’s the result of a rare collaboration between Lebanese fashion designer Nicolas Jebran and the artisans seen earlier in the film.

Several similar pieces in the piece originated from surviving Emirati craftsmanship. Besides talli, Shamsuddin lists other featured techniques: “Sadu is a weaving craft which is generally practiced inland by the Bedouins in the western region such as the town of Al Sila; pottery in the mountains because that’s where they get the clay; safeefa or palm leaf weaving takes place near oases such as Al Ain, Fujairah and Sharjah; pearl diving near the coast; and coffee making is common to all of us.

The designers were pushed out of their comfort zone to meet the Expo’s rigorous criteria, including the use of sustainable materials. Only if the prototypes passed the MENASA evaluation could the designers proceed with their actual parts.

Rugs woven by a robot and weavers from Abu Dhabi’s House of Artisans hang on the walls in front. The largest statement piece covers almost the entire surface and costs over Dh200,000 as it is no ordinary floor covering. Not only does the recycled nylon rug called Eco-nyl come from abandoned fishing nets, but it also tells two handcrafted stories simultaneously.

expo 2020 menasa

Carpets designed by Edouard Cabay and Iwan Maktabi lab in collaboration with House of Artisans
Image credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

The hand movements of female Sadu weavers were recorded and woven into the carpet as a dotted density map by Nepali artisans. Added to this are the rapid movements of the hand of the makers of fishing nets, which a robotic arm draws with the help of an ink spray on the mat. No two carpets in the collection of 25 are identical.

Sparking a new appreciation for Emirati craftsmanship

“We have 11 countries represented here and four continents – it reflects the fact that the UAE is a connector for all designers who call the UAE home,” Shamsuddin said. “We never wanted to present craftsmanship in a boring way, and if you don’t show craftsmanship like you’ve shown here, it will die.”

MENASA hopes to spark a new appreciation for Emirati craftsmanship within the design scene and “create interest in [local] craftsmanship among younger creative communities”. This is how the baton is passed, this is how we ensure that Irthi women can continue to line dresses and abayas with fashionable talli bands for centuries to come.