Saleh: Bringing back craftsmanship to its real pathTeresa Palieri
An interview with Mohammad Saleh, Executive Director of DDFP, by Teresa Palmieri
TP: Good Afternoon Mohammad, could you introduce yourself?
MS: My name is Mohammad Saleh and I am a Palestinian currently living in Jerusalembut originally I am from Nazareth.I studied Psychology and Musicology in Haifa. I got involved in the art sector after I had moved to Jerusalem in 2007, when I started working for the Palestinian Art Court (Al Hoash gallery). I met a lot of artists and curators through my work and got to know a big part of the Palestinian creative and cultural scene. In 2011, I moved to Turkey, together with my wife, there I found my greatest passion: nature. I became a Permaculture designer, the field in which I also work as a freelancer. Shortly after my return to Jerusalem, I became involved with Disarming Design from Palestine, bringing me back to the artistic and cultural scene in Palestine. Soon after I got to know Disarming Design and its work, I became passionate about it and I am now working with them as Executive Director, putting all my efforts to making it better all the time.
—When you discovered Disarming Design, what triggered you to become part of the team?
There are many reasons, but one of them is the involvement of Palestinian craftsmen in the production of the products. Craftsmanship is slowly disappearing in Palestine and with it also the incredible knowledge of the high skilled artisans, which is part of the Palestinian culture and tradition. This is happening for two main reasons, one is the abandonment of local production and the reliance on the international one; the other, is that the international mass produced products, along with their marketing campaigns, occupy the attention of the local consumers and change their preferences. At a certain point in history craftsmanship stopped corresponding to the real needs of people. Showing the potential of Palestinian craftsmanship is essential to let it survive. Disarming Design brings back craftsmanship to its real path and function, emerging from and serving the real needs of the Palestinian people. The products are designed bottom-up, from people’s reality towards their needs in the street, on the checkpoints, in the kitchen, the house, the clothing, etc.
— Disarming Design combines the knowledge of high skilled Palestinian craftsmen with the ideas and perspectives of local and international designers and artists. Do you see this as a good alternative to the international products that are now most common on the Palestinian market?
Yes, and the first reason is the word LOCAL. To take the first steps to free ourselves from the hummer of capitalism, without even being concerned directly with finding solutions to the Palestinian situation, dealing with local products created by local artisans and local designers, with local materials, to correspond to local needs and realities is already a recipe for success for any society that seeks self sovereignty. Now, if you reflect on the specific socio-political situation in Palestine, there is also another layer to consider that guides us into a “sensitive” local design and production. After all what the Palestinian population has lived in the last century, there is a deep research for a Palestinian identity, as it has been distorted and transformed after many shocking and drastic changes. Disarming Design provides a platform where designers and artists search into their visual reality in Palestine, into their daily needs and experiences, they elaborate them to create useful objects that will ease obstacles or inspire for a better reality. Identity is not something fixed, but something that corresponds to contemporary realities, so to say a work in progress and that’s where product design has a role in this re-discovery.
Palestinian artisans have been repeating themselves for decades or even centuries. But if we go back to the origin of the craftsmanship to find where traditional artefacts came from, we see that they came all from a specific need related to communicate something precise or to fulfil a certain function. The traditional female dress is very explanatory in this sense. Embroidery was used on dresses to carry a message: the status of the woman wearing it. When a woman got married, a special cloth was applied on her dress extracted from the clothes of the man and was sewed around the neckline. If her husband died, the embroidery would change in order to show her new status of being a widow. As you see in this example craftsmanship and different shapes were relating to the reality where they took place, they were carrying real stories. At a certain point in history that stopped and we, as Palestinians, started to consume our own history and culture. It is in that moment that artisans started repeating themselves and craftsmanship lost value for the local community and lately it even started to be considered boring, and only exotic to people who come from abroad.
In each DDFP’s ‘create shop’ we try to put back a piece of the craftsmanship functionality in its place, by questioning what is the story we want to tell. This is why it is important to put together the ability of the artisan with the freshness and the perspective of the designer, both together they make a very good combination and they make reality themselves.
So far we talked mainly about the local implications of Disarming Design, but what do you think it can do in the international context?
The presence of these products on the international market is really important to stimulate and trigger the international community and bring new perspectives alive. You never know what might influence the way a person lives and acts. An object carrying a simple but deep massage can make a great lasting impression similar to a song, a poster, etc… But more pragmatically I think that Disarming Design’s main role is the one of supporting local economy and I think the international market has a promising potential to make that possible. To many the Israel-Palestine conflict emerges mainly from religious or/and nationalistic reasons, while I see the reality differently where the conflict is much more related to economical reasons within a capitalist “game”. If the Palestinians become more independent economically and succeed to create a local business model, that is when they practice the most crucial steps of self-sovereignty which if put in other words is an act of lively resistance.
— During one of our conversations in Jerusalem you told me that Palestinians should act and not react. Can you explain your statement and how this relates to the practice of Disarming Design?
Palestinian reality is a game of action and reaction. Israel does something and Palestinians react in a loop of war and demonstrations. Somebody teases you and you are being teased, this is Palestinian daily reality. I think there is another way to deal with our life, we should set the rules of our own game rather than following the games of others. Hence to be active rather than passive, to start by following your inner call, not what Israel does. The origin should be your own “fingerprint” and desires.
Many NGOs in Palestine make researches which are always related to how Israel is dealing with Palestinians and how the occupation is affecting our reality: statistics on how many trees were uprooted, how many refugees live abroad, how many suffer from depression. Very few people and NGOs with great funds are directly dealing with how to act to make the reality different, how to strategize for a better future. People follow what happens around them without making choices. And this is why I think Palestinians are also occupied from within, not just from without. It is as if people are looking at a painting from too close, and therefore they don’t see the bigger picture and how to act upon it.
When negativity started taking me over I looked inside myself and asked: “What am I passionate about? What do I really like?” and the answer was nature. And this is the starting point for acting upon my own choices: I create gardens, green spots in the place where I live. You could think that this is not related to politics, society and psychology but indeed it is. When a person finds a green nice spot, this heals him, and in Palestine we are all wounded, so we are all in need for healing. So as you see, by doing so I am not reacting to the negative circumstances, which are dictated by others, but still have a crucial impact on them. In addition to that an ecological and sustainable design of farms, which produce what we eat, is an act of food sovereignty and one of the first to take by any society to reduce the vulnerability of reliance on international large scale farming.
Disarming Design by producing local designs, is a way of acting rather than reacting for different reasons, a local artisan is helped sustain his business, family and an inherited craftsmanship. An action for a sustainable local economy; the transportation is reduced, so the price to the local person is cheaper and the ecological footprint is better; the profit is inwards rather than outwards, exporting rather than importing is action; the design comes from within and relates to local needs and point of view.
All those are great examples of actions that are socially conscious rather than reactions to the behaviours of others.
The way designers and artists develop the products of the collection of DDFP is another way of acting. Observing and living the reality to design by being inspired from it, you have to choose, you have to elaborate, you have to reinvent reality, or interpret it and those are all active actions. For example we have a plate in the collection that is called the ‘Bird Plate’ and it reminds people that when they finish eating they can give the leftovers in their plate to the birds. This is totally designing/acting on a situation that has to be changed. We throw away too much food.
— What is your a favourite product of the current collection?
My favorite product is the ‘Checkpoint bag’. I like it in the first place because it is very functional and practical as it corresponds to my daily need of passing checkpoints. Moreover, it is produced locally with local leather. The design of the bag solves the problem of organizing my belongings, where I don’t like everything to be dumped on top of each other and ease my experience of the crowded and awful checkpoints. Passing the Israeli barrier, to go back from my work in Ramallah to my home in Jerusalem, I always have to take off everything that might contain metal to be controlled by the metal detector. This is when having specific pockets to organize your stuff is really helpful and functional.
(Interview by Teresa Palmieri)