A pioneering university is welcoming a new generation of change-makers ready to make their mark in the Gulf and beyond

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Students at the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, including scholarship winner Ayesha Al-Suwaidi, putting the finishing touches to a design piece. (Supplied)
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Updated 09 September 2018
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A pioneering university is welcoming a new generation of change-makers ready to make their mark in the Gulf and beyond

  • The spotlight is on design because creative people have realized they now have opportunities in this field and new jobs have been created
  • It’s not about making pretty things but about coming up with creative solutions to problem solving

DUBAI: A passion for creativity and the chance to “make a difference” led to Abdulaziz Zamil Alzamil becoming one of the first students in the UAE to pursue design as a career.
The 19-year-old Saudi national, who was born in Jeddah and partially raised in Riyadh, discovered his love for the field two years ago during a three-month internship at his cousin’s advertising and marketing agency.
“I got to experience what it was like working in the creative field, and I got to see how many different jobs in design work together and influence each other,” he said. “I got the chance to really understand the full process of design. We were working on projects for a range of different clients, from food companies such as Almarai to banks and automotive brands.”
After much practice during his free time at home, he took his creativity to the next level. “I enjoyed being creative so much that I started some freelance work in branding, creating logos for small shops,” he said. “I knew I wanted to pursue design as a career and when I was searching for design schools, I came across an advert for the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI).”
The first multi-disciplinary design university in the Middle East officially opened its doors for its inaugural year of teaching last week. Welcoming students from across the GCC and the world, DIDI is an important step, not only in design education, but also for the design industry in the Middle East.
“I feel like DIDI has a new way of teaching and thinking about design,” Alzamil said. “They were different to every other design school that I came across. DIDI focuses on taking design to a whole other level, and I feel like design is everything in DIDI’s perspective, so I wanted to be a part of that.”
He said design is much more than just fashion or graphic design, as most people might think. “I really liked the fact that you can study multi-disciplinary courses at DIDI, so I won’t graduate in just one subject, and this wasn’t available at any other university,” he said. “I feel like DIDI offers lots of options, and this is really important to me.”
The young student moved to Dubai to immerse himself in the design community and the opportunities the city offers. “It feels like home,” he said. “The Middle East has started to change when it comes to design, with more people taking notice of the possibilities in the field.
“Saudi has really started to change. The spotlight is on design because creative people have realized they now have opportunities in this field and new jobs have been created. It wasn’t accessible before.”
For Alzamil, design is a vital industry not only for the region, but also the world. “It is great that we joined the world in showcasing this message.”
Alzamil, who is one of seven siblings, said his parents were initially surprised at his career choice. “But they were also supportive and very happy that there was a university such as DIDI for me to study at that was still close to home,” he said.
“I am so grateful that I can pursue my dreams in design but still be close to my family.”
He hopes to become an art or creative director for a global agency after graduating and then start his own design company. “That is my goal,” he said. “My passion is for furniture design, so I am really looking forward to learning more about product design at DIDI.”
Alzamil believes the skills he acquires will offer a fast track to higher positions, which usually take from three to five years.
“For me, it is all about the opportunity, so if the chance to work back in Saudi comes up, then that would be something I would consider,” he said. “It is more about putting to use everything I will have learnt at DIDI in a well-known company that is making waves in the design world.”
Ayesha Al-Suwaidi, an Emirati classmate, won a scholarship at the institute. She hopes to use design in problem-solving and strategic areas in the future.
“I have had a passion for design since I was a little girl,” she said. “Growing up, I always knew design was what I wanted to pursue for my career. I love the idea of taking an issue and using design to solve it. Problem-solving and strategic design is what interests me the most, so I’m really hoping to work in this field after I graduate.”
She found out about her scholarship a few days before her birthday. “It really was the best birthday gift ever,” she said. “I cried with joy, I couldn’t have asked for more. All I wanted was to study at DIDI, and without the scholarship it wouldn’t have been possible.
“This opportunity has changed my life and given me opportunities I could never have imagined for my future.”
Al-Suwaidi said design was a fundamental pillar in the Middle East due to the region’s unique culture and Islamic art.
“Design here is getting more exposure, which is great,” she said. “Our city is a multicultural environment, which allows design in the region to develop and become very interesting as more people move here. Dubai itself is design-led — it’s sleek, elegant and beautiful, gearing up towards Expo 2020, which is very exciting for us.”
According to the Dubai Design and Fashion Council, the region will require 30,000 design graduates by 2019, with most demand in architecture, fashion and interior design. Meanwhile, the Middle East’s design industry is expected to grow by 6 percent from 2015 to 2020, with the design market valued at $27.6 billion in the UAE and $21.9 billion in Saudi Arabia.
From 2011 to 2015 alone, regional design grew at more than double the pace of the global industry, surpassing $100 billion in value.
“We were looking at how to help the region become more globally competitive in design,” said Leigh Khosla, chief operating officer at DIDI. “We felt there was a very strong investment in the mindset in infrastructure, but we saw an emerging trend in talent being developed here locally.”
Design, according to the institute, means “solving the world’s greatest problems. It’s not about making pretty things but about coming up with creative solutions to problem solving,” Khosla said. “We worked with MIT and Parsons on a forward-thinking program. Our goal is to prepare them for the real world through hands-on problem solving.”
Khosla said design crosses all industries. Developing interactive ways for people to share cultural experiences during anticipated lengthy Expo 2020 queues was one example of the variety the career offered, she said.
“We’re trying to create the next generation of change-makers,” she said. “We’re hoping our students (will be) pioneers creating that change in the region in the future.”


The making of memories: Syrian artist Sara Naim uses material from her homeland to create striking abstract imagery

Updated 16 February 2019
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The making of memories: Syrian artist Sara Naim uses material from her homeland to create striking abstract imagery

  • “Building Blocks”, Sara Naim's second solo show, runs until February 27
  • She exists in a world far beyond the realm of classical photography and is often considered a visual artist rather than a photographer

DUBAI: Nostalgia takes many forms. For the Syrian visual artist Sara Naim, those forms are jasmine, soil and Aleppo soap.

All three are central to her second solo exhibition at The Third Line in Dubai, “Building Blocks” — which runs until February 27 — but not in the way you’d expect. 

Using a scanning electron microscope, Naim has captured the cellular structure of all three substances, magnified them, and mounted the resultant imagery on wood and plexiglass. She has also deliberately included glitches — formal distortions and light leaks — producing imagery so abstracted it is no longer recognizable. These abstract examinations create the wall works of the show and hint at the imperfection of memory, while in the midst of it all are a series of structures made from 4,000 bars of Aleppo soap.

“I think the idea of warping something that’s familiar into something foreign allows you to shift the viewer’s perspective and to reshape how they think of nostalgia,” says Naim, who was born in London, raised in Dubai, and currently lives in Paris. “Because nostalgia operates in a way that’s no longer linked to the original information. The memory of something changes the more time has elapsed and the more you think about it. You can also become consumed in thought and therefore lost in it. 

“You assume that the closer you come to something the more familiar it becomes, but actually you become more distant because it’s so abstracted. For example, some of these are looked at 50,000 times magnified, and at that scale you’re further from its truth.”

In many ways “Building Blocks” is as much about identity as it is about nostalgia. All three of the elements used by Naim may be familiar to her — the jasmine and soil are from her grandmother’s garden in Damascus — but the memories they trigger (through smell primarily) are also perceived as foreign. This is due to her international upbringing as much as it is to the conflict in Syria, which has kept her away from the country for the past eight years. 

“I’ve always said I’m Syrian,” she says. “I don’t feel like I’m British, I don’t feel like I’m from Dubai. My blood is Syrian. I completely connect with the land and the people even though there’s an interesting acceptance issue in Syria. Because they don’t consider me to be Syrian really when I’m there and even if I meet a Syrian here or elsewhere they feel disconnected from me. And (vice-versa).

“I met a British woman recently who has a house in Damascus and she’s been going there for the past 20 years. She was telling me about the street that she lives on and where she goes and I didn’t even know those places. And it was such a shame for me to feel like I’m more removed from my country than an expat is. But it’s all the nature of circumstance.”

The exhibition is, in essence, a continuation of Naim’s wider body of work, which utilizes the transmission electronic microscope and the scanning electron microscope to create ‘abstract quasi-photographic imagery’. It’s a practice she says “dissects how proportion shapes our perception and notion of boundary.” 

She exists in a world far beyond the realm of classical photography and is often considered a visual artist rather than a photographer. It’s a point of classification that she herself has debated.

“I used to correct people when they introduced me as a photographer, hoping that ‘visual artist’ would give me more freedom,” she admits. “But actually embracing it as photographic allows me to enter into the very dialogue I want to be a part of. Why are cameras made with a rectangular frame? Why are prints framed the way they are? Why is photography considered two-dimensional when it fundamentally uses space and time? I have rid myself of those restrictions, but my work is still photographic.”

Naim is in the final stages of preparing for the exhibition when we meet. The soap has yet to arrive, the towers have yet to be built, but everything else appears to be in place. Although she looks tired, occasionally passing her hand through her hair, she is chatty and affable. 

“The names that I’ve given these are not the final names,” she says as we meander through the space. “So, this is ‘Form Six,’ but in my mind — before I named them — it was just ‘Color.’ This was ‘Flower,’ this was ‘Diptych,’ this is ‘Bed Sheet,’ this was ‘Horizontal,’ this was ‘Squiggly,’” she says with a laugh. “Unfortunately I couldn’t keep it like that. ‘Bed Sheet’ wasn’t really flying with the gallery either.”

Far from being universal in shape, each form imitates a topography that Naim has encountered during her scanning process. A process that, in one way or another, Naim has been deeply involved with for the past 10 years.

Initially, it wasn’t so much the scanning electron microscope, or even photography, that Naim was interested in, but the idea of ‘false lines.’ 

“The skin seems as though it separates the body from its internal anatomy and external world, but — in fact — it’s almost like a collision of two energy forces, and on a cellular scale there is no such division,” she explains. “And how you represent that lack of border or boundary is by going down to the cell and having them look like something foreign — like a foreign landscape, or something macro.” 

It is this notion of the non-boundary, the interconnectedness of matter, that drives Naim’s work.

“I like to play with the viewer’s perspective in terms of scale, subject matter and form, but everything must be precise and sterile in order to actually convince someone to shift the way they see or think. A good dancer makes the choreography feel effortless; I try to use that concept in my work,” she says. “If the viewer begins by asking me about the process of how they were built, then that’s my fault. I’ve lost them to rationality rather than abstraction.”