"I feel proud to have played even just the smallest part in shining a different light on crafts that have been around in Bahrain for the longest time and really are an essential part of the local cultural traditions."
TOD: You come across as a cultural preservationist to me by way of the beautiful work you do supporting local artisans and craftsmen. How did this come about?
So, I grew up with a deep respect for traditional crafts. I remember how we would always look for the oldest craftsman to see if he could transmit his craft to the younger ones, if people in their community also valued these crafts and traditions. I saw how traditions were less and less valued in modern days, which really saddened me because I feel they are so intricately linked to the fabric of a culture. By connecting to their traditional crafts, I feel people stay connected to their roots.
When I came to Bahrain, I found out that textile weaving used to be an old local tradition. Today only one village, Bani Jamrah, pursues this craft. So, I really felt this sense of urgency of doing something to preserve this beautiful tradition. I thought one way would be to incorporate it in my work to show that it could be used in modern, contemporary designs. I also encouraged other designers to visit this village and rediscover the beauty of hand-woven textiles, as well as the creative freedom it offers: you can basically choose any color and have it woven in a way that complements your own work.
Today I am thrilled that a beautiful weaving center, built by the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, opened in Bani Jamrah last December. It is heart-warming to witness this increase in recognition of local traditional crafts and the success these projects all encountered!
"The collaborative nature of my work is what brings me joy. Bringing ideas together from people with different backgrounds and cultures makes a project so much richer."
TOD: You work with craftsmen and artists in Bahrain but you also collaborate with artisans in other Middle Eastern countries. How challenging is it to reach and communicate with les petites mains of the Middle East without having the means to reach them physically at times?
NJ: The collaborative nature of my work is what brings me joy. Bringing ideas together from people with different backgrounds and cultures makes a project so much richer.
I really enjoy the fact that I can come up with a specific design for the woodworkers in Syria for instance. My design is then sent to them and it will very often come back with a few really interesting interpretations or additions that I hadn’t thought of. I am so fascinated by their craftsmanship and how they can inlay mother of pearl so perfectly into wood.
The only limitation I impose on the artisans is that their work must have impeccable finish.
One other project that is very dear to my heart and that has been really challenged by this pandemic is the embroidered Jalabiyas made in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jerash, Jordan. We worked out a beautiful system to collaborate where the embroiderers basically supplied me with a very comprehensive archive of nearly 200 different traditional Palestinian stitches when I visited them in December 2019. So it is now simple to refer to the desired stitches by name and number.
The concept of this multi-handed collaboration was to get linen woven in Bani Jamrah. In collaboration with Mhairi Boyle, a Scottish textile artist, we designed 2 very simple Jalabiyas patterns and were going to send them to the Jerash ladies to embroider specific Palestinian patterns. Hopefully this project will see the light for Ramadan this year.
TOD: You currently call Bahrain home, yet come from a professionally diverse background, how were you able to professionally transition from big city life to island living.
NJ: I left North Africa in the late 80s and moved to Paris for my studies. I was always attracted to fashion and history and Paris has so much to offer in these two fields. I worked in costume design and set design for a while and being a young professional in the film industry was a very exciting opportunity. But I also often missed the ocean and nature that I had grown up in close contact with.
When I met my Australian husband, I ended up moving to Sydney. It is a wonderful city as it offers as many cultural options as well as the proximity of the sea and presence of nature.
"...when I first created the Yalla Habibi label in 2015, my initial idea was to design embroidered cushions that blend Bahraini traditional textiles with motifs by local artists."
When we moved to Bahrain in 2009, my focus shifted back to textiles and I started exploring art galleries and researching the local traditions. It was no surprise that textile weaving was the one that spoke to me the most.
So, when I first created the Yalla Habibi label in 2015, my initial idea was to design embroidered cushions that blend Bahraini traditional textiles with motifs by local artists.
I was enchanted by the way my newfound activity was connecting me to my 2 main passions, arts and textile.
Bahrain is such a welcoming place, I always felt supported and encouraged by all, the quality of life here is amazing, there is a real ease of life. Manama has nothing to envy to any big city. It has beautiful museums, a theatre that brings international acts of the highest standard, art galleries, beaches ... It is the perfect place to bring up children in a stress-free environment and after 12 years on the island, I still discover hidden gems.
TOD: In Bahrain and across the Middle East you champion local artists, what do you look for in an artist you collaborate with and what do you create together?
NJ: The first artist I collaborated with is Mohamed Sharkawy. I could see such a strong, simple, naive quality in his art and felt it was so perfect to be transposed into embroidery. I had been exploring art galleries and talking about the art scene with him and other local artists. I felt that not enough people visited art galleries and I thought that transposing their artwork onto cushions would be a great way to promote artists, make art less intimidating, and also a great way to promote the textile weavers.
"For my collaboration with Faika, I printed her artwork on textiles and got a few details hand embroidered by a women’s association called Nasaej that empowers women through their hand embroidery crafts."
I am so touched when an artist I admire trusts me enough to give me an artwork (usually a computer file of a drawing) which I will work on to adapt it to the very different medium that is embroidery.
The artworks that have worked the best are usually very minimalist. More recently I have collaborated with artists that have more complex artwork, like Faika Al Hassan. For my collaboration with Faika, I printed her artwork on textiles and got a few details hand embroidered by a women’s association called Nasaej that empowers women through their hand embroidery crafts.
TOD: Finally what is your favorite part of being the name and the heart of Yalla Habibi?
NJ: I really appreciate how the art scene has welcomed me and how so many beautiful encounters and conversations were started because of my work with Yalla Habibi.
Another joy I have found through Yalla Habibi is to connect artists with craftsmen. For example, when an artist is looking for a potter for a specific project, it feels so rewarding to connect them and see the artwork that comes from it.
Of course, as I already mentioned, I feel proud to have played even just the smallest part in shining a different light on crafts that have been around in Bahrain for the longest time and really are an essential part of the local cultural traditions.
"Whether it is being invited for Iftar at the weavers’ house during Ramadan or at an artist’s studio, my little business has taken me places I would have not been able to discover otherwise."
Being behind Yalla Habibi has also enabled me to really encounter and understand the Bahrain society fabric. Whether it is being invited for Iftar at the weavers’ house during Ramadan or at an artist’s studio, my little business has taken me places I would have not been able to discover otherwise.
Bahrain welcomed me with such open arms and I am so lucky that I was able in a small way to show my gratitude to this island that I have been calling home for over 12 years.