A woman’s love of collecting garments from the Middle East has over time transformed into a priceless and unique documentation of a rapidly disappearing aspect of local culture.
While working on her doctoral dissertation, Sultani, traditions renewed: Changes in Women’s Traditional Dress in the UAE during the Reign of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan 1966-2004, Reem El Mutwalli started to amass local clothing.
“I started assembling the UAE collection naturally. I had the good fortune to receive many of the costumes that my thesis’ illustrations were based on as I worked on my doctorate, says El Mutwalli.
The collection, which is now known as The Zay Initiative, has expanded greatly. El Mutwalli keeps collecting handmade objects that are frequently embellished with designs, hues, and motifs associated with a particular area, person, or event. She and her crew are conserving a history that is being lost by recording the stories behind each piece. But it’s a difficult task.
With no end in sight, the Zay Initiative currently has more than 2,000 items of Arab clothing. Through our online digital archive, thezay.org, we continue to collect and preserve pieces that, she says, “tell the story of people from all walks of Arab life, mostly women, who come to this world and leave little trace behind.”
El Mutwalli and her team are conscious of the fact that many additional items are being discarded as older generations pass away and their families fail to recognise the importance of the clothing they leave behind, despite having accumulated a “bountiful and constant plethora of rich and valuable resources.” Due to a lack of reliable recordkeeping, “they are fast being lost or misinterpreted more often than not.”
El Mutwalli clarifies that the collection’s function is straightforward. “The Zay Initiative plays a crucial part in protecting, preserving, and encapsulating a little but significant portion of Arab history through the preservation of these items. So, “gathering the concrete to narrate the intangible” is our motto.
She claims that because she is in charge of so many exceptional objects, it is impossible for her to choose one out as being the most special. “I lack the willpower to pick just one. Every piece is priceless and should be treasured. Each exhibits, in its own peculiar way, a special technique, a special cutting approach, a special pattern placement, a special kind of needlework, or a special motif arrangement.
El Mutwalli is motivated by the thought of everything that is still possible. “I have a limitless love for collecting and preserving as many things as I can, learning about them, and educating others in the process.”
But there is a warning. “Collecting for fun is one thing; collecting with the goal of accurately capturing a culture is quite another. The latter has a strong institutional perspective and great responsibility. Crossing that bridge is a daily learning process that is both overwhelming and enlightening on a personal level.
El Muwalli and her colleagues undertook a massive undertaking, therefore she has some advice for anyone who want to turn their collection into an institutional resource. “Be certain you adore it. Since it is a solitary endeavour, the more passionate you are about it, the more motivated you will be.
“Remain steadfast in the knowledge that your collection will not only truly sustain a small portion of our shared history, but also educate and inspire people, maybe not today, but years from now, and someone will have you to thank for preserving it,” the quote reads. “Even when some people might think what you do is not significant.”