Agaals: Reimagined – An Interview with Khalid Shafar

By Saif Haddad

6 min read

Dubai native and award-winning Emirati artist Khalid Shafar talks to MOJEH MEN about his beggings, inspiration, and his latest collaboration with leading Italian engraving and mirror works atelier Arte Veneziana to create 'FORMA.' An interior products collection that is anchored in the tradition of wearing Agaals, the woven rope bands used to secure head covers worn by Emirati men.

Born in 1980 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. As a business graduate of the American University in Dubai Khalid worked in marketing and communication for almost seven years.

A Dubai Native, Khalid Shafar began his career in marketing, but later decided to follow his passion for art and pursued degrees in furniture and objects design at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, UK, then at the Centre for Fine Woodworking in Nelson, New Zealand. All of which led Khalid to open his own studio in Dubai in 2011.

Last week and during the Dubai Design Week activities, Shafar launched his latest interior collection, which is inspired by and pays tribute to Emirati culture. Entitled ‘FORMA’ the collection is anchored in the tradition of wearing Agaals, the woven rope bands used to secure head covers worn by Emirati men. By deconstructing the Agaals and using it purely as a building material for the collection, Khalid Shafar explores the interplay between ancient Emirati customs and Italian décor, while engaging in a cultural dialogue that pays tribute to local traditions, decorative art and national identities.

Khalid has collaborated with leading Italian engraving and mirror works atelier Arte Veneziana, where all Agaals have been juxtaposed with glass, mirrored surfaces or natural stone and have been custom engraved by Arte Veneziana, the third generation Italian engraver and mirror works atelier.

MOJEH MEN spoke with Khalid about local art, blurred cultural lines, and his latest collaboration.

MOJEH MEN: What do your interior products aim to say to your audience?

Khalid Shafar: To bring heritage closer to the new generation and to a wider audience, it has to be interpreted to fit in the current times and most importantly resonate with the current and future generations. As lifestyles change and people evolve, they tend to overlook their heritage. By underscoring contemporary design with influences from our heritage, we can help bridge the divide and connect people to their roots.  

Beyond its main function, the Agaal has an emotional attachment to men from this region, dating back to our ancestors. It’s key to our traditional and national attire and part of our identity. The FORMA collection represents the merging of the artistic heritage of two different cultures. And, if you look closely, you will notice that there are layers of parallels between my inspiration from Emirati heritage and centuries-old Venetian traditions of craftsmanship, that have been brought to life by the master craftsman at Arte Veneziana.

MM: How did you get ideas for each interior product design?

KS: This happened back in 2011 when I was asked during a design conference to design a piece/project that highlighted the concept of a “link” and how I as a designer would interpret this within my work. Emirati culture and traditions have always played a big role in shaping my design aesthetic and the Agaals were a perfect representation of a that “link,” because, in essence, the Agaal is a circular shape that is created by two ends of a straight line being linked together. I used the Agaal as a pure building material and linked many Agaals together to create my first product – a space divider, that I presented as my project for the conference.

As a designer, I am keen to pay tribute to the Emirati influences that have shaped my design sensibilities and my latest collection FORMA is anchored in the tradition of wearing Agaals, since I have always been interested in exploring the Agaal in a different context than its fashion-centric one. Instead, I wanted to use it as a basic material to create shapes and forms.

Therefore, I continued to use it for independent projects, until my collaboration with Arte Veneziana came along and allowed me to take this encounter with Agaals to a more professional level and produce a commercial collection that I am proud to release in the market as FORMA.

MM: Where did the idea for FORMA come from?

KS: FORMA is both inspired by, and pays tribute to Emirati culture. It is anchored in the tradition of wearing Agaals, the woven rope bands used to secure head covers worn by Emirati men. By deconstructing the Agaals to where they are stripped of their original fashionable function and serve purely as a building material for the collection, FORMA is further underscored by custom engravings and mirror works, by Arte Veneziana, the leading Italian engraver and mirror works atelier of over 40 years. Thus, this collection presents an opportunity to explore the interplay between ancient Emirati customs and Italian décor, while engaging in a cultural dialogue that pays tribute to local traditions, decorative art and national identities.

MM: How did the partnership with Arte Veneziana come to life?

KS: Arte Veneziana is the leading Italian engraver and mirror works atelier of over 40 years and boasts the best master craftsman when it comes to Mirrored glass – they are still using handmade techniques, which have been used by Italian artisans for decades. Moreover, they use exclusive decorative elements like glass and mirrored surfaces and merge them with natural materials like fabrics, metal, wood and precious stone. They represent an expression of a contemporary style that is rooted in classic craftsmanship and thus, was the perfect partner to collaborate with.

MM: You juxtapose the traditional Emirati Agaal with contemporary design, creating pieces of products that can be admired by anyone regardless of culture and/or background. Do you think such work can blur the lines that divide different cultures and heritages?  

KS: I am a strong believer in the story of the object and the FORMA collection has a very powerful story to tell and to keep alive. The collection is a homage to Emirati culture, contrasted with Venetian craftsmanship, that is not only visually stunning but also offers a bold social statement on respect for different cultures and the fusion of creative techniques, leading to innovative forms of artistic expression. By collaborating with Arte Veneziana, we are offering a social statement on respect for different cultures and the fusion of creative techniques, leading to innovative forms of artistic expression; for example, if you look closely you will see that the circular patterns created by the placement of the Agaals is reminiscent of traditional Rondels, the coloured round discs of glass that are held together by grooved panels of lead, which are typical of traditional Venetian architecture and still prevalent across the windows of buildings across Italy, to this day.

Khalid’s approach to design encompasses his personal expression of form, movement, emotion, and in particular, ‘the tale’ of objects. Among his notable international collaborations is with LASVIT, Tai Ping, Campana Brothers, Moissonnier, COS, Kartell, and the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) on special projects and limited edition releases.

He also recently collaborated with Le Mobilier National et Les Manufactures Nationales des Gobelins, de Beauvais et de la Savonnerie on a site-specific Art installation for Louver Abu Dhabi Museum.

Khalid was also appointed as the curator for all chapters of “UAE Design Stories”, a major design exhibition commissioned by Dubai Design District and supported by the UAE Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development that took place in Milan, London, Paris and Dubai – most recently at Milan Design Week and the London Design Festival (April & Sep 2018).

Next up
Art & Design

A Family Affair Like No Other: An Interview with Wajih Nakkash

7 min read