By Eman Shaikh
“Make art, not war,” is a popular saying that best defines the purpose of 81 Designs, a social enterprise that employs Palestinian refugee women and hones their skills by recreating famous artworks. Living in Camp Ain El Helweh, South Lebanon, these women transform pieces by established artists into embroidered arts on canvases in the span of a year. In doing so, 81 Designs empowers these women, allowing them to improve their living conditions while keeping alive the art of Palestinian embroidery, ‘tatreez.’
“I have always wanted to create a vehicle that works with an artist and underprivileged women, bringing both art and humanity together,” says co-founder Nadine Maalouf. As the number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon grew, the co-founder wanted to help their situation in her own manner.
81 Designs serves as a platform for artists from the Middle East and North African region to showcase their art while helping the refugees indulge in their talent and improve the quality of their lives. “What matters to us is that the artist should be able to understand what these women go through and that a lot of time and work are invested into the enterprise,” said Nadine, highlighting the true concept of 81 Designs; the appreciation of craft and struggle.
With the idea in mind, the founders began pouring their efforts into kick-starting the enterprise, but it did not come easy. Propelling an idea like 81 Designs required time and effort, and most importantly, an adequate team. Not only that, but they had to make sure that they employed the most skilled of the women and polished their raw skills. These were not their only obstacles, though; “The most challenging was working our small operations while there was tension inside the camp.”
It took tremendous effort, but after two years of establishing the enterprise, 81 Designs finally made their successful debut and their number of employees went from ten to fourteen.
After garnering positive reviews with their first project, 81 Designs is now collaborating with the internationally acclaimed Hassan Hajjaj, also known as the ‘Andy Warhol of Marrakech.’ His works are a beautiful mesh of tradition, culture, and contemporary elements, rendering the pieces an artistic peculiarity that is difficult to ignore. Not only his art but his heart is also commendable – his behavior toward the refugee women during his recent trip to Lebanon lifted their spirits and encouraged their hope of a better life. 81 Designs’ appreciation for pop culture and its influence on the masses also weighed on their decision to collaborate with Hassan, the man whose talent and generous heart is exactly what 81 Designs aims to present, “For us, he is a perfect partner of choice,” Nadine said.
Hassan picked fourteen of his pieces from his collection ‘Graffix from the Souk,’ which had previously been exhibited in Morocco, France, and the UK. The collection uses new technology to redefine the images that surrounded Hassan during his childhood while serving as a photographic celebration of graphic art from the streets of Morocco. “The way his works are presented are full of emotions,” said Nadine, “because of emotions, 81 Designs came about.”
The final artworks will be displayed at Art Dubai, March 21-24, 2018. Any artists interested in collaborating with 81 Designs can contact them through this email [email protected].