It’s a beautiful thing to see how expats have grown to have a great appreciation for Saudi culture and revel in it. That’s what I experienced upon meeting Florence Hughes of the Saudi Arts and Crafts and other Western ladies from the Ishbilia Compound last week. We were introduced through Leigh-Jane Obermayer, one of the active proponents of the Women’s Skills Bureau (WSB) here in Riyadh and how lucky was I to have had such an eye-opening opportunity to see the work of Florence, and other ladies like her (I will write about them on a succeeding article), who have an innate love for arts and design and are making the most of their stay here in Saudi Arabia.
Florence, the owner and force behind the Saudi Arts and Crafts, hails from Britain and as most women expats, she was led to Riyadh in support of her husband. Whilst here, she was wondrous of what good gifts to being back home that was distinctively Saudi. On her first year, she brought home Bateel dates as the only and obvious choice. However, on her following vacation, she started to realize that there seems to be a lack of real, authentic Saudi-made souvenirs that she can bring back to England that would have a story to tell of what the culture here is like. She thought that perhaps she isn’t the only one who was in search of these similar things, and so, that’s where the idea of scouting and showcasing these kinds of materials came to life.
She started by coordinating with the National Museum of Riyadh, wherein they would have replicas of some of the items in the museum and sell them as souvenirs. From there, she was able to gather some memorable pieces like a replica of the 200-year gold camel and some inscribed calligraphy in golden plates.
From there, she began to fill her shop with other creative works by Saudi and Arab designers. One of them is a pioneer in the Arab children’s book scene, Halla bint Khalid. She is an author and illustrator of children’s books about Saudi culture and it makes for an interesting gift to young children (who are not in Saudi Arabia) for them to have an idea of what Saudi Arabia’s culture is like.
The Shamouaee candles are another example of great gifts to bring back to your home countries. Particularly, their line of Oud scents. For someone who has never been to Saudi Arabia, how would we be able to explain the scent of Oud to them? Oud, being very particularly a cultural, Saudi feature. Florence also features these in her store.
Saudi Arabia is also rich in jewelry and they make great presents. A line of calligraphy-inspired accessories are also featured in Florence’s store where in she was able to find an Iraqi designer who incorporated Rumi poetry in her work (Rumi is a popular Persian poet). There are also bracelets that say “Habibti” (Sweetheart) in Arabic that would be could be a cultural, conversational piece that people can wear.
The same idea runs through the creators of Annada scarves, a Bahrain-based company started by two sisters Nada and Noor Alawi. They have infused their love for art and Arab culture and in turn have come up with very elegant and artistic silk scarves that are now being sold in Saks Fifth Avenue and Harvey Nichols in Riyadh. Florence had also introduced the idea of framing their scarves because of the intricate, not to mention lovely, designs that they embody.
Last but bot least, there’s the best-selling item of the shop: hand-made and hand-painted pottery that Florence herself had designed in collaboration with a local pottery company. They are plates and cups that are inspired by an old Bedouin coffee drinking tradition, one that has long vanished but is being brought back to life through these set of artworks. Five calligraphy letters are imprinted in these pottery designs and each of the letters symbolize a step in the coffee drinking traditions of the old Bedouin tribes. This is a particularly popular purchase for Saudis and non-Saudis alike who appreciate the richness of this culture’s past, etched in today’s modern decor.
There are several other items in Florence’s shop that caught my eye, like the pop art painting depicting icons of Saudi culture – an artwork that was also a collaboration between Florence and a young Saudi artist. A set of sewn-notebooks with Arabic calligraphy as covers and other striking paintings that depict snippets of Saudi art and culture.
In the beginning of our conversation, I asked Florence how long she has been an artist and she told me that she wasn’t, or at least, she wasn’t professionally trained as one. But what she has is a love for art and design, and a deep desire to bring about items that would tell a story in appreciation of Saudi culture. It’s quite commendable to think that she had the initiative to study, research, contact and bring all these talents together in her store. In her own way, not only was she was able to collate and bring these products together to be bought as souvenirs, but she has also given the talented people behind it a chance to exhibit their work for everyone to appreciate.
After meeting her (and with you reading this), perhaps next time you decide on giving someone a Ma’asalama present or taking back some trinkets to you home country, you now have the option to choose creative and meaningful tokens that tell a story and/or something that will serve as a lasting memory of the life we have in Saudi Arabia. After all, once we leave this place, who knows if we’re ever going back here again? We might as well make the most out of it.
Saudi Arts and Crafts
Online Shop: http://saudi-gifts.com
Instagram and Pinterest: @saudiartscrafts
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