The Fabric of Dubai

Transformative art

When we think of Dubai we envision skyscrapers, like the Burj Khalifa—the world's tallest building. We think of its man-made palm-shaped island, and its large shopping malls. We rarely think of the people who built the city. Eighty-five percent of Dubai’s inhabitants are expats who arrive from India, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, but also the Philippines and Africa. These immigrants come to Dubai to create a better living for themselves and their families. Although the gap between the rich and the poor in the UAE may be the largest in the world, there is enough space for all to improve their lives.

When the economic crisis in the U.S. Elise Vazelakis’s family, she, her husband and four children moved from Los Angeles to Dubai.  She tells HAND/EYE of her experiences of living in Dubai of how it changed not only her personal life, but transformed her art work: 

While I was doing my daily shopping, the construction workers and the colorful fabric pieces they wore as headscarves and around their waists always caught my attention. They became an obsession. All I coud see were these colored fabrics. I work a lot with color in my paintings, so maybe that was the reason for the attraction. I started trading care packages and some cash with the laborers, and learned that this fabric was called gamcha. When I got to know the laborers better, I discovered the labor camp shop. There, I bought new gamchas to trade, but also exchanged the new ones with some cash and snacks for their used ones.

I also took pictures of the workers. I didn’t know what to do with the old gamchas so I brought them home and washed them thoroughly. The fabrics were lying in my home for some time. Precious pieces, without a purpose.  I always loved fiber. It feels very much at home to me, although I never did anything like weaving or things with textiles in my work. With the gamchas in mind, I tool weaving classes back in LA. Inspired by the classes I bought a SAORI*, a Japanese weaving loom, which I brought back with me to Dubai and started weaving like a lunatic. I played around with the fabrics, colors and yarns, depending on what mood I was in. I added pictures of the laborers and plastic security tape, ropes and other items found at the construction site in the weavings.

Each piece has at least 60 hours of handwork. It is fun and addictive. Once you start you cannot stop; you lose track of time and space. The weaving, I feel, has brought me back to, not only my personal roots with my grandmother, my initial inroads to creativity, but also to the heart of civilization. Women weaving was the first expression of creativity for civilization.  As a woman, I am in kinship with all the other women around in the world.

The economy was hit hard in the U.S. and here I am now at the age of 53 in Dubai because my husband was offered a job. Dubai has changed me in multiple ways. Now I want to explore weaving; I love finding new objects. Last night I put newspapers in my weavings, maybe something new will come out of that. It is visual candy here in Dubai. I create art from what is around me. There is beauty in everything.

In the end we came here for the same reason, these guys and us. We are all expats. We are all immigrants. People from all over the world. Everybody is here to find a better way of living. This project pays tribute to the hardworking men who helped build Dubai and who, ina way, are the fabric of Dubai. A portion of the sale from these artworks will be donated to the Sameness Project, an NGO that provides free drinking water to the workers when it gets too hot.

For more information about Elise, please visit

*SAORI is a contemporary hand weaving program founded by Misao Jo (1913- , Japan) in 1969. She started weaving when she was 57 years old and created her own loom and style, free from the traditional concept and rules of weaving.  She named her weaving style 'SAORI' in which anyone can express oneself freely regardless of age, gender, disability or intellectual aptitude. In SAORI, people can enjoy hand weaving as an art form not only as a hand craft.’ Source



Please signup or login to comment