An architect teaching at Kuwait University, he lives and breathes design in its many forms. As an artist he’s had solo shows at the country’s major galleries, and he’s participated with group shows too. He’s involved himself in the world of theatre alongside Kuwait’s leading contemporary playwright, and been invited to curate exhibitions for the same designers and artists he once aspired to call his peers. In 2014 he played a key role at the Venice Biennale through his participation at the Kuwait Pavilion, and this year as a guest artist at an international pavilion. Also representing Kuwait and himself at Design Days Dubai, he is currently working with Samovar Carpets, the country’s leading carpet salon, in creating salon in creating modern expressions of traditional rugs. He’s one of Kuwait’s hottest tickets in the world of design.
We were first keen to learn his view on design and its role in Kuwait today, and then fascinated to learn of who he feels are his inspiration in the region. Who are those leading us towards an aesthetic and livable future?
Of all his many skills, eloquence is the most apparent. He speaks with passion of his nation, of its people and of design.
You’re many things to many people. To some you’re an artist, to others a teacher. To more still a designer and curator. How do you see yourself? “I’m a designer. It’s a name that encompasses everything I do.” Abdulla has always had a passion for design, though not only for architecture. As is the way with many of life’s roads, this was something he effectively stumbled in to. “My parents are physicians. It was expected that I would go to medical school too. I didn’t want to become a physician – I wanted to become an artist.”
Ironically, even after so many years have passed and so much success has been gained, he doesn’t see himself as an artist. “I still don’t think I have earned this title. And it’s not something I can call myself – it’s for other people to decide when I have earned it. I see myself as a designer, and I see myself as a good designer in some areas. To be an artist is something I continue to strive for”.
As a designer are you designing for a reason? Are you designing because when you look around the work of others isn’t good enough, or are you designing to enrich the lives of others?
“I’m designing to open a conversation. After teaching for all these years, it has become clear to me that we are not brought up to voice an opinion – and I see this in every culture. We don’t raise our children to have share opinions in proper conversations. We rarely get beyond “this is ugly” and “this is nice”. Where’s the engagement? All of my work is created with the expectation that, once “this is ugly” / “this is nice” has been expressed, that people will start to talk about the topic itself. Most of my artwork, whether it was the print work, the kaftans or the jewelry it goes beyond this simple, lazy expression of thought. My work deliberately doesn’t give a definite answer – it always makes you start to question what it’s about, what is going on. I believe that the more we start to understand each other, the more we will accept each other. Most of the problems we see around us are created by not understanding – the moment I understand is the moment I accept. I may not agree, but I can accept. This is the root of civilization. This is something I’m desperate to impart upon my students.
When you look at your students, how confident are you in their ability to carry for the design mantle of Kuwait into the mid-century?
They are the light at the end of the tunnel. The future is in their hands. It’s not so many years ago that architecture was an unknown concept in Kuwait. Until the first Masterplan, the city was growing organically. This generation of young architects have every laid before them now when it comes to opportunities to change. They are a golden generation. In the past, decisions were made out of ignorance. Today my students, and indeed current architects who are prepared to see, are able to make decisions out of knowledge.
What do you hope to see these students do with Kuwait? What’s your Utopian view of the future?
Let’s not forget that Kuwait built on the avant-garde. It was built by families from across the region who, hundreds of years ago, settled here. They broke free from their own rules and regulations, and came here to establish new rules and regulations. They flourished. We’ve had visionary leaders of Kuwait. We are a nation built on commerce and education. These are our founding principles, and it is these principles that will serve us well over the years to come. We’re the avant-garde, we’re adventurers – it is in our DNA.
I’d suggest to you that, today, we’ve lost that spirit of adventure.
I know what you’re seeing. We became scared. Scared of the unknown. Too hesitant. And fear is one’s biggest enemy. The region began to develop in unexpected directions and we were caught unaware. We slipped behind, and the further we slipped the more difficult it got to catch up. But things are changing again now. The balance is shifting.
Where do you see the current state of regional design stands? When you look around at what’s being created in the region, where do we fit in the global scale? Are we leaders or followers? Do we have a style?
I think we’re neither followers nor leaders. We always put our twist on everything we do. In the design world we’re still re-learning to walk, we’re still growing up and exploring. We’re not afraid to make something ours – we’re prepared to go through the hard work and effort in creating something that we can call our own.
In past generations our progress was stopped. Only now, with this new generation, is new growth beginning to blossom. But I’m sure we’re coming back stronger than ever before. Look at where we are in the Venice Biennale, look at where we are in the international world of design. Look at Nuqat and other national initiatives. Look at how far we’ve come in a very short period of time. And we’re doing this ourselves, in our country. We have not taken the same route as some of the cities in the region and simply imported a new culture and new skills. We’re doing it here with what we have around us. It’s slower, but in the end has deeper meaning. This is happening not only in design but also in theatre, in art.
We still have that streak of adventure within us, we still have that yearning for trying something new. I will say it again… it is in our DNA.