We first became aware of Aseel Al Yaqoub some years ago now. Our meeting involved a curious incident with a teddy bear. You may remember her as the brains behind 2010’s Year of Teddy. Of course, there’s far more to Aseel than this. Her work has been exhibited at Edge of Arabia (London), Boiler Room (New York), A1 Gallery (Dubai), Design Terminal (Budapest), Museum of Modern Art (Kuwait), Contemporary Art Gallery (Kuwait) and The Sultan Gallery (Kuwait).

We’re keen to learn her thoughts of Kuwait as a design city, and understand how she rebuilt connections with the city after her return from Europe and the United States.

Kuwait is only part of your story – yet it is (at least for now) your home. Living and studying abroad is certainly good for opening horizons – but how do you feel now you’re home? Outsider? Insider?

As the beautiful singer Sade once said: “I think you only really feel like an outsider if you’ve been an insider”. I find it less precarious to be both rather than one or the other. I enjoy this dichotomy; I am both insider and outsider.

Do you feel it’s given you the advantage of seeing the country from a unique viewpoint? Does this enhance your work in Kuwait?

The insider me is somewhat socially integrated, yet I am free of its repercussions because I also stand on the edge. In my artistic practice I have one foot in the past and another in the present. Over the years I have come to the realization that I am immensely fascinated with Kuwait as a nation-state and with its social structure.

It is such an interesting case study and contains a bundle of topics that can be easily universalized. It became clear to me during my MFA that my thesis and exhibition had to be about Kuwait. By positioning myself on the buffer zone, I can be a part of the issues that take place and at the same time present them from an outsider’s perspective; unbiased. I enjoy being in the middle of the road and the one I choose is here.

It may be possible for everyone to ‘learn’ the rights and wrongs of design, but we feel designers succeed or fail in the way they put their inspiration to good use. Where do you look for inspiration?

In history books, postcards, heritage sites (the very young, fake ones) and national institutions. Sometimes I’ll read intense books on post-colonialism and establishments. I read them like a boat looking for the beacon from a lighthouse in the night. Maybe it’s a quote or a piece of information that makes me gasp. That line or paragraph then coaxes me to look at the postcard differently and place it over the current situation or environment. That’s when the questions start emerging as a teleprompter: Why? How? Who? When?

We’d like to see a strong Kuwait design ethos evolve. Do you feel Kuwait’s value of good design is improving? Is good design appreciated?

In order for Kuwait to have a strong design ethos we need to challenge what exists and manufacture new ideas that are sustainable. It is a process. Kuwait has nomadic tendencies, which is the main obstacle. Sometimes demolishing what exists isn’t the solution. The best solution for design is to merge it with another, or to introduce an element not yet entertained.

One of the lessons I learnt in art school is that art has no function. It wasn’t until I heavily studied Conceptualism that I began to realize that an idea could carry a form more so than traditional aesthetics or material concerns. The same goes for design; it’s not what you build it with but rather its purpose and the way it serves it. This can all be possible if we have a solid critical platform. Criticism that uses positive language to elicit a solution is vital, however people tend to take it a bit too personally here. If we want to engage or appreciate design, if we want discourse, then we need criticism. Until then, there won’t be space for improvement or development.

As Kuwaiti do you feel an obligation to reflect your heritage in your work? There has long been a rush to mimic western styles – we feel sentiment is changing and there’s a movement to reflecting Arab heritage. What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of this?

Firstly, we need to define what Kuwaiti heritage is. Are they national sites? Are they traditions passed down? Is it pre-oil era? I’ve been investigating the past and how it emerges into the present. Kuwait as a nation-state has a young history, which confuses our understanding of heritage. Can we claim anything prior to the nation’s formation as Kuwaiti? This is why I use nostalgia as a critical tool in my work rather than a longing for the past.

Heritage is formed from a series of events or processes that is significant within the memory of a group. It becomes problematic when these memories are romanticized. It becomes blurry and subjective. I’ve been exploring the invention and reinvention of heritage and tradition in Kuwait and I label our heritage as such because it goes hand in hand with the state’s patriotic discourse. There’s been multiple attempts to solidify visual representations of our heritage i.e. renovations of the old city walls (Al Soor). We’re grasping for what’s left in the wake of moder nization.

With that being said, Arab heritage is even more arbitrary. What is considered heritage in Egypt is not the same in Lebanon, and very different from Jordan. The indigenous architecture in Yemen is different than Bahrain. There was once the Utopian notion of Pan-Arabism, but the only thing we share today that’s ‘Arab’ is language. This might be the main reason why there’s a tendency to veer towards Western styles or towards Islamic ones.

Naturally talented and endlessly curious, it’s good to see the return to Kuwait of someone with Aseel’s undoubted insight. For sure, the nation’s design future is secure in the hands of her and other equally enlightened peers.