The Gamcha Project

Sadly, most of the time when Dubai comes up in international news it is in association with displays of glittering luxury, which are only one narrow facet of the city’s identity. Every so often some journalist makes reference to the laborers or workers, but it’s rare that these men’s faces and stories are actually told to the outside world; they are typically spoken for and about, not to. Here in Dubai we’re indebted to the fellows who have left their families in search of a dream to come to build our city while scraping together sufficient money to send kids to school, help sisters with dowries, and construct homes for aging parents back in their home countries. In that sense, many of the city’s workers are our everyday super heroes.

Elise Vazelakis, an American expat artist, was particularly inspired by laborer’s traditional scarves (called gamchas) in their surprisingly bright colors and varied textures. She collected gamchas from workers and wove them into a series of unusual textiles that recognize the stories and individuality of the laborers and are firmly grounded in Dubai’s culture.

With a personality vivacious enough to light up the Burj Khalifa on a foggy morning, Elise was easy to interview. Here’s a peek into our conversation about The GamchaProject:

Danna Lorch (DL): How did The Gamcha Project come about?

Elise Vazelakis (EV): I began the project about a year and half ago while living in the Dubai Marina.  There was so much construction around my area with the new Marina tram underway.  I became obsessed with the workers’ colorful scarves (called a gamcha) that they used to protect themselves from the elements.  I loved seeing how each laborer utilized his gamcha differently; wrapped around his face, under his hard hat and around his neck. These beautiful fabrics stood out against the bland backdrop of the construction sites.

The Gamcha Project, Mixed Media, Gamcha, Photography, and other materials woven on a hand loom, 2013-2014

The Gamcha Project, Mixed Media, Gamcha, Photography, and other materials woven on a hand loom, 2013-2014

DL: How did you begin conversations with Dubai’s workers that led to your project?

EV: I searched high and low for the cotton gamchas, scouring stores and souks in every corner of Dubai. Unable to source them I decided to make care packages, filled with snacks and ten dirhams apiece. I waited in front of my apartment tower where the evening bus came to pick up the labour force after their workday. As they got on the bus I tried my best to trade their gamcha for my care package. I was ignored as they piled onto the bus, anxious to get home.

That was when a young Indian man who was watching me asked what I wanted from them. I explained to him that I was an artist and wanted their scarves. He promptly corrected me by letting me know my first mistake was that they are called “Gamchas” not scarves and then told me that they didn’t want to give me their gamchas. I explained to him that I wanted to trade them and told him what was in my care package. His eyes lit up! He said he would help me if he also got a care package. A deal was struck and he entered the bus and explained the situation.  Before I knew it gamchas were flying out of the bus windows. I ran out of care packages that day but promised to come back the next day with more. That was the start of my project and a relationship that I built with the workers.

Also, at this time I had finally found a source of the gamchas; at the Labour camp stores. The new gamchas were stiff and without history. I did not want to work with them but I found that taking the gamchas from the men left them without an essential part of their uniform. So instead of snacks, I began to purchase the new gamchas and staple 10 dirhams to them.

Photography by Elise Vazelakis

Photography by Elise Vazelakis

The Gamcha Project, Mixed Media, Gamcha, Photography, and other materials woven on a hand loom, 2013-2014

The Gamcha Project, Mixed Media, Gamcha, Photography, and other materials woven on a hand loom, 2013-2014

DL: Once you collected the gamchas what process did you go through to transform them into art?

EV: The gamchas stayed in my studio for weeks with out a project in mind. At this time, my practiced was focused around oil painting. Not knowing what to do with the gamchas, I began to experiment with sewing them together, painting on them and knitting with them.  None of these techniques resulted in the results I was looking for.

So much a part of my art is experimentation, trial and error.  It is the not knowing that keeps the work interesting and fresh. Then the idea came to me to weave them together.  I made a handloom, tore the gamchas into thin strips and began weaving.

I continued to collect more gamchas and by this time I was well known around the neighborhood. I was always greeted with welcoming smiles and happy gamcha exchanges. I began photographing the men prior to my gamcha exchange. I loved their eager faces so full of hope and excitement. I began to integrate their images into the weaving along with found objects on the construction sites that I would collect, like barrier tape and nails.

Photography by Elise Vazelakis

Photography by Elise Vazelakis

DL: Have you ever had the chance to show any of the workers pieces from the project? If so, how did they respond? If not, why do you suppose this wasn’t possible?

EV: I did go out with with a thank you note written in 6 different languages with the laborer’s portraits on them. I have tried to explain the project, but there is a language barrier. Since I only speak English and they are multi-lingual in Arabic, and/or Hindi, Tamil, Urdu or Bangladeshi communication was limited to a smile and non-verbal communication.

The Gamcha Project, Mixed Media, Gamcha, Photography, and other materials woven on a hand loom, 2013-2014

The Gamcha Project, Mixed Media, Gamcha, Photography, and other materials woven on a hand loom, 2013-2014

Good Ideas: To learn more about The Gamcha Project or to view some of the weavings visit Showcase Gallery on Alserkal Avenue in Dubai here.

Image Credits: Courtesy of the artist and Showcase Gallery