Artist and sculptor James Wagstaff’s exhibition titled Essence of Arabia at Bait Muzna Gallery, Muscat, pivots around one of the most ubiquitous and humble objects used in Omani homes – the haseer. For those unfamiliar with the language, haseer is Arabic term for the traditional hand-woven mat made from dry date palm leaves and reeds. James Wagstaff explores the unique role that a haseer plays in binding culture and values together, irrespective of class or ranking.
Wagstaff, who hails from the UK, arrived in Oman following an extensive journey through the Middle East. In Oman, he found his shore. He began learning more about the culture and traditions, not just of Oman but the region as well.
“I arrived in Oman seven years ago after an adventurous journey through the region. Life is after all a journey. I felt at home in Oman; the beautiful people and landscape of the country prompted me to stay on,” says Wagstaff.
Hailing from a family of artists, Wagstaff is accomplished in pottery, jewellery silversmithing, carpentry, and furniture design. In Essence of Arabia, Wagstaff combines his expertise with a variety of media. In the exhibition he uses, along with the haseer, bronze, aluminimum, ceramics, and Omani wool to create art pieces.
That Wagstaff is proficient in handling different kinds of media is evident in his creations that are displayed all over the gallery. For instance, he uses aluminium from discarded cars in Oman that he salvaged to cast the haseer on to and create an extraordinary piece of art. As with almost every piece of work by Wagstaff, there is a message in this that he wishes to convey.
“Through the pieces that I have created using aluminium from discarded car motors in Oman after using them for 10-15 years, I want to encourage people to adopt recycling. We use and throw away things easily nowadays without thinking much about the issues it leads to for the earth and future generations,” explains Wagstaff.
An extension of Wagstaff’s desire to spread sub-messages of recycling and upcyling are some of his works that are created using Raku ceramics and mixed media. When a haseer pattern is imprinted while creating Raku pottery, the ceramic could crack. This happens due to the high temperature that the ceramic is processed through following which it is exposed to a far cooler temperature, thereby resulting in the cracking. Wagstaff uses the Japanese art of Kintsugi to repair and stick the broken pieces of ceramics using lacquer and gold. What is produced out of this are exceptional and rare pieces of art that bring together the complexity of a variety of media.
For his bronze exhibits, he had to take the Omani mats to China. “I had to find a factory that would cast them in the colours that I wanted. It took some time convincing the craftsmen to use the shades I wanted. This journey took me six weeks,” says Wagstaff.
Wagstaff has been working on creating the exhibits displayed at Essence of Arabia for the past four years. Procuring traditional handmade haseer has not been an easy process for the artist as he realized that this is a craft that is fading from the Omani culture. “I sincerely hope that this precious craft of the Omani people is protected and encouraged. It is not possible to replace the handcrafted mat with a plastic or machine-made product,” says Wagstaff.
Talking about the key element of his exhibition, the haseer, he says, “I think I first sat on a haseer on a mountain, south of Jordan. As soon as I stepped onto the mat I felt a deep connection with the people around me, something that I may not have felt at a coffee shop in some other destination. Things change on a haseer. There is no head of the table. The haseer has an all-encompassing quality to create a sacred and beautiful space. A haseer unites and makes people treat each other as equal. I want people to take these beautiful values back with them to other spaces,” says Wagstaff.