Interview: Farah Al Fardh – UAE’s Paper Magician

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uae paper quilling artist
A smile is all that's needed to get started. Photo - Farah Al Fardh

Farah Al Fardh is an Emirati lady gifted with multiple talents. She takes great interest in acting, dancing and writing but her knack of paper wizardry clearly stands out. She developed an interest in paper-based arts and crafts at an early age. The young Emirati female graduated from Zayed University’s College of Communication & Media Sciences in 2002, and soon delved deep into paper quilling. Her unwavering passion and dedication for this art has attracted the attention of art lovers, first on a national level and then on an international level. Arabian Gazette’s Moign Khawaja chatted with Farah Al Fardh to explore her passion for paper quilling, ins and outs of this art and future plans to promote it in the country, region and around the world.

Moign: Please tell us a bit about your background. 

Farah: I was born in Umm Al Quwain. I am the fourth among seven girls and a boy. I used to be a very shy girl till I joined the university in 1998 which proved to be the turning point for me as I became a talkative girl. My mom did not like it though.

Why is that?

Because they were used to Farah who was so ‘cute and shy’!

When was the first time you came in contact with paper?

My first proper contact with paper was, I think, when I was six-years-old. I remember drawing on the walls and in my textbooks. Many teachers complained about my ‘artwork’ but I kept doing it. My contact with paper quilling was by accident when I fell down from stairs.

Goodness! How did that happen?

Well, I like dancing so I used to float in the air, everywhere. So I was on this staircase in our house, singing and dancing and while coming down I missed the last step. As a result, I twisted my ankle and spent one month at home in my bed. That was the first ever accident of my life.

And then paper quilling happened?

A year before this accident, I bought a book from the Internet called ‘Paper Twirling’ which remained on the shelf during all that time. While spending time in the bed, I pulled this book and started creating the shapes in it and distributing around. Then came 2007 and I was introduced to an Arabic forum on the Internet for females. There I came to know that artists can sell whatever they’re creating. So I said, “OK, I’ll also put my things over there.”

I came up with an idea for Eid Al Adha (Muslim feast festival). I created little coloured sheep that can be presented to kids with money in it (Eidiya) and lots of people loved the idea. They started asking what is it that you’re creating? What is the nature of it? Where did it (the idea) come from?

So I started putting lessons on that website and within three months lots of media people were interested in interviewing me. Many people were also interested in having workshops as well.

In 2008, I began to think about having a website of my own on paper quilling. After working on it for almost a year, I launched the first bi-lingual (English and Arabic) website on paper quilling in January 2009. I won an award for it in May 2009.

How did it feel like when you became the first Emirati and Arab to be awarded with the ‘Certificate of Accreditation from The Quilling Guild in the UK’? What was the response from your family, community and the country as a whole?

It was something  unexpected for me though I was planning for it when I joined the UK Quilling Guild in 2009. I was the first Arab to join the UK Guild. I became the regional representative of the Guild and invited many other people to become part of it. After completing two years with the Guild, I applied for the accreditation which was duly accepted. It was an exciting moment for me because I set a new record for my country as well as for the Arab world.

Back since I joined the Sheikh Zayed University, the faculty planted in the students that they must become achievers. So achieving something is like food to me which I’d like to have on a daily-basis.

The most important aspect of this achievement is its association with my country. The accreditation serves as a ‘Medal of Honour’ as I made a record, and it is for my country.

cheese party
Mice having a cheese party. Imaginations are endless with paper quilling. Photo - Farah Al Fardh

What is the art of paper quilling about? Is it an art in its own right or a genre of paper arts?

Paper quilling is an art on its own but lots of people get it confused with Origami, which is the art of folding a square page into different shapes and designs. There is something called ‘Kirigami’ which is the art of cutting paper. What I do is quilling which is the art of rolling paper strips. It is called so because people started quilling by rolling paper around a quill. Some say it was the Italian and French nuns who started paper quilling but no one knows the exact date and time when it all began. Legend has it that this art started in China because that’s where paper was invented. However, we do have an idea that it began between 13th and 15th century because artwork from that age still exists today.

So it is a very ancient art.

It is a very ancient and delicate art indeed which can be fully preserved. There are many paper quilling artworks in British and American museums that date back to 18th century.

What personal satisfaction do you get from this art? What are the psychological or physical benefits of learning it?

The first time I began paper quilling was when my feet were injured and I was angry at myself. I’m a very quiet person and not used to people serving me. I do everything by myself. So when I spent like a month or more at home, asking everyone to do things for me was not comfortable at all and my temper started to get the better of me.

After getting started with quilling, I noticed that I got relaxed and stopping thinking about anything else other than paper in my hands. It was simply amazing!

When I started to teach this art to kids, some parents came to me and said, “Our kids used to be so ‘annoying’ but now they are so quiet and focused while quilling. That’s unbelievable!” Mind you, I don’t think kids are annoying. They’re just active!

My little nephew used to be a notorious troublemaker. Everyone was afraid of handling him so I tried it on him as well. One Friday, his mother has to go somewhere and she was very worried who will take care of him. I stepped in and assured her that everything will be fine. She was surprised that she did not receive a single phone call during the day about kid. As soon as she arrived in the evening, she asked, “Did something happen?” I told her that I gave her son two pieces of shredded paper and asked him to roll it. So he kept rolling from morning till evening without a word! He also made a few things and proudly showed his mother.

So there you go! It is a very relaxing art indeed. I advise people who are stressed in the offices to start paper quilling and seek relief. Half of my colleagues in the office have learnt paper quilling by now!

Paper quilling is really beneficial for kids as it teaches them discipline, strengthens their mental focus and is an activity that utilises their free time very well. They can see their imagination at work; can create something out of nothing; and get new ideas every time they have a go at it. All in all, it is like when you plant a seed, you water it and then start seeing the plant grow. It grows up into a powerful tree with fruits on it. And these fruits give you more seeds!

emirati quilling
An Emirati mother with her son. Photo - Farah Al Fardh

How has the response in the UAE been so far? How are people, especially young people, taking this art?

It was extremely difficult to get started in the UAE because I believe that art is still an infant in the Arab world, especially in this country. Anything other than painting, music, acting or singing is not considered an art. If people have not heard about it, they don’t think it as an art.

For the same reasons, I was eliminated from one competition because the organisers had no understanding of what I was doing. I was the odd one out with my art!

So now that you’ve appeared in the media and spearheading the art movement, have perceptions changed?

You seldom find local women appearing on TV, presenting their artwork, and having their photographs published in newspapers but I’ve done that. What people have started to realise and admire is that I’m an Emirati and I did not let any boundaries limit me. I went everywhere in connection with my art and they can see that I’m really passionate about it.

Lots of people from around the world tell me that they started practising the art just because of me. I went to Muscat, Oman, in July last year for a workshop arranged by the Omani Women’s Association and one of the girls said, “I saw your interview in 2008 and since then I’m quilling. Now I’ve become so well-versed that I appear on Omani television.”

I’m so happy that I’ve been able to start this movement. The response has been very good so far. I won’t say it is very high but given our culture and the introvert nature of our people, I’d say it has been excellent.

paper quilling men
Farah with a young participant at an exhibition. Photo - Farah Al Fardh

Can men also learn paper quilling?

Now this is a very sensitive question and I’m sure many women would not agree to what I say on this! I believe that God created men and women in a certain way. Women can manage hundreds of things at the same time whereas men cannot do that. It is not part of their creation. When they (men) do something, they do it perfectly.

You believe that men are good at perfection?

Yes, they are perfect when they do one thing at a time. However, creativity is something for women. We are creative, our work is beautiful, and you’ll admire its beauty. However, it is not made with accurate measurements.

You mean men work with pin-point precision?

I’ve seen many male artists, they’re not many in this art though, and their creations are just perfect. I’ve taught many boys at the workshops. I compare to girls sitting next to them. Tell to do something and they’ll do it exactly as directed. On the other hand, I teach girls something and they come up with something quite different and unique. They’re undoubtedly more creative than boys and quick-learners as well.

I’ll ask you a simple question: “Who are the best chefs around the world?”. “Who are the best designers?” So, it is the same with this art. I believe it is really possible for men to learn and master this art.

Then why is it that mostly women take up this art form?

Women mostly take up any form of art because they’re more creative. Having said that, I believe it is a stereotype that most arts are related to women. Nowadays, you’ll see many guys drawing and sketching. Before it was like, “Oh my God! He’s drawing! There must be something wrong with him!”

Today, you’ll even see many Emirati men who are painters, sculptors, interior designers, etc. Still, we don’t have male Emirati artists who have done paper quilling. So that’s why it is still considered as an art for women.

I’m hopeful that men will also embrace paper quilling. Many Emirati men come to my workshops to learn but they feel shy to present their work unless they are part of a big group. Until it does not become part of our culture and considered something normal, I don’t think they’ll come out and say proudly, “This is our work!”

paper quilling
Different real life and imaginary characters made out of paper quilling. Photo - Farah Al Fardh

What are the requirements for learning this art? How can one get started?

The first thing is learning the basics. Then comes your imagination. I won’t say that you need certain skills to get started with paper quilling because it is a very easy art. Anyone can do it. However, I cannot put imaginations in someone’s head. They can copy and create any design that they see but it won’t be considered as an art. It would remain as an imitation. It all starts when someone comes up with his/her own imaginations, creations, designs, innovations – something no one else came up with before. That’s when it becomes a piece of art.

As for the requirements, you need few simple A4 papers. Put them in a shredding machine and they’ll turn into strips. If you’ve got a useless magazine at home, just shred it to bits. There’s a tool to roll with but most artists around the world do it with their hands. Some of them use a tooth pick – depends on what you’re comfortable with. The other thing you need is white glue. That’s it!

That’s pretty basic isn’t it?

Whereas the creations are simply ‘wow’! People who see my work say, “Oh! We cannot do this. This is very difficult.” I tell them, “Don’t compare your work with my work because I’ve been quilling since 2004! You’ll get better too if you keep trying!”

My recent exhibition was in connection with the UAE’s 40th National Day, where I taught around 30 girls, and 17 out of them exhibited their work. If you have a look at their work, there is no way you can say that they were beginners. Alright, you can say that it varies from one girl to another but I did not expect beginners to be displaying such level of work. And guess what? Two of them were boys, one 10-year-old and the other, 11.

dancing fairy ballerina
Masterpiece of Farah's collection - 'Dancing Fairy'. Photo - Farah Al Fardh

Tell us a bit about your collection. What master pieces have you created so far? Which one is the most dearest to you?

I’ve made a lot of things since 2004 and whatever I made at that time I used to distribute around. I don’t even have a picture of them. It was in 2007 when I started to take pictures of my work and post them on the Internet. At the end of 2007, I created a 3D shape of an egg with flowers inside and named it the ‘Egg Garden’. I was still a beginner at that time and this was something that only the masters of art would do.

How did you create it?

I was sick at home, suffering from flu, and couldn’t sleep at all. So I came up with an idea. I took out this mould of a plastic egg, something like a Kinder egg, and started fixing shapes on the surface. Usually, artists will fix inside the mould but I started from the outside. At that time I had no idea that 3D exists in this art. Just started with an imagination but no clear idea till I got an egg-shaped design.

However, I did not complete it. I left it open from the front. Then I started making tiny roses and I fixed them inside the mould. I teased my friends on the Internet by posting photographs of the design but not showing them the complete picture. I kept them guessing about the artwork for 10 days until I finally finished it. I consider it to be one of my masterpieces.

On my website, you’ll see that there is a whole dream world waiting to be explored. I like fairies, ballerinas, fantasies, in fact everything that gives me the ‘happy go lucky feeling’!

I watch lots of cartoons and also transform them into paper quilling. One of them is a black and white chick called ‘Kalimero’. I went to Japan in 2009 on the invitation of Japan Paper Quilling Guild and showed it to my friend Motoko. She came to me and said, “This looks like a cartoon character that we have called ‘K..’,” and I interrupted her there. The moment I said, “Kalimero”, 15 photographers stood there started taking my pictures. Funny enough, I did not know that it was a Japanese character!

I also made a ‘Dancing Fairy’ which stands to be my biggest quilling piece so far. I made it in 2010 and displayed at the Annual Exhibition of the UK Quilling Guild held in Sheffield. It is the outline of a ballerina but her hair and dress are all quilled. I also took it to an exhibition in the USA and people loved it there as well.

Recently, I exhibited it at La Francphonie at Sheikh Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. Everyone who saw it wanted to buy it. Maybe I’ll sell it after a few years but not now because I want people to admire art. I don’t want it to become part of a private collection.

I also made an Indian accessory at the end of 2010 while I was participating in one of the exhibitions held in the Festival City, Dubai. I made it because I’ve an Indian background as well and I love Indian accessories like choker which is a tight ornament worn on the neck. I’ve also quilled several tikas.

In one of your previous interviews, you mentioned about starting your own Guild here in the UAE. Are the plans coming together?

It is really difficult to start something here in the UAE due to rules and regulations of initiating groups. That’s why, I decided to have my group on the Internet first till I have enough number of UAE nationals to start a Guild which is a bit challenging. As of now, I’ve got a Facebook group of more than 2,200 members which is the largest on the Internet in terms of members and posts.

So you are one of the pioneers of paper quilling on the Internet!

Thanks. There are other groups as well but not as big as the one I have started.

Many artists must be envious of your efforts?

I really don’t care if someone is envy of me and my efforts. In fact, I consider that as part of my success. If they envy me that means I’m doing very well! This is something that I love and I hope more and more people envy me!

indian jewellery
An Indian necklace made of quilled paper. Photo - Farah Al Fardh

When are you going to hold the first quilling exhibition in the Middle East? What are your ambitions regarding that?

I’m planning to do that soon but I might not do it alone. I’d like to have Huda, one of my younger sisters, whom I taught paper quilling in 2009. On her birthday, I gave her a 30-minutes lesson and showed her how to use the tools. A few days later she created a 3D design which took me by surprise. It took me three years to get to that stage and she did it within a few days.

She has participated in a few exhibitions that I held and also accompanied me to other events where I displayed my work. She took part in the exhibition at La Francophonie in Abu Dhabi and really loved the experience. She also noticed that her work is getting better and better. I like to promote other people’s work and she is quite excited about teaming up with me and participate in the Middle East’s first paper quilling exhibition.

I was hoping to hold the exhibition on my birthday, which is on 6th of June, but I need look into a few other things, including my sister’s progress, as well. So hopefully, it would be by the end of June or mid July before the beginning of Ramadhan (the Muslim month of Fasting).

Apart from the artistic aspects, what are the commercial aspects of your art. Do you see doing this on a full-time basis? Can you make money with it?

Of course I can make money out of paper quilling as it has got a niche market. I teach art and get paid for it. I sell my artwork and people also commission me privately to make pieces of art. This is because of the fact that if I create something, it would be really unique to them as they will not find a copy of it in the market. This is one reason why people love this idea. Sometimes people approach and ask me to create a greeting card, images of their loved ones or some object for their children. It has also happened that some men asked me to create an artwork they would like to present to their girlfriends. Once a friend of mine asked me to make a piece which she wanted to present to her husband on Eid. These are the kinds of things that make me do more!

On this impressive website of yours, there is a section called ‘Buy My Stuff‘ which is empty at the moment. Are you going to create some artwork that would be on sale?

I’m planning to populate that section as I’ve managed to gather some data after participating in lots of exhibitions. People like to buy certain things that are impressive and unique. Moreover, they like to buy items instead of creating it themselves. That’s why I’m planning to have mass production of items. Mind you, when I say ‘mass’ it is like 10 pieces and not more than that! I’d also like to create more 3D artworks and sell them through my website.

farah uae paper quilling
Farah expresses her love for the country and people through her art. Photo - Farah Al Fardh

What is the future of paper quilling in the UAE? Do you intend to open an institute of paper arts or something on those lines?

I’ve got lots of ideas for paper quilling but I lack the resources to implement them. It can be done by having a partnership with someone but that’s very tricky at the same time. I might seek help from one of the organisations that fund projects. I’ve a unique idea for an institute which is not like any typical institute. It want it to be like a leisure centre where people can relax. I’ve got a huge collection of quilling books as I bought every single book that is available in the market. I’d like to put this collection in the leisure centre. I’ve also got hold of many of the magazines printed by quilling guilds around the world. I’d like to go to Russia and Spain to get more books on paper quilling. I would like to establish a library with the collection I have got so that other artists and learners can refer to it. It would be very nice if I can have a coffee shop and play area for kids. In all, I’d like to have a place where people can come to relax, have a good time, and learn something useful.

Sounds like a comprehensive plan which clearly shows that you’ve got a future vision for paper quilling!

Till now, people here do not consider this as an art although it is seen as an art form around the world. When I started quilling, I kept telling people that I’ve made a history for the UAE and the Arab world in this art. I gave paper quilling an Emirati influence by introducing many local shapes and figures.

We had an exhibition in December last year to mark the 40th anniversary of the UAE’s independence. I made some items that represent our culture e.g. the traditional chest and displayed it there. I want to inspire other Emiratis to come forward, make their creations and show it to the world. I’d love to see someone else making items before I make it because I’ll feel that I’ve done something.

paper quilling art future in the uae
Progress through imagination and cooperation. Photo - Farah Al Fardh

What is your message to people who are interested in learning this art, including young persons, in the Middle East in general and the UAE in particular?

First of all, never ever underestimate your abilities. If you want to do something, you can do it. Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “Impossible is a word created by fools.” There is no such thing as ‘impossible’. You put limitations for yourself. Like I say, “Paper is never the same again!”, which is the motto of my work as well. Just try it! You’ll not lose anything!

Your word of advice for someone who is willing to do it on a professional level?

First of all, I’ll advise everyone to try paper quilling. If they’re really into it, then they should join an international group, get in touch with artists and show them their work. I’m in touch with artists from all over the world and what I like the most is the experiences I get from attending international gatherings. Every time I go to these places, I meet new people, I get to know their ideas which are not like mine. The way they create things is very different from how I do but this is the beauty of it. I’m learning something new every single time.

It is also part of our culture and religion that we should learn further and never stop. This is why I’ve decided to dedicate my life for this art!

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  1. Ms Farah,
    I saw your excellent talented work on your website.I should really appreciate your talent.Mashallah. Actully myself Ummehani from a company Al Qamar Frames Est. We are in dubai more than 45 years.We basically do picture framing and printing on canvas and on fineart paper.I woul like to have an appointement with you regarding this work.
    Thank you
    Al Qamar Frames Est

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