Dima Srouji is a Palestinian architect, designer, and educator currently based in Ramallah whose inter-disciplinary and research-based work focuses on uncovering hidden and silenced histories and narratives. Though not currently working with buildings she still thinks of herself as an architect first. “I believe architecture as a discipline is much wider than the scope of the building,” she says. In 2017 she started an ongoing and experimental glass-making project called Hollow Forms that seeks to reinvent a craft born in the region but currently at risk of extinction, and explore the history of displacement of Palestinian objects and artifacts. During the COVID-19 health crisis and various stay-at-home restrictions she says she has learned to “embrace the slowness" given that she has had “a lot more time to think about why I’m doing what I’m doing” and come to understand how personal her work is. “It’s a huge shift in the way I think about and talk about what I do,” she admits. On January 10, Srouji is launching an online shop to ship her sculptural glass pieces around the world.
Interior Design: How did you first get into glass-making?
Dima Srouji: I was working with the Riwaq Center for Architectural Conservation in Ramallah in 2016 when I first decided to move back to Palestine after 15 years of living abroad. We were renovating the historic city of Jaba’, one of the villages northwest of Jerusalem. On one of our site visits I met a local family, the Twams, who live on the edge of the old city. They mentioned that they run a small glass workshop and invited me to take a look. They led me through the front door and up the staircase into the small shed on the roof of their home. The workshop was full of chemistry lab equipment that was hand-blown by them for chemistry professors at Birzeit University in Ramallah. When we first started working together they thought I was crazy but we have learned each others’ language now and have created a beautiful process that works for both of us. As Abu Marwan, one of the Twams, says, ‘the glass also speaks itself’. We have learned to listen to what the glass wants to do.
ID: Can you tell me more about the Twam family and what their particular specialty is? Are they some of the few people still hand-making glass in Palestine?
DS: The Twams are a highly talented glass-blowing family. Every member of the family is involved in the business, from the father to his sons and daughter. They’ve been trained to work on chemistry lab sets for local universities. In the past they also used to produce incredible sculptural pieces that were silver-plated but they can’t do that anymore as they aren’t allowed to import the materials required since they are supposedly also used to make weapons. They are one of two families still hand-blowing glass in Palestine; the other family is the famous Natsheh family based in Hebron. And they’re two of the few families left in the entire region. There was one glassblower in Jordan who recently retired and there are one or two families left in Syria and Egypt.
ID: How did your ongoing Hollow Forms glass project come about?
DS: When I was at the Yale School of Architecture I took a studio with architect Greg Lynn and I was playing a lot with architectural contemporary forms that were inspired by architectural history and tradition, specifically postmodernism and formalism, and influenced by Peter Eisenman who I taught with during my time there. My critique of those movements in hindsight was the ambivalence of that part of the discipline towards any social and political responsibility as architects. Hollow Forms was born out of that love for contemporary form and experimentation and an equal measure of interest in politics, memory and identity.
ID: Is it also about reclaiming a craft that was once central to the Palestinian and regional economy?
DS: I hope it has the ability to reclaim the story and history of the craft. I’d like to continue focusing on the research while I design. It’s crucial for me to work in parallel between the research content itself and the experimentation and design process. For example, learning how plant ash was used to color glass is incredibly inspiring. These are plants that are indigenous to Palestine and were used to dye glass but were considered harmful weeds by the British Mandate due to their pervasive nature and the fact that they would grow between crops. The British were more interested in capitalizing on agriculture in Palestine than respecting local traditions and crafts.
ID: How has your Hollow Forms project evolved?
DS: I see Hollow Forms now in a very different way than I did four years ago when I started it. The title itself is more striking to me now as I understand it on a deeper level. I’ve realized throughout the strange year of 2020 that a lot of my practice is about healing childhood trauma from the Second Intifada in Palestine that took place exactly 20 years ago. I’m learning to be more open about the personal aspect of my practice and I’m no longer afraid to share it. I think Hollow Forms was the beginning of that process for me, trying to find transparency, lightness, and air in a very heavy world. Trying to fill the void that was taken from me when I was forced to leave Palestine as a child. I’m really interested in the idea of the object of trauma and the trauma of objects. There is something about projecting your life experiences onto inanimate forms and making them speak that is incredibly healing. Recently I’ve been working on a series of totally free sculptural pieces that are incredibly fluid and full of life and spirit. I’ve called it the Whole collection.
ID: Can you talk a little bit about the Almost Roman collection you worked on recently and what the central idea was behind it?
DS: It came after the Ghosts series, which was a collection of Roman replicas stored or displayed in western institutions such as the MET, the V&A, and Penn Museum. These vessels have found their way into these museums through anonymous donations, archaeological digs, and so on over the last 100 years. As we begin to question restitution laws and what it means to be Palestinian, what it means to own our own land and the objects embedded with it, I wanted to create a ghostly collection that was a form of restitution of all these displaced vessels. The Almost Roman collection was a continuation of that, but this time the idea was to create these replicas and give them a contemporary and unabashed twist and bright colors. It was about taking agency, taking ownership of the history of glass, and saying they don’t have to be ghosts all the time, they can also speak!
ID: What other projects are you working on at the moment?
DS: I just finished a film titled "Sebastia" commissioned by E-Flux and Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. This film is the latest of a series of projects that looks at the history of the archaeological site of the same name located north of the city of Nablus in Palestine. The projects—"Depth Unknown," "The Rule of Superposition," and "Sebastia"—all look at archaeology as a tool for colonialism and occupation. I was drawn to "Sebastia" as a case study because my grandfather used to take my dad there as a child. It was an incredibly important cultural and tourist center in Palestine. Mahmoud Darwish recited his poetry in the archaeological site in the 90s. I grew up hearing about this place and didn’t get a chance to visit until I moved back here a few years ago. Unfortunately my trip was very different from my father’s memories and my grandfather’s stories. The Palestinian community isn’t allowed to manage the archaeological site because of zoning laws imposed by Israel. Over the course of working on these projects, settlers have burned down 5,000 olive trees and dumped toxic wastewater into the agricultural valleys and tens of Palestinian youth have been arrested for defending their own lives and land. It’s a nightmare.
ID: How did you like working with the medium of film, both creating new film and sourcing footage?
DS: I really loved working with the medium and I am so grateful to e-flux and Het Nieuwe Instituut for trusting me enough to commission my first film. It felt like writing a paper and painting at the same time. Thinking about composition, layout, timing, and making sure that the story is articulate was incredibly rewarding. Finding footage is like looking through your grandmother’s old closet. I started working on the "Sebastia" film the same week I lost my grandfather. The last thing he gave me was the introductory footage I use in this film. It’s footage he took there in 1967, the same year as the Six Day War.
ID: You teach design at Birzeit University (BZU) in Ramallah. Can you talk a little more about that?
DS: BZU has a new college of art and design that is only two years old. It’s led by an incredibly young team—everyone is under 40. It’s refreshing teaching in a growing young community. We will have our first graduating class in the next two years and I’m excited to see what the students do after they graduate. I think the design landscape in Palestine will dramatically change in the next five years because of it.
ID: As well as teaching, you take part in a lot of talks and collaborations. Your work often seems to be as much about the research and ideas behind it, and sharing that with as many people as possible, as about the finished product. Would you agree?
DS: I think about this a lot. I think the research is itself uncovering the story that needs to be told. The question is then how do you tell it. That’s the work. The uncovering is the research. You can tell the story in 500 different ways with the same content. The hard part is choosing which way to tell it, and how to continue to tell it in different ways.