Fatma Al Mahmoud is the head of 1971, Sharjah’s experimental design space. She oversees their varied programming and outreach and ensures that the space also acts as a hub for emerging designers in the UAE and in the wider region.

Situated on Flag Island, on Sharjah’s coastline, 1971 is a multi-functional design space dedicated to the display and discussion of all forms of contemporary design ranging from graphic, furniture to interior, interactive design and new technologies. Its head, Fatma Al Mahmoud prioritises community engagement, whether that is within the interactive and captivating exhibitions they host or the work they do in close proximity with local designers, architects, schools and universities.

“We may be situated on an island, but we do not function as one,” she says. “We are a hub; a place for communication and collaboration for emerging and renowned designers across all disciplines.” This cohesive mindset is exhibited in every aspect of 1971’s activities. The most recent exhibition, that closed in February before the space was required to close due to the global health crisis, was called Fashcultivate. Co-curated by Emirati fashion designer and curator Khulood bin Thani and Al Mahmoud herself, the exhibition was based on research commissioned by the Irthi Crafts Council into material made from the leaves and branches of the date palm. The final display consisted of works from seven Gulf-based designers suspended from the ceiling giving the viewer an interactive and innovative experience of shelter, much like the palm tree itself. The install of the exhibition was conceived by Alya AlGhefli, an emerging designer in the field of exhibition design, her work was also featured at Downtown Design as part of the Tanween Programme in 2018. Her appointment for this task again underlines Al Mahmoud’s desire to consistently look for new ways to open up opportunities for young designers.

In 2018, the year Al Mahmoud took over the position as head of 1971, the Kuwaiti Pavilion for Abwab at Dubai Design Week caught her eye. The presentation consisted of 36 pieces constructed using a hybrid of contemporary foam cutting and traditional sand-casting processes by a trio of Kuwait-based designers: architect Jassim Al Nashmi, product designer Kawther Al Saffar and architect Ricardas Blazukas. Al Mahmoud began working with the trio to extend and adapt the project for a 1971 exhibition: Desert Cast: Towards an Identity, which will present some pieces from the 2018 project and 14 new commissions made with an additional material – copper. The delayed opening of the exhibition, which was originally planned to open in March, will not stop it from happening, Al Mahmoud insists. “This is an ongoing project and one that encapsulates what 1971 is about. We are supporting regional designers, commissioning new works and encouraging them to extend their practise by facilitating conversations,” she says. In the case of Desert Cast, the three designers will team up with a UAE-based practitioner to explore the use of Emirati materials and traditions.

Ranim Al Halaky is another designer who 1971 has supported to further her work. Unheard Voices first appeared in the Sharjah space in 2018 in parallel with the Graphic Design Biennial. Last year, at Downtown Design, the 1971 team, headed by Al Mahmoud, commissioned Al Halaky to produce the second iteration of this audio-visual installation that is an experimentation into Arabic typography and poetry. The three-dimensional lettering in a metal cage explores the theme of freedom of speech and questions whether we are all, in fact, trapped in our own cages of thoughts. “When we produced it for Downtown Design it was an experiment but seeing the positive feedback and interactions, helped us realise that it could work for a public art project,” explains Mahmoud. She, therefore, reached out to other institutions and Al Halaky’s piece is currently on display in The Courtyard in Alserkal Avenue. “It is so important for me to converse with other institutions and partners in order to achieve cross cultivation. For me, everything starts and ends with a good conversation.”