Saturday, 20 December 2008

Groooooaaannnnn....

As usual the period of unusually rational exuberance evident in my last post has given way to the normality of some constantly nagging financial bullshit that has to be dealt with.

Although we have been out of Dubai for a month now we still haven't got our 5000DHS security deposit back nor the last advance rent cheque. We have pleasantly visited the office, phoned numerous times as is the norm here in the absence of any of those promised calls back, but still no cheque. There are no outstanding issues with the flat we vacated and the cast iron evidence is that the flat has already been rented out to someone else.... or so our sources tell us.

So what to do. We called what we thought was the head office only to discover that it the same office we are already dealing with. Everyone there we speak to says it is the responsibility of the man who told us he was waiting for 'head office' to a) inspect the vacated flat ... er ... presumably done before the new tenants moved in? and b) to prepare the cheque. Incidentally this man has now stopped answering our calls.

Have posted question about this on UAE community blog but it is one of those UAE things that I can never get used to... that constant feeling of slight nausea because you know that however good things seem to have got there is always another fucking battle just around the corner.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

I love Sharjah ..

Sharjah rocks! It is so weird. It's just down the road from Dub but is like being in a totally different country. I feel like my feet actually connect to solid ground in Sharjah. In Dubai I always felt like I was walking on ice somehow and was never quite sure how thick it was. Even the taxi drivers are different. They have all the same problems but seem less stressed out than Dubai taxi drivers despite the nightmare of central Sharjah traffic.

Also Sharjah has got off to a very positive start in a way Dubai didn't for me. Completely out of the blue and starting the week I actually moved here, was a gift of a job working with the Sharjah Biennale and Bidoun Magazine. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that this is the coolest job in the universe and I can hardly believe its mine! As a consequence I have been allah kareeming and ulhumdulillahing all over the place which goes down very well in Sharjah. What;s more the job is based right in the middle of Sharjah's arts and heritage area which is just ... well.. ..ulhumdulillah.... see what I mean?!

Another positive is of course the weather... numerous thunderstorms last week and lots of lovely rain! I know it didn't rain much in Dubai last winter (apart from the three days that George Bush came), but the only time I heard thunder in Dubai was that weird day they seeded the clouds!

So .. I don't actually miss anything about Dubai yet although next week is the Dubai International Film Festival and I'm sure that taxi-ing in and out of Dubai most days is going to be a complete pain in the proverbial. But I sneaked a press pass again which means I get free tickets so I ain't complaining!

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Art Paris Abu Dhabi

This year’s Art Paris-Abu Dhabi seemed very different to last year. However, I’m not sure if this is just my perception or if there really was an objective shift in focus. It definitely seemed less ‘European’ but perhaps this is because one of the first gallery stands in the main hall was the UK's Waterhouse and Dodds. This stand contained a who’s who of regional big hitters and earners. Farhad Moshiri – check, Shirin Neshat – check, Parviz Tanavoli – check, Charles Hossein Zenderoudi – check. Yawn – check.

Most prominently displayed was Lalla Essaydi’s triptych of a figure reclining in an interior with everything covered in Arabic script. Displayed below, was the centrefold of the National with the same image reproduced as part of a feature on the art collection of Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Zayed which magically appeared two days before the opening! Worries that sales would be affected by the global downturn was evidently not something Essaydi had to worrry about nor probably any other artists in MBZ's collection!

This start set a slightly weary tone for my trip around the fair this year although a few other things did register. Enrico Navarra had an event-specific graffiti work drawn on paper around the wall of one part of its stand. This was absolutely inspired and I sincerely hope that it was snapped up for the MBZ collection.

Patrice Trigano, had several works by photographer Julien Leclerc including one mesmerising image of a bullfight. The merging of the component parts of the image was reminscent of Picassos ‘Death of a Female Toreador’ although it was a defintive victory for the toreador in this case. Another work which was essentially a study of wet sand, was also mesmerising in its textured and shadowed simplicity. Both of these images were like strong silent types providing a reassuring antidote to the political noise of some of the middle eastern work.

This perception of noise also struck me at the Tamenaga gallery showing the work of Cheng Jiang Hong and Kyosuke Tchinai. Both artists were obviously absorbed in a purely creative process which reconstructed and reinterpreted parts of their own art histories. There was a narrative thread in Hong’s work which almost read like a book and Tchinai had merged all the most recognisable features of traditional Japanese technique into images that were 2D but sculptural in their impact. One image in particular was so breathtaking I understood for the first time in my life why people spend money they don’t have.

After this I wandered aimlessly around the rest of the fair feeling slightly guilty for being irritated with ‘modern middle eastern art’ although perhaps it’s just the Iranians I’m bored with. Ahmad Mualla’s huge painting at Green Art Gallery was stunning and Lara Baladi’s beach collages at B21 are pure entertainment.

Guy Ferrer and Bernard Pras, the only artists being shown by Nathalie Gaillard, were also memorable. In a context where many small spaces are often overstuffed with multiple artists and styles, a minimal display technique can be very effective!

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Squatting and Exhibiting in Dubai




Countdown to Sharjah has entered final week and I am re-visiting a bizarre combination of two periods in my life - squatting and being a student.

Spouse has secured furnished apartment in the People's Great Neighbouring Jumhurriyah so with assistance from Dubizzle and the Spinneys noticeboard I have been furniture souk central all this week. As of two days ago I have had no fridge, cooker, washing machine, bed or sofa. This means I am sleeping on a mattress on the floor and living primarily off of Korean pot noodle. Given the absence of any other form of entertainment since the TV left, I am also playing a disturbing amount of PC games.

When I was a student PCs didn't exist so entertainment consisted mostly of music which I still have here except it is now all on one small device. So all I need is a case of warm beer and a carton of Marlboro and I could pretend to be 21 again......probably not a good idea.

Given these circumstances it is amazing that I managed to scrub up well enough to attend the opening of 'Women in Art IV' at the Courtyard Gallery this week. I have three paintings in this show (above) which ends on November 20th and then its off to Sharj 2 days later. I'm really glad that I could end my time living in Dubai with an exhibition.
PS. If anyone wants a cheap as chips dining table, desk, office chair and bookcase let me know!

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Day trip to Islamic Civilisation

In line with my imminent move to the centre of the known local cultural universe, I just paid a visit to the Sharjah Museums Department. Sharjah has more museums than the rest of the Emirates combined and in the past year it really seems to have been getting its act together.

Arty types are more likely to know about Sharjah because of the biennale which predates any substantial ‘arty’ offerings from Abu Dhabi or Dubai. Even so I have never understood why Sharjah and its assets don’t get more press or other coverage.

I suppose it’s partly because Sharjah doesn’t have the manic self promotional tendencies of its neighbours and has nothing to prove in the cultural arena anyway. By contrast both Dubai and Abu Dhabi seem desperate to promote their respective ‘visions’ of the UAE’s cultural future and their roles in it. Unfortunately, the words ‘vision’ and ‘future’ are not much use to somebody who needs a regular injection of ‘reality’ and ‘present’ and this Sharjah visit gave me a good dose of both.

The museums department now has an educational section for promoting Sharjah’s museums of archaeology, natural and social history, calligraphy, art, aviation and several more. Although these institutions are always good for attracting stray tourists, the focus of the educational department’s outreach is decidedly local. This means nationals, residents, schools and universities. There are family activities, school activities, cultural awareness programmes and some very cool stuff to see especially in the jewel in the Sharjah crown, the new Museum of Islamic Civilisation.

The museum only opened last June and contains a fascinating and extensive collection of historical, scientific and cultural artefacts. Some of these have been donated or purchased especially for the museum but the majority apparently constitute the personal collection of Sharjah’s ruler.

The first floor is dedicated to science and technology. This includes astronomy, navigation, medicine and chemistry and I was delighted to see a whole cabinet of astrolabes. I like astrolabes and this is the first time I have actually seen one for real! They are amazing inventions but are also works of art and craftsmanship in their own right.

Another delightful surprise was the ballistics and weapons section which I don’t want to ruin by describing too much. Let’s just say there are certain aspects that animal rights activists may object to, although the animals used in early biological weapons programmes probably survived.

The second floor is dedicated to the art and craftsmanship of the Islamic world. There are pieces of ancient text and Quranic script carved into wood and stone. Ceramics, metalwork, glass, models of gardens, ancient buildings and architecture.

It was very refreshing to be in a building full of old stuff displayed well and relevant to the location. In fact this trip confirmed for me that Sharjah truly is the centre to which all futures must refer if they wish to maintain a connection to their past. Go Sharjah!!

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Land, Art and the Environment








Last week I was lucky enough to be involved in a panel discussion and exhibition at the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi. Organised by the Abu Dhabi Authority of Culture and Heritage and the Goethe-Institut Gulf Region, the exhibition runs until November 1st.

The panel was chaired by Konstantin Schreiber of Deutsche Welle TV and featured artists who work in some way with environmental issues. The main artist, German photographer Petra Petrick exhibited a series of photographs called ‘German Desert’. The images are desolate, barren and beautiful just like real deserts but actually taken at the abandoned sites of former open cast coalmines in Germany.

Khorfakkan artist Abdullah al Saadi exhibited a wall length panoramic scroll of the Khorfakkan coastline created while in a boat looking back at the coast. His work monitors the change in the landscape as new buildings, especially hotels, arise and aspects of the natural landscape are removed. In some cases this includes parts of mountains.

Muna al Ali arranges potted plants in various stages of growth to comment on the inevitable cycles of life and decay to which we are all subject. The first time I saw this installation called ‘Dialogue with Nature’ was in the Creek Art fair last March. At that time all the plants were very healthy looking but now the dialogue is communicating something much less optimistic.

My work consisted of three ‘Towers of Trash’ which also featured in the Creek Art fair last year, and two ‘Artificial Landscapes’. These are painted on recycled board and depict landscapes but in a totally artificial way using unnatural colours, perspectives and materials.

Mohammed Kazem had several photographs in the exhibition illustrating the rapid urbanisation of the landscape around Dubai and more abstracted work using details of the urban emnvironment.

In the panel discussion itself the artists talked about how their work relates to changes in the environment around them and reflects and interprets these changes. Petra Petrick’s haunting photographs are testament to industrially devastated landscapes and Abdullah al Saadi is chronicling contemporary landscape loss. My work tries to address the fact that there are long-term consequences of having one of the highest amounts of waste per capita and Muna al Ali reminds us of the inevitable!

While the undeniable benefits of development are visible, the negatives, particularly in relation to the environment, tend to be invisible in the short term so are easy to ignore. However, none of this work is meant as an unambiguous criticism of development or Dubai but is more a mechanism to raise questions about issues of land use, environmental sustainability and even public health. Ultimately the environment is the great leveller. We are all equally dependent on it for our survival not only as individuals but also as a species. From a creative point of view it has been the inspiration for some of the world’s greatest art, greatest music and greatest poetry. If it changes we change with it and as Muna’s work suggests, a dialogue with nature is probably easier while it still seems relatively healthy!

Friday, 17 October 2008

Critiquing Art at the DIFC

The first of four panel discussions arranged to coincide with the photographic exhibition ‘To the Holy Lands’ was held last week at DIFC. Entitled 'Critiquing Art: factors in critiquing art within the Modern Middle East' the panel explored some of the cultural dynamics associated with art criticism in this region.

One comment made about the purpose of the forum was to bring like-minded people together to begin a dialogue that underpins the UAEs current art boom and ultimately contributes to its sustainability. This is a noble aim but I don’t get out as much as I probably should so unfortunately didn’t recognise most of the people in the room! It would have been very useful if there had been a participant list available especially one with affiliations so that we all know who the interested parties are.

Another aim was to explore the difficulties of critique in a media environment that tends to cut and paste the press release and where public criticism of any kind is considered negative. There is a rather large gap between this context and the occidental view of criticism as a separate discipline necessary for creative and intellectual development.

One question raised by panellist Stephanie Sykes,
Communications Manager of Art Dubai, was ‘Who makes the best art critic?’ Another panellist, artist, critic and curator Talal Mualla seemed to think that artists themselves were in the best position to be critics. In his view, the way in which artists relate to wider cultural, political and historical contexts enables them to situate and interpret the work more accurately.

This may be true but it does not necessarily mean that artists are the best critics. They have a vested interest in promoting their own craft and their understanding and respect for the creative process itself can reduce their critical judgment of the final product. However, this approach probably makes them ideal critics in the environment under discussion!

It’s a shame that this issue wasn’t explored further but it got me thinking about the definition of art critic. To paraphrase from my new favourite book ‘Art Criticism – a User’s Guide’ there are several types of critic:

The Advocate – promotes artists he or she admires and compares others unfavourably
The Theoretician – interprets the context of each work rather than its form or content

The Progressive – welcomes and promotes innovation and new forms
The Ideologue – interprets through a structure of political or social commitment
The Traditionalist – reviews what is new in terms of its relationship to the past

Related to this my book also says there are several types of criticism - thematic, geographical, technical, chronological and theoretical – none of which sound particularly nasty to me. In fact all of the above just seem to be flexible structures or at least starting points for forming an opinion. Despite its name art criticism is not automatically 'critical'.

Given the creative mergers and acquisitions of globalism and technology over recent years it is tempting to think that approaches to criticism must also shift but maintaining some structural consistency amid often chaotic change is probably more useful. That said there is too much happening to be covered by traditional means anyway and changes in the nature of communication enable artists, or anybody else, to say essentially what they like. However, this is most often small groups of people talking amongst themselves so issues of quality control are probably moot. Ultimately, established and traditional authorities of art criticism are likely to prevail until new ones emerge strongly enough from new global settings to challenge them. This relates to the other big unexplored question for me which was ‘Who is it for?

The panel was essentially about Middle Eastern art and while it is always worthwhile to get good information out there in any language, most of it is in English. If the dialogue is about developing and sustaining creativity in the Middle East where are the Arabic commentators? There are loads of Arabic blogs and forums out there so surely some of them must be about art and culture in the region. If anyone knows please tell me. I won’t be able to read them but I know people who can and it would be good just to know they are there!

The other discussion are as follows:

October 15th - 'Digitally Restoring Photographs: practical techniques
October 22nd - 'The History of Photography and Contemporary Photography in the Gulf Region'
October 28th - 'How to run an exhibition: Art Management'


Monday, 13 October 2008

'Let's Talk' Grey Noise at the Jam Jar







For me the most interesting thing at Art Dubai last year was the Pakistan Pavilion. The work seemed very fresh and was generally brain engaging in a way that much other contemporary work there was not. Because of this experience I was looking forward to seeing the collaboration between five young Pakistani artists from the Grey Noise Gallery in Lahore and the Jam Jar in Dubai.

'Let’s Talk’ came about after a meeting between Hetal Pawani of the Jam Jar and Umer Butt of Grey Noise. The exhibition represents a dialogue between the five artists and the work is linked as if it were a conversation. The central pillar of the whole concept is a small catalogue containing actual email dialogue and images the five artists exchanged when the show was in the planning stage. It is essential to read this catalogue, not only to help you understand what you see, but also because it creates a strong sense of personal involvement in the show.

The catalogue provides a basic structure of the conversation being had in the work. After that it is up to you to work out exactly where and how the different layers of the conversation intersect. This is challenging in itself because it is not always obvious. Just like a real conversation there are things that are unsaid, slight tangents and unresolved points. However, when juxtaposing the conversation being had by the work with the emailed exchanges between the artists, the show becomes a complete and cohesive entity. Silences in one and omissions in the other also become comprehensible.

The strongest conversational thread in the work is music or sound. The show starts with Lala Rukh’s sound collage containing elements of nature, politics and traditional music. Following on from this is Ayesha Jatoi’s line of sound words running the length of the opposite wall ending in the word ‘boom’. A full stop is provided by a very simple abstract red and white print entitled ‘Where is my God’? Turning the corner you see six small white graves each containing a different book. The interesting mix of titles spans a time frame of more than 10 years but the most recent is the biography of Benazir Bhutto. The creator of these works, Ayaz Jokhio, is strangely absent from the catalogue discussion.

Next is one of Mehreen Murtaza’s large prints evoking sci-fi, technology, creation and myth, an image that does not seem to relate directly to the conversation but is understood when placed in the context of the email exchanges. Her other print relates more directly to the sound motif but also explores faith and technology as instruments of control.

Around the next corner ‘Echo’ and ‘Sleeper’ by Fahd Burki are not what you expect to see having read the email exchanges and this intensifies the feeling that you have established an intimate relationship with the artists. The connection to the conversation in terms of sound is obvious but there are other more subtle undercurrents that can also be divined from the information you have been given.

It’s difficult to elaborate further because the presence of the catalogue is so central to the experience. It becomes like a puzzle, which you have to solve and the more effort you put into it the more rewarding it is. It is a nice redefinition of interactive - one in which exclusively mental rather than physical processes become the ones interacting with the work. What is perhaps most amazing is that you get all this from only eight pieces of work and a rather diminutive catalogue! So the show may be small but it is perfectly formed.

That said you do leave wanting more. Although you can keep reflecting on the concept and the different ways in which the conversation works, you want it to develop. Perhaps into another room, with another catalogue, different artists and a counter argument! However, this would be a different show and it probably needs to remain small because another thing I found was that it was hard to see the individual pieces in their own right. They became secondary to the larger concept and it was that, and the mental challenges associated with this show, which remained rather than the work itself. Nevertheless, Pakistan is still up there on my ‘to do further’ list!

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Sharjah on my mind

After a few weeks of frantic scrabbling around for new gainful employment in Dubai I have come to some conclusions. First is that I may have done it from scratch once but I really don't have the energy to do it all over again. After what happened with my previous job I don't have the motivation either.... and it is this which presents the biggest problem.

I have also found that my previous job was done in such a vacuum it doesn't seem to translate to anything outside of it. So my year of working on a pioneering culture and arts project in Dubai is irrelevant because I cannot use the knowledge gained to get another job. This is very disturbing. If the experience is irrelevant here, what possible use can it be elsewhere? There is a metaphor in here somewhere but I haven't worked out what it is yet.

Another thing is that there is some confusion about what 'freelance' means! The reaction I got from my employers when informed that my job had disappeared was 'but it's ok, you're freelance right?' When you start a project with an end date in spring 2009 you don't expect it to disappear in Autumn 2008! In this scenario 'freelance' just seems to mean an employee who is effortlessly and guiltlessly disposable (tho' the G word is probably redundant in this context!).

Anyway I have thrown in the Dubai towel, given notice on the flat and am relocating to Sharjah. Spouse has already made this move to a new job with rent paid. We figured that we could keep the flat on in Dubai and he could come for weekends but now I am not earning that is impossible so Sharjah here I come. Who knows we may even recoup some of the financial losses incurred by Dubai!

I am sure that things would have been different if we had been a) luckier and b) 10 years younger! The people I have met who seem happiest here are generally under 35, have a car and have no property or other financial commitments elsewhere unlike us. In some ways they remind me of myself in Japan in the mid 80s. Tokyo was a boom town, the money was flowing, my income was highly disposable and it was absolutely fantastic!

Aaahhh.... the good old days...

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Art and national Identity











Before I came to the UAE I knew there were at least 10 Emirati artists. I had their names and images in a book published in 1982 by the Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States. However, on arrival in Dubai I faced a major problem - there was no National Museum or Art Gallery so no obvious place to find them. It actually took me six months to find a local artist but it is amazing that just over a year later, I am now aware of more than 200 and have actually seen the work of well over 50.

In Dubai until October 6th is an unprecedented government sponsored exhibition featuring over 100 works by 22 local artists. The artists range from veteran painters to a new generation of photographers and graphic designers. There are also literally second-generation artists such as the son and daughter of the UAEs most well known artist Abdul Qader Al Rais.

The conservative tendency in visual arts has been an association with ‘heritage’ as a means of defining identity, generally meaning falcons, dates, horses and camels. A younger and more global generation is obviously rather less enamoured of this limiting image of the nation and ‘nationality’ in art seems rather antithetical to the contemporary international climate anyway. So it was very interesting to see how much would emerge from this show that was distinctly ‘Emirati’.

The venue is the classically styled Bastakiya villa no 69. The first works you see are by Reem Al Ghaith and are familiar from the Dubai Next show at Art Basel. There is a palpable sense of dislocation in her three huge prints of a solitary figure inside a frame or seemingly reflected in a mirror against a backdrop of various Dubai locations. They also make an impression by sheer virtue of their size despite being obscured by several stone pillars. So the initial impact of this show is clearly Emirati.

The only other works in the courtyard itself are nine small sculptures of animals and figures made out of scrap metal by Mohammed Abdullah. With the exception of one in the shape of a mosque, these could have been done anywhere, as could the abstract paintings of Ahmed Sharif and Mohammad Al Qassab in room one. Four collages by Ali al Adnan were definitively regional featuring historical cultural figures from the Gulf including one Emirati. Accompanying these were Karima Al Shomeily's very direct photographs of partially obscured female faces which also had a very local flavour.

In the next two rooms, Khalid Al Banna’s work with its contrasting textures and shades of black, white and grey and Alia Al Shamsi’s photographs of modern mannequins and mechanical fortune-tellers addressed aesthetic universalities. However, Khalid Mezaina’s quirky graphics epitomising a fun and funky side of contemporary Dubai were a great example of modern generational sensibilities. Mohammed Al Habtoor also picked up on this feeling but without making a specific visual connection to the locality. His big cartoon faces suggested Disney on acid to me but provoked much discussion and were very popular with the younger generation. He will be having his first solo show when this one is over.

Similarly, Summaya Al Suwaidi’s photographic images contained nothing distinctly local in content but did seem to be staking a claim for some kind of new local genre of their own. UAE gothic perhaps? The unsettling atmosphere in Lateefa Maktoum’s consumate study of perspective could also fit this category.

Farid al Rais, daughter of the UAE’s most famous artist Abdul Qader al Rais had five works in the show - two large acrylics and three smaller pieces traditional in style if not wholly in content. Her brother Musab al Rais also had five large painted works in a different room. Both are influenced by their father’s work to the extent that all I can see is variations on his earlier themes but I guess this makes them second generation practitioners of a pioneering local style!

Of the other work in the show that connected physically to the locale, Alya al Sanad’s faces covered in sand are sensual and intense while photographs of vague figures taken through a dirty windscreen are like stills from a UAE road movie that hasn’t been made yet. In one of four video works Khalil Abdul Wahid filmed a short journey through his windscreen with visibility so bad at times due to fog or rain, that I’m sure he was risking a serious accident. It was quite a relief when he put the windscreen wipers on. Along his route there were several turnoffs for Sharjah, all of which he avoided - I guess he didn’t want to make a traffic movie.

There are two more rooms and six other artists in this show who I haven't even mentioned here including two who featured in the Meem Gallery Summer Exhibition and two exhibiting for the first time. So there is more to be seen and a lot more to be said. Overall the show demonstrates that local artists are creating very diverse work bearing little relation to the traditionally favoured images of the past, and are interpreting and revealing a very different present. They are essentially producing what will be the creative ‘heritage’ of the UAE in a few decades time. However, it is unlikely that you will be able to chart these developments by walking into a single public institution any time soon. Considering that you will be able to walk into a Louvre and a Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi and a Berlin State Museum in Dubai, this is a national tragedy.
Another tragedy, or perhaps mystery, is that despite the official support for this show there has been very little publicity and no information seems to be available on the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority website or indeed anywhere else. Hopefully, there will at least be a few other reviews before it closes on October 6th .... maybe prompted by Dubai Eye's Siobhan Live which did an hour long segment about this show on September 22nd!
  • 'Suhoor, an Emirati Exhibition'
  • House 69, Bastakiya District,
  • Until October 6th

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Roads Were Open / Roads were Closed





The advantage of being unemployed is time. September marks the beginning of the post summer season and all the galleries have new shows so I may get to see them all this year!

I started a few days ago with a trip the Third Line showing its war themed exhibition ‘Roads were Open / Roads were Closed’. This exhibition features five artists interpreting either direct or indirect experience of the Palestinian and Lebanese conflicts. The exhibition’s focus is on exploring how we register trauma and perceive conflict. However, the work is also very much about how artists interpret history and preserve or package national and political, as well as personal memory.

As you enter the gallery, Palestinian Layla Shawwa’s ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’ is a striking start. The huge slingshot complete with large stone sitting on a stand in the middle of the gallery floor is an immediately recognisable symbol of military asymmetry and moral triumph. The piece and its ironic title acknowledge this standard interpretation but Layla Shawwa’s point is more complex. In the absence of any forward movement, the symbol now stands as an impotent victim of its own mythology. It becomes a memory around which an uneasy internal dialogue revolves rather than being the external symbol of strength that it once was.

Photographer Tarek Al Ghoussein is also Palestinian but born in Kuwait and living in the UAE. As a consequence he is not directly exposed to the conflict but still needs to process and interpret his connection to it. His photographs, all taken in the UAE, depict huge and featureless concrete walls reflecting both the reality of the Palestinian situation and his inaccessibility to that reality. He also photographs barren desert spaces sometimes juxtaposing the two themes. When placing himself in the images he is inevitably dwarfed, either by space or by containment.

Fouad El Khoury documents a month of his life in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 when Beirut came under serious bombardment following the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. The technique is a series of prints that show his diary page for each day. Sometimes the whole page is situated inside his house surrounded by the normalcy of household items. Other times the text is superimposed on events taking place outside the house, sometimes images familiar from news reports during that period. At the same time as news of what is happening in the nation is reported in his diary, a parallel tragedy is unfolding in his personal life as a relationship fails which makes a nice if obvious juxtaposition of the personal and the political. The whole photo series covers an entire wall of the gallery and makes an impact as both visual and emotional archive.

A very different approach is taken by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige whose multi part project ‘Wonder Beirut’ documents the earlier civil war period using the ‘Story of the Pyromaniac Photographer’. This was Abdallah Farah, a photographer commissioned by the Lebanese tourist board to take postcard images of Beirut in the late 1960s. With the onset of the civil war in 1975, he systematically burned or altered the slides and negatives he used for the postcards to reflect the damage of battle. This results in some fantastic images with parts melted and blackened but retaining postcard colour intensity at the same time. Others such as the ‘Battle of the Hotels’ show sequences of the same postcard image gradually being destroyed.

Another part of the project relates to Abdallah Farah’s many rolls of film, which were never developed, first because of a lack of materials and then out of choice. Each roll is carefully dated, some as recently as 2000, and their contents documented so you are able to read the images but not see them. This part of the project is called ‘Latent Images’. Latency is apparently an engineering term meaning the time delay between the initiation of an action and its results. So the consequences of the action remain unobserved in the present. An exhibition about conflict seems the perfect home for such a notion!

This show runs until October 2nd. Thanks to the Third Line Gallery and artists for the images used here.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Ramadan Kareem

I have spent the entire day so far feeling quite irrationally happy. This is very pleasant indeed and rare for me in Dubai. I can't remember the last time I had a day like this. It's irrational because there is no obvious reason for it... I didn't win any money, get a new job or sell a painting and it's the wrong time of the month for any extreme hormonal tendencies

That said I think it may have actually started yesterday at around 3.00 in the afternoon when I felt the earthquake. Having lived in Japan for a long time I knew what it was immediately. Once I realised that it was just going to be a nice gentle little shake I started grinning from ear to ear and thoroughly enjoyed it. This may seem like a weird reaction to potential death and destruction but what can I do?

At the time of the quake I was writing my first exhibition review since being back. Having written nothing for over two months it was very hard work and I didn't actually finish it until 10.00pm. It's a review of Roads were open/Roads were closed which is at the Third Line Gallery until October 2nd. I will post it here shortly but from tomorrow it will be up on the US arts site Absolute Arts.

I just hope that this feeling continues for a while longer because however irrational it may be it's still happiness!

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

The Grinch who stole my job…

I now know how I feel about being back and it ain’t good! On Monday morning I discovered that my part time job that became a full time job and then went back to a part time job has now become a no time job. Yes… I am now officially unemployed.

Although I'm happy with the job I did and can console myself with valuable insight gained into the chaotic and brutal nature of local cultural politics, it still sucks! I am now back to square one contemplating the work search all over again except with zero enthusiasm for any further contribution to this voracious and slightly schizophrenic machine!

As if this didn’t make the first day of Ramadan 2008 memorable enough, I discovered Monday evening that my purse had disappeared. The only explanation was that I’d dropped it in a taxi so I called the lost property office of all the cab companies in Dubai to register the loss that evening. The following morning I called them all again but no purse had been found so I then called the bank to cancel my cards. It came as quite a shock when the bank informed me that a cab driver had already called and cancelled them for me! Unfortunately, the bank had taken no record of the cab drivers phone number, name or cab company. So I know that a cab driver found my purse. I know that he was honest and kind enough to cancel my cards even though I find that a little bizarre. So I called the cab companies back and informed them of this development but still none of them had my purse.

So what does this mean? That the companies are lying? That the cab driver cancelled my cards but for some bizarre reason kept my purse? Very frustrating knowing that your purse is out there with no way of getting it back. There wasn’t much money in it - there’s never much money in it - but it is those little personal things that are the real loss.

The only thing that is good right now is that I have been asked to participate in an exhibition at the Courtyard Gallery in November. Beyond that I have no idea but if anyone can point me in the direction of the Bur Dubai dole office I’d appreciate it!

Saturday, 23 August 2008

The Dubai Stone and other weighty matters

I just got back to Dubai after spending much more time away than planned ... just like last year! This time it was the unexpected death of my Aunt which caused the delay and mostly because of the customary two week wait for the funeral which I have always found appalling. I am totally with the Muslims on this one... white shroud and in the ground within 48 hours. Still, at least she was in the illustrious company that week of Alexander Solzhenitsyen, Mahmoud Darwish and Isaac Hayes!

The rest of the trip took in Southern England, Wales and Berlin and was a much needed shut off from just about everything.... especially the sun! It rained and rained and the immersion in infinite shades of grey and green not only made me feel normal again, it also improved my eyesight. I do miss the ocularly restful colours of a gloomy climate! Unfortunately my back muscles made it known that they are rather keener on the climate here.

Anyway, on arrival in the UK I weighed myself for the first time in a year to discover the absolute truth of the Dubai stone. I have put on exactly one stone (6.35kg) since last August and so has spouse. Despite being told by everyone at home that I looked better I am not happy because it makes my existing clothes uncomfortably tight and I hate shopping! It means I can no longer avoid a special trip to the mall for real shopping rather than cinema, meeting people or just getting out of the heat for while.

Am not sure how I feel about being back here yet but did think I'd got off at the wrong place when I saw the papers were full of local corruption stories. What is going on??? Dubai Summer surprises certainly wasn't like this last year!

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Picasso in Abu Dhabi




At the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi until September is the Arab world's first public exhibition of works by Pablo Picasso. Borrowed from the collection at the Musée National Picasso in Paris, the retrospective show features examples of all styles and periods and features 186 paintings, sculptures and works on paper.

I have not really through about Picasso for years. The fact that I can still visualize most of the well known pieces from various periods has resulted in a smug assumption of familiarity that almost meant I didn't bother going to this show. This would have been criminal because this show was an absolute revelation. Seeing such a range of work mostly unfamiliar to me was like seeing a completely different artist and given my own accumulation of years the way in which I perceived the work was also completely different.

The show was hung in chronological order starting with a blue self-portrait from 1901. Most of this early work was figurative including several studies on paper for ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’. There is perhaps a compositional shadow of Van Gogh in the earthy 'Landscape with Two Figures from 1908 and a sculptural influence is already evident especially in a small triptych of three very solid looking heads.

The next section loosely covered the 1920s. The paintings got larger and were mostly of figures in various poses and settings including two unfinished portraits in conventional style, which seemed to have been abandoned half way through. A sense of boredom with these kinds of conventions was reflected in other figures that seemed to become gradually chunkier and more imposing. The most interesting was ‘Seated Woman’ from 1920 which appeared to have started off with at least some classical intentions but by the end the hands and feet were grossly exaggerated and distorted and suddenly the suggestion of a radical change was there. This was also the case with 'Reading the Letter' from 1921. I then went back and looked at the hands and feet of all the other figures finally concluding that an additional motivation for immersion in the joys of human abstraction was because Picasso wasn't very good at painting hands and feet.

The next section covering the 1930s had a huge mix of seated and abstracted female figures, which gradually become more angular as the decade progressed. This use of colour and style in this section were definitely the most familiar like 'Reading' from 1932 although I was amazed at just how much there was. The output in this period seemed to have been more prodigious than at any other time and one big surprise for me was that he seemed to spend the entirety of 1931 doing bronze sculptures of large and distorted heads with hugely exaggerated noses. I had no idea so much of this work existed.

One of the exceptions to all studies of sitting, standing, reclining and general other women was 'Bullfight: Death of a Female Toreador' from 1933. The dramatic and sensual intertwining of bullfighter, horse and bull with a violent end assured for at least one of them was probably the most powerful picture in the show.

Perhaps understandably, there was not much work here from the 1940s. The rate seems to slow down dramatically, the colours turn darker, the motifs spikier and several skulls also make an appearance.

The next surprise was ‘Massacre in Korea’ from 1951, its dramatic impact, enhanced by a compositional layout seemingly borrowed from Manet’s “The execution of Maximillian”. The ubiquitously reproduced image of Guernica has so defined Picasso in relation to war that it was fascinating to see an image referencing a different conflict.

There was not so much work from the 50s and 60s either but what was there suggested a revisitation and amalgamation of the past with some homages – one to Manet and possibly one to Matisse. There was also a one picture with abstracted though explicit female genitalia which I am surprised made it past the censors!
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One of the final pieces was 'The Young Painter' from 1972 and the childlike simplicity of this painting is a marked contrast to the rest of the show. It's directness makes a big emotional impact and it was hard not to wonder if this was Picasso revisiting a very early version of himself. Apparently it was painted only a few months before his death in 1973 so I guess it is a very appropriate image to end with.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

The endless hoops ...

Anticipating a full time income I have recently been taking more taxis than normal. This has provided mixed experiences but the saddest was a 23 year old Pakistani on his 5th day of driving who broke down in tears when telling me about his family. He is having such a bad time he has told his brother not to even think about coming and has told to warn others against it too.

Another driver of 10 years spent the entire journey giving a fascinatingly detailed account of the pros and cons of every vehicle he has driven in those years concluding with an unequivocal recommendation for the Toyota Corrolla. This obviously carries weight because when you start looking out for them Toyota Corrollas are everywhere.

Strangely, in the past month I have had not one but three different drivers quoting the section in the Quran that presages the end of days. 'When towers rise out of the desert and touch the sky etc ... ' plus global disasters and other bits of Quranic evidence that the shit will hit the fan shortly. By taxi driver number three I thought it politic to be convinced and actually started throwing in a few similar biblical references for good measure. It's quite cathartic when you're having a bad day and all three drivers seemed almost pleased about the imminent end except one who wanted to clear his debts first.

However, these fascinating conversations will have to stop because I have hit a number of related bureaucratic snags resulting in my application to work full time being rejected by the Ministry of Labour.

The first snag is that I don't have a stamped and certified copy of my degree certificate. In fact the last time I actually saw my degree certificate was about 15 years ago when it was consigned to a box in the loft while moving house. Given that my multifarious skills are obvious from my CV it never occurred to me that I would need to prove I graduated. To add insult to injury I have been informed that my university does not even appear on their list of registered universities.

Another problem is that they want references from my previous employers. I have been self employed for 10 years so I don't have former employers, at least not recent ones. However, I am now trying to track some of them down so far without success. I have had what is now apparently known as a 'portfolio career' which is a nice name for a somewhat meandering career path that only makes sense to its owner. Despite fact that I have all the requisite skills for the job my CV is a tricky one to explain in this part of the world.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Abdullah Al Muharraqi at MEEM Gallery





At the MEEM Gallery you can see a retrospective of the Gulf’s best-known artist Abdullah al Muharraqi, sometimes referred to as the Salvador Dali of the Gulf. Born in Bahrain in 1939, Al Muharraqi studied in Cairo and Damascus and now has an entire hall devoted to his work in the Museum of Modern Arabic Art in Qatar. He also designed most of Bahrain's stamps! The earliest work in this show is from 1967 and goes up until 2006.

As always, entering the MEEM gallery space itself makes a huge impact, perhaps too much in this case because some of the work then seemed disappointing after that initial impression. However, what was most striking was how uniquely ‘Gulfie’ much of the work was. It reveals the Gulf as a harsh existence revolving around the dark terrors of the ocean. The work creates an atmosphere that is so far removed from the current Dubai PR model of the Gulf it’s hard to believe it came out of the same region. I got more of a sense of historic and geographic reality through this one show than I’ve got in an entire year of being in Dubai. That said I do remember being very affected during last December’s film festival by the harsh and menacing atmosphere in several short films made by local filmmakers. So maybe the link is there even if the unease is now for different reasons.

Many of Al Muharraqi's paintings concern pearl diving and divers. Pearls were a significant industry before the 1930s when the Japanese worked out how to culture pearls rather than relying on luck or god to provide an accommodating oyster. The dangers of the pearl divers’ often short lives and the imbalance between that and the life of the pearl itself are obviously things that Al Muharraqi felt very deeply. The most compelling picture in the show is ‘The Divers Tragedy’ from 1973, which gives a cyclical illustration of the life of a pearl and the diver's associated sorrows.

Many of the earlier paintings focus on this subject and very effectively communicate the horror and the dread associated with this kind of life. However, there is thread which runs through the whole show that is way over on the dark side – starvation, decay, vengeance and environmental devastation as in 'Catastrophe' from 1984. Later work, especially from the past few years has strong political overtones. Several of these paintings worked very well - the palpable tensions in ‘Opposition’ and The Nations Game’ for example. However, there were obviously some sensitivities. The title label of one work was actually obscured by the frame and only if you lifted the corner of the picture could you see the title was ‘The Regression of Arab Civilisation’. It could have been a hanging error but I don’t think so.....

'Martyr's Souls' from 2002 didn’t work so well. An otherwise sensitive image related to Palestinian suffering was eclipsed by a small and bizarre depiction of the perceived ethnic cause that could have come straight out of 1930s German propaganda. Other figurative expressions of this conflict I have seen tend to focus on the contemporary realities of the Israeli military but this was like some kind of time warp. Most weird was the fact that it seemed so gratuitous and badly painted it was almost as if somebody else had done it! It was a very strange exception but a definite reminder that propaganda rarely makes good art.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Mushroom Blancmange

I am starting a full time job in June and am already having doubts. The two days I currently work are spent in several frustrating ways. Figuring out how to nail down blancmange in zero gravity seems to have become the overall project. I draft invitations and requests for information which elicit no response and I send emails containing crucial questions about the nature of blancmange development which never get answered.

I mostly sit in a vacuum watching time and my intellectual faculties slip away. 'Why am I here?' I ask myself repeatedly. If something concrete to do does appear I get as excited as a laboratory rat when somebody rattles the food pipe, but invariably it ends in tragedy (farce, if my pride manages to stay above it!).

It wasn't like this at the beginning. In fact, I think it was my linguistic dexterity that gave the blancmange recipe credibility in the first place. So I guess you could argue that I've brought it on myself. However, I did not expect to be subsequently mushroomed. I am now left completely in the dark and not even fed shit! No wonder a recent regional employment survey found job satisfaction in the UAE was extremely low!

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Spare Change

First of all I would like to thank everyone who has emailed over the last few weeks noting with concern the increasingly jaundiced perspective, telling me to hang in there or just reminding me that they love me :).

Here's a little traffic incident which happened on my way to Trade Centre a few days back. I looked out of the bus window and could see straight down into a huge black Bentley. At the first set of lights the driver reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a huge stack of 500 dirham notes. He sat in his car counting the bundle, kissed it and placed it on the passenger seat. At the next set of lights he reached into the glove compartment again, pulled out another stack, counted it, kissed it and placed it next to the other one.

He turned off at the next set of lights so I'll never know how many stacks of cash were in that glove compartment. I couldn't see his face either so he could have been from anywhere. I cannot imagine seeing something like this stuck in a traffic jam anywhere else and it was mesmerising - like watching a scene from a movie.

  • As a postscript to the vision fatigue theme two posts ago I am now on 'vision watch'. The latest was in Trade Centre today: "Nakheel - Where vision inspires humanity".

    'Vision' is the word round these parts but the regularity with which it is now being used has rendered it completely meaningless and possibly constitutes language abuse......

    Another postscript actually.... I don't tend to take things too personally but if anybody comes across a German speaking, Ferrari driving, cement trader in his 40s who thinks all locals are bastards (despite a recent invitation from Mr. A. Sheikh to his private polo club) tell him he's a tosser. He really needs to know!

Monday, 28 April 2008

Damn Daman

We have just had to renew our Daman health insurance.

After protracted negotiations last October we thought that I had been granted a year's insurance exempt from maternity cover because we can't have children. However last week we discovered that we had actually paid the full amount including maternity for just six months.
This was a shock because according to the document I was covered until October BUT when we looked closely at my health card the expiry date was the same as spouse's insurance taken out 6 months before mine!

We protested to no avail and were then told to pay up for both of us including the extra 3000DHS maternity cover. We said we didn't need the maternity cover but were then asked if we could prove it. Well... no we can't... sensitive issues like fertility test results are given in person rather than certificated but spouse said he would take a test here too if that was the only way.

Oh No... said Daman ... it's about your wife. You may have a problem but she can still get pregnant therefore she has to have maternity cover. Unless she has had a hysterectomy, maternity cover is compulsory until she's 50.

Stunned silence....

So how am I going to get pregnant then?? By divine fucking intervention?? Or am i just supposed to be a total slut?

I suppose they are not actually thinking at all. It's just a bureaucratic requirement and cases to which it does not apply are negligible enough to be ignored. So on top of the absurdity of the issue itself, we still have to pay for a service that is irrelevant and waste 3000DHS in a situation where money is still really tight ... . it almost makes me wish I was slut.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Vision Fatigue

The latest vision is the one for Bastakia. I wrote an article for Nafas online arts magazine a couple of weeks ago which talked about this and also looked at potential problems. The major one as always is human resources. Who is going to organise, administrate and implement all the projects and plans.

The other big cultural visions are Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island development and the Khor Project in Dubai. Cultural weight is also thrown around by the ability to employ people like Rem Koolhaas, to design whole new cities. Nakheel's Waterfront City is one such project and even has its own death star presumably to match Emaar's death spire.Abu Dhabi has the super ironic Masdar carbon free city and the daily onslaught of advertisements for other developments is really starting to get on my nerves. The Gulf News has given up any pretense of being a newspaper since someone had the bright idea of turning the front page into an advert. 'Be an Octavian' What? Buy a piece of San Francisco / Spanish Reality ... . er.. earth to Dynasty Zarooni - this is the UAE! Even Ajman's getting in on the act with 'visionaries are those who make their dreams come true ... dare to envision' etc. etc. yawn yawn. Is there no one who can still see clearly enough to consider taking a rain check on the word 'vision'?

It is particularly grating in a week where there has been so much talk about national identity and the demographic imbalance including a debate on the UAE Community blog that had more than 90 comments.

I sympathise with the local predicament - it took me 6 months to find a local! However, if there is such great concern about demographic imbalance why all the new cities? Who are they for? All those people who will have to come to implement the other visions I guess!

PS When my subscription to Gulf Property Advertising (formerly News) expires, I'm switching to the National.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Personality Disintegration

I have now been in Dubai for almost a year and am starting to miss various things that it never occurred to me I could miss... the 16th and 17th centuries for example. By this I mean the ability to walk into a public institution and spend time in the company of some old masters of the Italian renaissance perhaps or some ancient artefacts looted from elsewhere at some point in perfidious British history. However, this is probably a result of relentless exposure to 'contemporary' art over the past month or so.

Another problem I have is the constant feeling that I'm living in some kind of a time warp. With the exception of a few key local programmes radio stations sound like British provincial radio in the 1970s. I have actually given up turning on the radio when I'm cooking dinner in the evening because its either endless sports talk or people who seem to know very little about music history talking bullshit about dreadful playlists! The TV is even worse. Maybe its bad timing but City 7 only seems to show re-runs of Minder.

All of this is turning me a bit radical and is doing very strange things to my sense of humour. The comedy channel for me is Saudi Channel 2. There's usually a laugh within five minutes. This may sound like some kind of orientalist-laughing-at-the-arabs type bullshit but it is truly fascinating and the 10 o' clock news is most informative unlike any local news services. I can no longer get through 8.30 - 9.00 on Dubai One without wanting to blow my own head off.

I am also getting concerned that my personality is disintegrating. I am getting more and more of those days where I am actually losing track of my own identity. I guess this happens without access to people who've known you for years and years and can remind you of who you are. The other identity indicators are the books, pictures and just general 'stuff' that I've accumulated over the years, all of which remains in the UK. I did not realise how much identity was maintained simply by being able to idly glance over my bookshelves once a day or just stare at a favourite painting. Thank god I'd put most of my music collection on an MP3 player! That precious little device is currently constituting about 75% of my sanity.

Do you think I need a holiday????????

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Never again ...

Last month I was asked to write four articles about art in Dubai for the website of a London based organisation called Art Review. When the offer came I was delighted. Somebody was actually offering to pay me for writing this shit ?? Brilliant!

Of course it isn't that simple and the past month has put me off writing for money ever again. First this was a very casual arrangement. No contract. No clear brief and a suggested word count that was half the size of what was necessary.

Then there was the editorial problem. When the person who commissions the articles really wants to be doing it themselves, there is an inevitable editorial imposition of their view, which at times differed considerably from mine. This was particularly acute when changes made seemed to play to certain prejudices while I assumed the articles were there to inform these otherwise.

Another difficulty which was actually a shock to me was realising the extreme western-centric view of what is happening here in terms of art and culture. At one point this resulted in an editorial insertion about what constituted 'progress' which I had to ask to be removed.

To be fair the first two articles were not too bad but tensions crept in at number 3 and by number 4 I just wanted it to be over. Also number 4 was about Art Dubai which was the least interesting for me to write. A big contemporary art fair is a big contemporary art fair wherever it's held. Apart from the flamboyant, dubious, paranoid or just plain weird people that can turn up on preview nights, they are a bit like sales conferences. I wasn't crazy about them in London so the interest value here is only in terms of Art Dubai's relationship with what is happening on the ground and how it contributes to other non commercial development. Of course nobody here seems aware of the notion of non-commercial development but I realise this is my problem and that everybody except me actually embraces this reality! I am trying to change my attitude! I am also trying to accept that 'press release' and 'newspaper report' are synonymous... but that's a tough one too ...

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Art Dubai












Art Dubai held at Madinat Jumeirah is only in its second year but has almost doubled in size. How very Dubai of it! I think it should really be held at Trade Centre because it does have the feel of a trade conference but I guess they can’t force art dealers and collectors to chow down at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf minus al kahool!

There are around 70 galleries taking part from everywhere but the most memorable were the Korean Pyo gallery which had some wacky and surreal paintings of people in urban interiors that said a lot about the psychological effects of rapid change and the modern weirdnesses of interpersonal communication. I just wish I’d taken photos. Brazil’s Bolsa de Arte gallery had a strange collection of subverted Sotheby's magazine covers, carpet aeroplanes and an image that changed as you walked past it. On the art meets science front. the big photos of particle accelerators in the Swiss CERN laboratory by Simon Norfolk were pretty amazing.

Art Dubai has had a phenomenal impact. Last year spawned its fringe - the Creek Art Fair - arts education charity (START) and a UAE arts discussion forum (The Thinking Cloud). This year DIFC launched a whole new ‘Season of Arts’ to coincide with Art Dubai and has a packed schedule of stuff including an installation of giant ants by American Susan P. Cochran. This is a perfect fit for the Dubai vision thing. It’s about civic duty and the whole committed colony co-operating on a large-scale property development.
As we all know reference to any negatives in this happy PR model are rare so I was delighted to see Desperately Seeking Paradise, at the new Pakistan Pavilion at Art Dubai. Huma Mulji’s suitcase installation addresses the dreams of Dubai’s labourers. The suitcase of golden shoes and bread suggests the riches they seek but which they ultimately build for others while the suitcase of showers has a speaker in each shower head, one narrating dreams of employment in Dubai and the other narrating the drawbacks. Seeing this work here gave me hope that there is potential for at least some art to perform the other civic duty of exploring awkward questions.

The Global Art Forums are another element of Art Dubai and the first two days of these looked at Art Patronage in the Business Age. Topics included ‘Building a Corporate Collection’, ‘Working with Corporations’ and ‘Private Passion and Cultural Philanthropy’. The latter strikes me as a bit like carbon offsetting. Pay a little extra to save the planet and feel good about yourself or in this case make a tax free donation to ‘the arts’, feel good about yourself and get your name on the wall of a new institution.

Another project that received a lot of attention was the Credit Suisse ‘Art and Entrepreneurship’ exhibition. This was unveiled to great fanfare at Art Dubai and will go on tour to the ‘art capitals’ of the world shortly. This project involved 20 artists, one of whom wisely wishes to remain anonymous, who were asked to create work based on a Credit Suisse client survey. Sorry??

The focus was apparently the five core values of entrepreneurship. From the artists’ point of view, I assume the first of these was making friends with Credit Suisse and their work encapsulated the ultimate core value of money for old rope. Duvet on a stick anyone? I have problems with calling this art. Isn’t it just product commissioning for an innovative corporate PR campaign?

I did escape the commerce briefly and get some time in a quiet room with some video and hanging plastic people thanks to the Bidoun lounge. This was in the underground Art Park, (formally Car Park) which was a bit like an arcade only with lots of screens showing some excellent video shorts. No price tags or sales negotiation to be seen, only funky cardboard chairs designed by Traffic, free cola and your own personal headphones for you own personal screen. How civilised!

It was only on for a few days so blink and you'd have missed it. The Creek Art Fair is still on however and will be in Bastakia til March 31st. On that night there is a closing concert by Reza Derakshani. Unmissable I'd say!

Monday, 17 March 2008

Creek Art Fair


Ok.... Long time no blog. In a nutshell the panic about our visa is over and we are safe til 2009 .. inshallah. Spouse got some freelance and I am going full time on the arts job from June assuming nobody gets offended by my installation at the Creek Art Fair (above). These four new 'burj' required me saving my trash for months but they do look quite cool so I'm happy. It is also great to be part of the Creek Art fair which takes over the Bastakia from now until March 31st. There is LOADS of fantastic stuff and you get to see the inside of a lot of those old houses that Tatweer deems it unnecessary to open up at any other time of year!


The fair opened on Saturday 15th with traditional UAE dancers and there really was a buzzy festival atmosphere to the whole evening. The narrow streets of the Bastakia were packed and each different art space seemed to have its own little local entourage. The rather more modern tradition of a free bar and DJ on the roof also featured although this was not on the Art Fair map.

Even if U R not that interested in art it is worth going cos there really is something for everyone (except pornographers ... although a nude does appear in one of the video installations ... shhhhh!!!)

Friday, 15 February 2008

DIFC Word into Art



This show is on until April 30th at DIFC and it’s FREE so you have absolutely no excuse not to see it! I first saw the Word into Art exhibition at the British Museum in London in 2006. Although the scope of the exhibition now transported to Dubai is smaller, it was great to see it again. The opening day was accompanied by panels, discussion forums and educational events specifically tailored to the local context so there was a lot more to it than just the exhibition.

Word into Art focuses on how script has been used in Middle Eastern art from the calligraphic traditions of Quranic and poetic verse, through to more innovative and modern manifestations. In the process it demonstrates how script is used to convey a diversity of symbolic, political or purely aesthetic meanings.

The exhibition is in four sections the first of which is ‘Sacred Script’. Given that the Arabic script used today is the same as that in which the Quran was originally revealed there is an inherent religious association with the script. In turn the Quranic text itself then prompted a major development of the written language into a structured system. Perhaps because of this there is a common assumption that all Arabic calligraphy constitutes verses from the Quran. However, this completely overlooks the rich poetic tradition in the Arabic speaking world and much of the calligraphic representation in this show was from classical poetry.

Interestingly there are a number of different calligraphic styles that developed at different periods of Arabic history. One of them the Nasta’liq was designed by a 15th Century calligrapher, inspired by the sight of geese flying across the sky. The most common is thuluth in which part of each letter slopes, making it more cursive than the block or kufic text, which preceded it. The letter Kun (Be) by Nassar Mansour on the left is very stylised kufic while Ghani Alani’s verses from the pre-Islamic poet Zuhayr ibn Abi Sulma on the right are thuluth. The last line of this poem reads: ‘Half of man is his tongue, and the other half is his heart: the rest is only an image composed of blood and flesh’.

There are a number of other styles too and this is quite a contrast to the modern problem of very limited Arabic fonts - most newspapers, websites and software use just one. This problem was the subject of a presentation by the founder of the Khatt Foundation, which initiated a collaborative design project in Holland resulting in the creation of 5 new Arabic fonts (see http://www.khtt.net/)

Section 2 explored the theme of ‘Literature and Art’ and included Farhad Moshiri’s paintings of pots, which are among the most striking images to have come out of Iran in recent years. Inscribing poetry on urns or pots goes back to the medieval Islamic period when a trend developed for uniting material and literary culture. The poem here is by Omar Khayyam and is called Drunken Lover. Intoxication is a common theme in classical poetry but is ambiguous as it also refers to the emotional or spiritual ecstasy of love and faith rather than straight substance abuse. I think Khayyam probably played with this ambiguity more than most, however!

The third section ‘Deconstructing the Word’ featured images made from words or based on letters. This included poetry in three different languages painted onto strips of silk and delicate script painted on bricks! However, I was struck by one particular piece in this section by Lassaad Metoui because of its similarity to Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. The medium was black ink on paper and the choice of word was the Arabic for ‘path’, also a key philosophical concept in the far east and frequently the subject of calligraphic works.

The fourth and final section was ‘History, Politics and Identity’ and used a huge variety of mediums and images. One of these was the dafatir meaning ‘notebook’ in Arabic. The dafatir is an experimental medium of artist books that have emerged from Iraqi artists over the past few years. Hana Malallah’s book is based on the ancient poem ‘The conference of the birds’ by Farid al-Din Attar. This is a mystic tale of enlightenment but in this modern manifestation the book is ripped and the text illegible. Others contain scraps of newspaper, clothing and assorted debris from the street. Some have been partially burned and are displayed open with scorched covers and pages containing only some of the original artist content. What they represent is the profound loss of Iraqi heritage and culture as museums and libraries have been destroyed over the course of the war. Carleton College in Minnesota actually held an exhibition devoted entirely to these kinds of works by Iraqi artists in 2006 (see http://apps.carleton.edu/campus/gallery/dafatir/about/).

Other interesting pieces in this section included Chant Avedissian’s homage to Egypt’s most famous and revered singer, Umm Kalthoum, and prints from Shada Ghadrian interpreting our modern and perhaps merging identities with Ctrl-Alt-Del.

For many more images and info from this show see the BZU Virtual Gallery site: http://virtualgallery.birzeit.edu/tour/exhibition?id=128633
  • I will just repeat that this show is on until April 30th at DIFC and it’s FREE so you have absolutely no excuse not to see it ;)