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.

No comments:

Post a Comment