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!