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


  1. "UAE Gothic", like it, like much of the rest of your piece this is snappy whilst thougtful. Also re the art (for I havent seen the show yet) some very interesting pics on your website, cant think why they dont just steal your pix and commentary and...oh....yeah

  2. Thanks for the good art info! I hope to get there before Oct.5.

  3. Thanks for dropping by existential and glad you like the info...

    I like your audio visisons!