Sunday, 24 May 2009

Scraps at Total Arts gallery

As we all know one of the most sublimely beautiful areas in Dubai is Al Quoz - grimy, dusty, mechanical and packed with warehouses, factories, storage depots, wholesale outlets and galleries!

As we all also know there are risks to living in an industrial zone and reports of warehouse fires are frequent. The most damaging one in March last year caused a massive explosion and fire resulting in several casualties, 3 destroyed warehouses and a thick cloud of toxic looking smoke. Luckily none of the galleries were close enough to the site of the fire to be seriously affected and since then it seems that fire safety precautions have been dramatically improved ...... or there's been a blanket ban on reporting fires in Al Quoz :).

This tragedy is the background and inspiration for the current exhibition at Total Arts gallery that has to rate among the most memorable I have seen in my two years here. Total Arts was founded by architect Darius Zandi and artist Shaqayeq Arabi and was the first gallery to set up in Al Quoz way back in 1996. After the fire Zandi and Arabi visited the burnt out warehouse and were so affected by what they saw they began a long process of transporting things from the site back to the gallery.

The result is Scraps, an installation composed entirely of materials, artefacts and incidental objects found at the site with site photos projected against two of the gallery walls. The scale of the installed pieces varies from huge warped sheets of corrugated metal suspended from ceilings and used to create artificial walls, to small and fragile fragments of paper or cloth.

Some pieces stand on plinths like highly original sculptures, most amazingly a collection of hundreds of pairs of metal scissors all melded together by the heat of the fire. A partially collapsed bicycle stands precariously upright surrounded by different piles of objects fused in plastic, metal and wood. There are melted tins, jars, knives, safety pins, toothbrushes, bicycle pumps, a cash register, a sewing machine and many other everyday objects rendered almost unrecognisable by the furnace they emerged from.

Many of the smaller finds have been transformed into installations in their own right. One wall is covered with blackened food trays set with piles of melted forks and spoons and a metal sheet is covered with knife blades. A series of boxes contain a curious mix of objects, scraps of documents, textiles and electrical wires.

The whole thing is a sensory experience crystallised by a soundtrack of muffled explosions and the all pervading odour of burnt metal, wood and plastic. It manages to address several different levels and aspects of its own particular local context as well as referencing wider points of aesthetics and art history - a dual achievement still very rare in exhibitions here.

It is also a unique and moving memorial to those who died.

Scraps runs until end August at Total Arts Gallery, Al Quoz

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Ajman-ski and fish

Last week I ticked the Ajman box .... this means that I have managed to visit all 7 Emirates during my stay here.... OK ... so Umm Al Qawain may only have been a trip to Dreamland but it counts!

Ajman was only a fleeting visit for one evening but we packed a lot in. First there was dinner at the Casa Samak almost on the sand at the Coral Beach resort. Unfortunately it was buffet night so the food was rather grim but apparently the normal menu is excellent and as the name suggests fish is a speciality. However I don't really see how it can beat the Al Sheraa fish restaurant in Sharjah which is an absolute treat. I went there with a group of friends after an afternoon at the biennial. There is a menu mostly of fish nobody had ever heard so we ordered a few different kinds which were served whole for everyone to share. They were gorgeous and the shrimp was sublime. If you know what you're doing you can even go and select your own fish. Highly recommended although Coral Beach obviously trumps it on location!

But back to Ajman. After dinner we went for stroll down the corniche which is very lively, full of people (and cruising cars) and real buzz. Then to the huge Ajman Kempinski which is completely over the top and has bizarre rules like not being allowed to go in the sea after sunset even just to paddle! I took off my shoes and made determined moves toward the shore but was stopped by security before the water hit my toes. I loved the geometric parquet in the lobby. This was the first thing I noticed but the next obvious thing was the couple who didn't look like they were married casually waiting for the elevator enroute to a very temporary room rental.

It was another of those great UAE contrasts. From the corniche packed with movement, barbecues and great weekend atmosphere - South Asian bachelors, assorted families and a lot of local families - to the opulence and decadence of the adjacent 5 star. Another lovely anomaly is that the wholesale Al Kahool outlet is right opposite the palace which made me grin. But what was most striking were the Russians. The hotels were full of them and there was even a fur coat shop in the lobby of the Coral Beach resort. Down the main drag there were shop signs in Russian too. There were the usual quota of inebriated Brits who are found anywhere there is an Al Kahool outlet but in Ajmanski they shall be mercilessly crushed by the competition from their Eastern European neighbours....

Saturday, 2 May 2009

My taxi driver is also my gynaecologist..

I have got very used to the deliberations of taxi drivers on the childless state of spouse and myself. There seems to be no concept of privacy about family matters which means that I have had the same conversation in about 70% of taxis I took in Dubai and possibly 80% in Sharjah! The drivers are usually, though not always, Pakistani and the conversation is conducted at varying levels of English with bits of Arabic thrown in. After "madam where come from ?" the next question is always:

"you husban’??"

followed by:

"you baby? 1? 2? 3?"

Answering 'no' to the baby question inevitably opens up an insistent line of reproductive enquiry. On establishing the existence of a 'problem' the next question from the driver is invariably:

"you problem? husban' problem?"

.. and so a most sensitive and intimate subject becomes a perfectly normal and acceptable conversation with a total stranger!

Over the past two years I have been told more than once that under Islamic law I can divorce and get a new husband who will “give me baby”. I have also received the phone numbers of “very good doctor” in Pakistan. The funniest one was a driver who asked if my husband worked very hard and then came home and went to sleep. When I said yes, I was earnestly informed that this was “big problem” because "for make baby husban' must wake up".

The most harrowing was a driver who had 7 children in a village near Peshawar. He was so upset by how he perceived the situation that he actually started to cry and said that if his children were here he would give one of them to me.

I only ever got one offer of a more physically direct contribution to my motherhood but I pretended not to understand and didn't give the driver a tip .....

In most cases, especially when language options are limited, the journeys end with an acknowledgement of the powerlessness of humanity and the absolute necessity for trust in the will of god. Allah karim can only ever be the safe conclusion!

These and other experiences and conversations with taxi drivers will be among my strongest memories of the UAE. I have heard stories about the lives and the politics of every part of Pakistan and know which buildings in Dubai are owned by which members of Pakistan's ruling families. I have heard tales of arduous road trips between Abu Dhabi and Sudan or Yemen via Saudi Arabia and across the Red Sea. Drivers like that who have been here many years have taught me a lot about the UAE and how it has changed. Over 18 years one driver had descended from being in the Abu Dhabi Air Force to driving a cab in Sharjah. I heard similar stories from Yemenis and Bahrainis who were in the police force but gradually squeezed out as policy shifted to employing more UAE nationals. Some of these stories are bitter, some reveal fascinating facts about crime and corruption while others leave you suspicious that the driver is omitting a key transgression of his own which resulted in the forced career change!

Living here may have made me redefine my working definition of freedom (i.e. an integrated public transport system!) but its absence gave me access to a whole fleet of social, cultural and political commentators, storytellers and UAE historians. It also provided a lot of surprisingly personal human contact that I would not otherwise have had.

Of course there were the absolute nightmare taxi drivers as well. However, they were a minority and generally consisted of those poor b******s seemingly fresh from the village, who hadn’t been in the taxi for more than a few days and appeared to have had no training, no orientation and certainly no suggestion that listening to a woman with a map might be a good idea……. it's those ones that make freedom seem like an integrated public transport system. By integrated I mean inter-emirate too. I miss being able to lose several hours staring out of train windows at passing landscape while listening to the infinite possibilities of 10,000 MP3 tracks on random .....