Universes in Universe

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Abdullah Al Saadi

His work in relation to the landscape near Khorfakkan, UAE, and its cultural and personal context.
By Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt | Jul 2004

Abdullah Al Saadi is not really interested in what is popular with the trendsetters of the international art scene. He told us that for him, working artistically was a matter of being true to oneself and when he sat at home looking out at the landscape, drawing and painting, he felt he was being truest to himself. His drawings, paintings, installations, and analytic-documentary projects are unpretentious witnesses of an ardent relationship to nature, and a sensitive record of personal experiences and recollections. But behind the (apparent) simplicity of most of his works, there is a complex concept combining life and art.

We gained an initial insight into this, when we saw Abdullah Al Saadi’s contribution to the Sharjah Biennale 2003 and talked to him at the time about it. During our second trip to the Emirates in April 2004, we definitely wanted to visit him to learn more about the context of his work and, of course, to see more of his production.

From Sharjah, we drove two hours eastwards to Khorfakkan on the Gulf of Oman. There we met Al Saadi who picked us up to drive us in his jeep to his house in a mountainous region located in one of Oman’s enclaves in the United Arab Emirates. His father had built the shelter as a place to sleep when he watered the land at nighttime. Even as a child, Abdullah loved to come to this place where he would hike through the mountains and valleys, study the flora and fauna, help with the work in the fields and, as a result of the heat, often sleep below the stars. Due to this close relationship to the area, he moved to the small piece of property three years ago, despite having to drive to Khorfakkan everyday to earn his living as an English teacher. For him, reconstructing the house, filling it with his own objects and those he has found, arranging stones within the property, is a continuous creative process. Unfortunately, it has not rained for years and so the plants in the garden have dried up and the water basin is empty.

Despite his sense of roots, Abdullah Al Saadi still enjoys traveling. In the Emirates, he is often underway on his bike, his donkey, in his Jeep, or on foot. He records the landscapes, plants, animals, and people that interest him in journals and sketches. He collects dead insects, bones, cans, bottles, and whatever else he notices, to arrange them into unusual constellations when he returns home. Actually, he enjoys engaging his own works of art and other things in new relationships. For a while, he converted his Jeep into a mobile exhibition, and drove old and new works throughout the country, occasionally spreading them out under trees or on the beach (see photographs).

The nature boy from the rugged mountains on the Gulf of Oman spent two years in the ancient Japanese imperial city of Kyoto. From 1994 to 1996, he studied the techniques and philosophy of the Nihonga (Japanese painting Nihon = Japan, ga = painting) at the Kyoto Seika University. This style of painting was born in the Mejia era (1868-1912), when Japan, following a long period of isolation, opened up to the West; it is a combination of traditional Japanese conventions and elements of Western art.

The department in Kyoto where Abdullah Al Saadi was educated in the modern form of Nihonga, specifies, amongst other things, the precise observation of the object and the greatest faithfulness to detail as the essentials of its art. There is no question that Al Saadi remains loyal to this tenet in his drawings and watercolors of landscapes. The long versions may be up to 15 meters across, and have certainly been influenced by the Japanese "emaki", the story scrolls. However, his inventory of the "wadis" (dry riverbeds, title of a series of works) is making it more and more difficult for him to remain true to the "spirit of inner beauty", which the Nihonga teachers wanted to communicate to him, because as an attentive observer of his world, he ever more frequently notes its destruction.

Since Abdullah Al Saadi learned the language of the country in Kyoto, he was forced to deal with the Japanese alphabet. Japanese is not a language based on a phonetic alphabet (like Arabic, German, English, etc.), but on ideographic letters, i.e. every symbol stands for a certain meaning and a large part of such ideograms is composed of pictograms (image signs). This principle inspired Al Saadi so much that he adopted it for his art. He began making out codes contained in his environment in order to decipher their meaning, thereby adding an analytic component to his intuitive relationship to nature. Sometimes, he develops tabular overviews to clarify the connections between various elements and to discern archetypical aspects in the symbols of various – natural or cultural – sources.

The best known project of this type is the "Letters from my mother", produced from 1998 to 2000. After returning to Japan, Al Saadi lived in his studio in Khorfakkan. His mother, who lives a few kilometers away in the district of Madha, visited him frequently. Whenever Aisha Said Al-Hamidi didn’t find her son at home, she left him a message. Because she could neither read nor write, this took place in the form of a sign. It might have been a stone, a paper, an old comb, a piece of wood, metal or string, some packaging or some other object which she found in front of the house and placed – in some cases slightly changed in a particular way – at his door.

Abdullah regularly writes a diary, so he faithfully recorded the "failed" visits from his mother and kept her messages. He thought about these for a long time until he began to investigate them systematically. He drew the objects from various perspectives, numbered prominent details, and entered these details in a table. This appears to be very scientific and logical. But you shouldn’t try to figure out the secret of the codes, because, as Abdullah tells us, only he and his mother know the true meaning. Others also practice this form of communication that originates from the daily routine of the Bedouins, but is gradually disappearing, together with the loss of the flow of oral tradition.

Abdullah Al Saadi once wrote: "My mother may be illiterate … but her messages are full of symbols, full of the magic of the ancient language of the Orient." [1] How important it is to document these cultural traditions for posterity is demonstrated by the fact that Abdullah’s mother has not left him any more "letters" for a long time – he and she both have cell phones which they use in order to arrange to meet.


  1. 5/U.A.E., Zeitgenössische Kunst der "Fünf" aus den Vereinigten Arabischen Emiraten. Exhibition in the Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, Aachen / Germany. 6 September - 17 November 2002. Catalog, p. 128.

Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt

Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art and of Nafas Art Magazine. Based in Berlin, Germany.

Related Content:

02 Al Saadi
Photo Tour through the exhibition of the Emirati artist in Sharjah, 22 Febr. - 22 May 2014, curator: Hoor Al Qasimi. Visit to his studio in Khorfakkan.
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