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Re-Sourcing Emirati Contemporary Art

Review of the shows “Emirati Expressions” and “Re-Source” presented in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
By Cristiana De Marchi | Feb 2009

Almost coincident in timing, two exhibitions apparently heading for a same direction have been inaugurated in Abu Dhabi and in Dubai. "Emirati Expressions" and "Re-Source" – these the respective titles – both focus on the Emirati contemporary art production, thus entering the realm of fascination clouding the UAE art scene. It is a matter of fact that awareness about the creativity made in UAE has not been promoted enough by local art observers and experts, who have embraced a tendency more than anticipating it.

The Dubai show is actually the second step of a project developed by one of the most interesting and "self-conscious" galleries in town. Starting last summer, when artistic director of Elementa Gallery, Mehnaz Tan, organized a first exhibition with young Emirati artists ("Beyond Conventions"), it took shape the idea of giving some kind of continuity to the discourse. As a consequence of that experience comes "Re-Source", showcasing ten emerging art practitioners accurately chosen by curator (and artist) Mohammed Kazem. Besides three of them – Layla Juma, Abdul-Rahman Al Ma’aini and Moza Al Suwaidi – who are represented by collective The Flying House, the others come straight from local universities: they all reveal strong awareness and they have already been included in several group shows organised by local and international galleries and institutions. To tell the truth, it is perhaps easier to draw some critical attention for young talents in a small "environment" compared with the condition of their equals in a country with a more "established" art scene. The fact that four out of ten (Lateefa Bint Maktoum, Reem al Ghaith, Khouloud Sharafi, and Abeer A. Tahlak) appear also in the Abu Dhabi show might confirm this feeling, just like the participation of a few among them to upcoming Sharjah Biennial 9.

Dealing with topical issues, such as identity or imposed and self-built imagery, the artists here displayed mostly face the critical theme of self-determination. Encouraging the production of new works (half of them were expressly created for this project) has been one of the main purposes of the curatorial team, along with stressing on the need of establishing a positive, constructive confrontation curator-artist. With three installations (one of them by Hind bin Demaithan, to watch closely), one sculpture and a site specific "wallpaper" (Khalid Mezaina) – beside the more common "flat formats" (let’s just remember Maitha Huraiz’s photo print) - the variety of media is granted by this show that is aimed at offering a concrete chance to diversify their expression to young talents, while encouraging them to dare undertaking new, alternative paths, where these paths are intimately perceived as a fundamental step towards the creation of an artistic identity.

On the other hand, Abu Dhabi’s "Emirati Expressions", curated by Anne Baldassari and exposed in the luxurious Emirates Palace, hides a very ambitious presupposition. When the call was first launched, the declared purpose was to gather 150 UAE artists! Finally, 64 are displayed, and a further selection would have been highly recommendable. This exhaustive ambition is definitely noxious to the quality of the show, assembling a few artists whose "respectable" work is drowned by the creations of far too many amateurs. Maybe this is the reason why an imposing scenario has been built around the exposition: the gallery has been completely painted in black, in order to evoke the idea of a black box, as the curator diffusely explained. But the sensation is that the curatorial stress on the context might rather divert the attention from the works... In case the visitor is an art expert or enthusiast with little knowledge of local art scene, he/she might notice the remarkable absence of some of the very few internationally acclaimed UAE artists; the conditional is required, for Hassan Sharif’s and Hussein Sharif’s presence could easily fool the public, the label not specifying that these paintings and collages are in fact a loan from a private collector, whereas the artists did not agree to have their artwork showcased in this context. It is a tricky way of adding value to this exhibition that has so little by itself. "Ornamental" use of traditional formats prevails, like it usually happens when the acceptance of other creative modules (sculpture, installations, video…) is still poor and needs to be built. It is certainly a pity that a manifestation of this range did not take advantage of the fabulous opportunity it was offered to it of becoming a "touchstone", and instead preferred to comply with the general, approved taste.

The artists often show the contradiction of their condition, the difficult search of a balance between the rules dictated by the tradition and their artistic quest. Indeed a deep elaboration of these very themes, which is eventually crucial for building an identity and developing an artistic position, appears in some promising talents, the four already mentioned as also participating in "Re-Source" plus Reem Ali Beljafla, Hind Mezaina, and Ebtisam Abdul Aziz, the only artist daring to present video and stills of a performance, unfortunately relegated in a corner and hardly visible. But in several other works, where this research is too openly shown, almost proposed, we do not have a true work of art, we simply have the page of a journal, the documentation of an objective far to be attained.

Let’s make it explicit, in case one might think, while reading this review, that there is no significant divergence between these two shows, both proposing "national" artists, and mostly young ones, mainly still trying to define their artistic personalities. The differences are relevant, with regard to both the purpose and the result. Whilst the Abu Dhabi exhibition is driven by a desire of settling accounts with the actual art scene and of showing there is abundance of Emirati art thus diminishing itself and that very production; the Dubai show directs its efforts towards a palette of selected young artists, focusing on the development of a network in the spirit of sustainability. This is not a revolutionary approach, of course; it is simply a correct, fair and respectful one, reflecting a farsighted perspective better than a self-commemorative one.


Cristiana De Marchi

Artist, curator and writer. Born in Italy, currently living between Dubai and Beirut.

31 Jan. - 5 March 2009
Elementa Gallery

Emirati Expressions
20 Jan. - 16 April 2009
Emirates Palace
Gallery One
Abu Dhabi

Elementa Gallery

Dubai Airport Free Zone, LIU K-05
United Arab Emirates

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