Universes in Universe

For an optimal view of our website, please rotate your tablet horizontally.


Body art and performance in the Gulf area: 16 artists, curator C. de Marchi. 19 Sep. - 23 Nov. 2013, NY University Abu Dhabi. Before at DUCTAC, Dubai.
By Cristiana De Marchi | Sep 2013

After the presentation at DUCTAC in Dubai (7 March - 10 April 2013), the exhibition opens on 19 September 2013 at the New York University Abu Dhabi Downtown Campus.

Body Art without body might be a pure paradox. Instead it is worth a thought in a region where the depiction of the body is culturally banished.

Art in the UAE has experienced an extraordinary growth in the past decade, this comes without saying and it has been said far too often. But this is just the result of a process, and not necessarily of a cultural one being rather a marketing promotion on a worldwide scale. And yet a few artists have been active here since the early 70s. Contemporary art at its very beginning has gone through experimentation, especially with regard to those media and concepts, which were profoundly stranger to the local culture.

During the early 80s’ artist Hassan Sharif has used his body in a significant series of performances and experiments which have been developed in tight connection with the European, and especially the London, art scene and then kept in a drawer for decades. In this region, the use of the body was at that stage "premature", and still it is underrepresented. The season of physically engaging gatherings has somehow gone by and the actual circuit of contemporary art has come out as "clinical" as a dentist’s waiting room.

Nevertheless a restricted group of artists and intellectuals have tried to go close to different forms of expression and to go beyond restrictions. After Hassan Sharif, his "protégé" Mohammed Kazem has explored reality through his body and overtly disclosed his research in a restricted and yet consistent series of works dating back to the mid 90s. These experiments being the exception, the rule in the Gulf area has been widely respected and substantially nothing definable as Body Art has been produced.

Body Art (as well as Performance) does undeniably offer the advantage of the matière première, the body of the artist him/herself most often. And yet it needs, in its performative practice and nature, a public. The public is indeed the authentic missing link in the UAE Body Art experiments related experiences and this has significantly influenced the following steps of the research in this field.

Where is the body, then? To what stage and in which scenario has the body been represented in the last 25 years? These are some of the questions introduced by this show, displaying artists from the Gulf who mainly use video and photography. Manal Al Dowayan (1973), Ebtisam AbdulAziz (1975), Noor Al-Bastaki (1985), Waheeda Malullah (1982) are some of the artists using their own or others’ body in their works. They are mainly women artists, in a limbo area where the expressive urge still compromises with strong social and cultural links and limitations. The same as Tarek Al-Ghoussein (1962) –who displays his body in response to social or political questions– or Anas Al-Shaikh (1968), almost all the works produced in this part of the world and implying the use of the body try to avoid open violations of the conventions.

Self-censorship is a quite delicate issue, constraining the creative process in its very processual phases; and yet allowing those who must face it to find ways to escape and still express their perspective. Therefore, investigating the role of the body in contemporary art from the Gulf is also a way to investigate the freedom of the artist, the creative as well as the exhibitive one.

"MinD-Made in Dubai" is a format -now in its fourth year- that aims at staging very diverse concepts related to the Dubai and UAE art scene. It is indeed a very flexible format that accepts and incorporates various aspects of what is a certainly variegated "reality". This year the focus of MinD is on the Body - "how do artists use the body in a culture where it is, especially with regard to women, more often than not sheltered from the public gaze". We need to first of all define the terminology as a certain confusion permeates this sphere of artistic creation. "The term "body art" is not an art historical one, but rather a more anthropological one and as such implies using the body as a support for painting, piercing etc. The use of the body in contemporary art theory is more or less strictly related to performance art." [1]

In most cases, if not all, the performances relate directly to an understanding of the body, whether in relation to space, gender issues, etc. and they can be divided into a few main directories: body and space (Hassan Sharif, Abdullah Al Saadi), body and political/social issues (Noor Al-Bastaki, Anas Al-Shaikh, Tarek Al-Ghoussein), body and gender (Ebtisam AbdulAziz, Waheeda Malullah, Saeide Karimi).

The use of body as a physical support, which is properly responding to the definition of "Body Art", is also represented within this exhibition (Rabi Georges) along with Performance. It must be clarified that Performance in the Gulf Area is often not a happening with an audience gathering at a set place, date and time. It is more often a solitary action, sometimes attended by few friends also acting as technical supporters assisting and documenting the event that is later proposed as a documentary act. The public, instead of being a direct witness, is a "voyeur", but one encouraged by the artists themselves.

Another group of works included in this exhibition are those using the body as a subject in a more narrative way or responding to a sort of "illustrative" desire (Manal Al Dowayan, Siavash Yansouri). This is not strictly pertaining to performance but what is of interest here are the many ways artists from the Gulf and Iran have approached and do approach the body; the ways they relate to and incorporate the world through the body (their own or that of an alter ego) and the way they perceive and represent the body of others, observing and projecting over another subject the relation that runs between the social corpus and the individuals.



  1. I would like to thank Leigh Markopoulos, Chair of the Graduate in Curatorial Practice located on the San Francisco campus of the California College of the Arts, for her precious advice and for the conversation we had concerning the terminology and the definition of the field of intervention from which this project has originated and developed.

Cristiana De Marchi

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

Body art and performance in the Gulf area

19 September - 23 November 2013
New York University Abu Dhabi
Downtown Campus
Abu Dhabi, UAE

7 March - 10 April 2013
Gallery of Light
Mall of the Emirates

Cristiana de Marchi

Abdulla Al Saadi
Anas Al-Shaikh
Cristiana de Marchi
Ebtisam AbdulAziz
Hassan Sharif
Manal Al Dowayan
Mohammad Al Mazrouei
Mohammed Kazem
Noor Al-Bastaki
Nujoom AlGhanem
Rabi Georges
Saeide Karimi
Shaikha Al Mazrou
Siavash Yansouri
Tarek Al-Ghoussein
Waheeda Malullah

Related Content:

Constructivist drawings and Fluxus influenced performances in Dubai and the desert, early 1980s.
Experimental works, interactions with the community and interventions in the public space of Bahrain.
Back to Top