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“‘Public’ and ‘private’ are instances of state talk. The very distinction between the public and the private is a product of the state, which circumscribes, or at least ratifies, the boundaries of both” (Willem Schinkel, in Art and the Articulation of the Public).
Geography and Cultural Uniformity
A few months ago Martin Guttmann and The Perpetual Experts curated a show at FRANZ JOSEFS KAI 3 in Vienna, focusing on the young generation of Viennese artists living and working in the city. What really struck me at the time, when I read the concept of the show, was indeed the curatorial position and acknowledgement of a situation that differs deeply from the actual one in most Middle Eastern countries. Dealing with the very same basic media of painting, sculpture and photography the work that the 11 artists presented in that show, lightly titled ‘Let’s Mingle’, can be described by the following few sentences:
"They no longer expect the city or the country where they are based to have an impact on their artistic practice. We can observe that in the last decade the art world has extended dramatically and has become more and more decentralised and multi-layered. The general notion emerged that each individual plays a strong role in creating his or her own artistic locus and reality. Therefore one cannot hope to find uniformity based on geography.”
If the very last affirmation profoundly resonates with my personal perspective on the relationship that should be running between geographical coordinates and artistic practice, in terms of variety of artistic investigation and research, I nevertheless must acknowledge a noticeable distance between the situation pictured here and our local one. The impact exercised by the social, political and environmental context – to name just a few aspects – over the artists’ creativity seems to overflow and still remains a significant connotation of otherwise diversified paths here in the UAE.
On the other hand, the correspondence established between the geographic conditions and the creative practice is equally echoed by a certain orientation among the specialised international professionals (who seemingly reverse the idea of a lack of uniformity based on geography, which is largely acknowledged in the Western world) when it comes to observing contemporary Middle Eastern visual production.
The recently increased attention that the Middle Eastern art scene has enjoyed on the international platform seems to ritualistically confine MENASA contemporary art to an exotic panorama. Shows featuring Middle Eastern artists have only multiplied in the past few months, starting with the last edition of FotoFest (Houston, 2014), to ‘Here and Elsewhere’, by superstar curator Massimiliano Gioni (New Museum, NYC, 2014) – and ending with a recently opened show, ‘Too Early, Too Late’, at the National Art Gallery in Bologna (Italy, January 2015).
The asserted possibility for artists to create their own locus and reality seemingly does not apply to the Near Eastern talents, mostly regarded as a whole, identified with confused ideas that widely circulate in the West about these complex and variegated societies, and considered as a reflection or an illustration of a social phenomenon rather than as self-determined personas.
In a bid to give voice to the ‘Other’ and to better understand their positions, these exhibitions significantly respond to political agendas, prioritising the exoticism of the subject (observation through an incubation room) and the aestheticism of political situations, with which the general audience has been familiarised through the media.
Artistically, the MENASA still seems to be regarded as a colonial region, in the sense of the compactness of its representation, and certainly in terms of responsiveness to determined ‘environmental’ conditions, as is partially the case. And, sad as this can be, it does partly accept a certain subjugated position when it comes to compliance with the Western eye in the perspective adopted towards localities.  It is not uncommon to encounter artworks that embrace the occidental perspective in their ironic approach to elements and components characterising the local society. Is it because the language adopted by contemporary visual art undeniably depends on the Western school? Or is it because most of the artists active in the Middle East, also owing to a lack in the local educational system, have been widely educated in Western countries where they are likely to have absorbed not only the formal creative tools but also a critical mental structure that largely permeates their practice?
Solving the Conflict: Emerging Artists in a Dream World
“The market for art, which enlarged with the growth of the bourgeoisie, radically changed art, up to the number and size of works an artist produced, thus giving rise to the notion of an artistic career” (Willem Schinkel).
Artists, unlike other professionals, cannot be defined in terms of age as they reach out to the world and attain their artistic maturity. The two phenomena can even be reversed in many situations, as the logics of the market are often unpredictable and respond to paradigms that we are not entitled to enter within the present notes. Nevertheless, no one would deny that the art market is now (and has long since been) the true pivotal element in an artist’s career, as exposure to a growing specialised public widely creates a vicious or virtuous circle that ultimately depends on the opportunities an artist is given.
If the capitalistic principle of ‘supply and demand’ applies to every other field, why then shouldn’t it apply to the arts field?
The Gulf certainly presents a singular context with regards to the opportunities that are offered to local talents in the creative fields. After a disallowance period, which has spanned almost three decades, institutional attention is now paid to local contemporary visual artists – regardless of their choices in terms of media – therefore moving away from the conventional prevalence of painting and sculpture while integrating photography, video and installation as acknowledged media. Opportunities are offered on an unimaginable scale to dozens of artists active in each of the GCC countries, in a proud national attempt to use local creativity as a promotional tool to gain international acceptance.
This is indeed a double-edged sword, especially in the case of emerging artists who immediately after graduating find themselves thrown into the international arena without having had the opportunity to consistently elaborate on their artistic positions and research. For some this can be a strong form of support and encouragement in the direction of self-affirmation, while for others it disables the process of discussion and development that would eventually lead to a mature artistic vision.
Curating an exhibition for young, emerging artists is a challenge, especially in the actual context of the Gulf, where the notion of commitment to a certainly uneasy career, such as that of the visual artist, is still a fluctuating value.
The youngest generation to emerge from universities in the past few years is occupied in the very process of establishing their own creative routine and community-based connectivity. This generation of artists can be, and certainly is in the Gulf, a very endangered one as, regardless of their talent, they are nonetheless trying to consolidate the level of engagement they want to grant to their own artistic practice, and face the demands and claims of a still heavily traditional and conventional society.
In curating this first show of a future series dedicated to the promotion of creative youth in the UAE, first and foremost (with an extension to the surrounding region and the integration of locally based talents), we have mostly opted for the generation of artists (who have somehow already solved the conflict) generally referred to as ‘emerging’ in specialised literature, spanning through various degrees of critical acceptance and recognition, in order to reflect on the composite society that the UAE certainly encourages and supports.
Dealing with issues of representation and pretence, of secrecy and disclosure, Jumairy (UAE, 1992) provokes the audience with his installations. Both repulsive and appealing, his work thus investigates the space in between curiosity and desire, which is naturally opposed to the tendency towards self-containment and immobility. The installation presented within ‘A Public Privacy’ demands active participation from the audience, as they are invited to individually approach the objects and to discover their messages. The public and the private spheres are therefore connected, although on an individual scale: the dialogue engaged by the artist is not that of a mediatised arena; rather it alludes to the intimacy of a conversation, where words necessarily break down the boundaries of privacy to deliver a message to a wider (or not so wide) public.
Shamma Al-Amri’s (UAE, 1985) approach to painting reflects on an area of self-determination as it investigates the limits and the possibility of interaction between discipline and the lack thereof.
“Drawings that are carefully constructed and reveal a high level of control … are juxtaposed (to others simply) layered with pure ink blots and ink spills ... The lines between illusion, figuration, fact, abstraction, become blurred.”
This struggle to define a position that might integrate both aspects of order and disorder seems, of course, to result from a philosophical dilemma, which cannot ultimately be answered. By combining paintings whose constitutional elements are the result of either an extreme formal control or, on the contrary, a total lack of it, Al-Amri implicitly questions the limits of rules, without resolving the conflict in either direction.
A similar question, although formally oriented towards deeply different directions, animates Hamad Al Falasi (UAE, 1979), whose photographic series Local Reciprocal instantly confronts the artist to his environment, in a conversation visually settled with harmony and a perfectly balanced composition. Al Falasi’s interest in culture is also reflected in another work whose title explicitly states Part-not-Apart, and portrays him in a dream desert landscape wearing the local male dress, in a repeated juxtaposition to compose the United Arab Emirates map. This declared sense of inclusion apparently answers the question about self-positioning in a quickly changing society, where the role of the individual is not that of a simple spectator but instead that of a structural component of society. Al Falasi’s research also extends to the language (see his series Emirati Colloquialism), another key element in defining identity and the role of the private within the public sphere. A strong sense of integration and of acceptance emerges from this series, where the fixity of the background seems to allude to an idealised setting rather than to a real one.
Confronting elements of reality is certainly a defining aspect of Vikram Divecha’s (India, 1985) practice. The observation of the surrounding space, with special attention to the urban landscape, and the investigation into areas of fractures, discontinuity and hidden possibilities are all elements of interest that ultimately highlight issues of re-contextualisation, of displacement, and of the continuous process of renegotiation that urbanised contexts as well as communities undergo over time. In his project Negative Heaps (of Designated Waste), Divecha uses the decorative patterns beautifying “underpass tunnels in the UAE with … arabesque motifs, national landmarks, calligraphy and content celebrating nationalistic pride” as a starting point to reflect on notions of exuberance and redundancy. He works with the portions of tiles that are sacrificed to be replaced by those segments composing the decorative motif as they represent the pieces left behind “which never make it to the 'public' walls of the tunnel”. Divecha adopts and raises the materiality of these unutilised remnants to metaphors for the messages that cannot reach public visibility and are not worth celebration or monumentalisation.
A deep sense of physical involvement also emerges through Shaikha al Mazrou’s (UAE, 1988) practice as a whole and especially in her most recent projects, including Tension II and Relax, which are exhibited in this show. The minimalist matrix that permeates her practice, with the refinement of strict formal control, is still present, yet the reference to a theoretical school has undergone a process of elaboration that clearly opens up to a personal positioning within that current of thought. The playful nature of Al Mazrou’s work is counterbalanced by a dramatic, and not always hidden, approach to topics of public domain, if not debate. Through abstraction and geometry, the work raises issues of engagement, confrontation, illusionism and unresolved balance, which are also explicitly evoked in the title and which ultimately engage the viewer in a self-confrontation about the nature of reality and appearance.
Issues of self-image, and of its continuous process of redefinition (Anachronistic Fantastic; The Tragedy of Self), as well as the unresolved dilemma of representation between the ancient and the modern (Muhawwil “Transformer”) are some of the themes that Monira Al Qadiri (Kuwait, 1983) investigates through her practice. With a clear inclination and a penchant towards those expressions of popular cultural nature, such as songs from the Arabic repertoire, graffiti and amateur video footage, Al Qadiri explores the instability of the present, in both individual and collective terms, their contradictions and the struggles of reconciliation with a past that still deeply permeates GCC society.
Her new work The Falls (2014) explores issues of mediatised representation and the use of visual metaphors, which have largely circulated and shaped Middle Eastern Society. With Monira’s own words, “In essence, the work mimics and combines the transformation of visual values found in spiritual popular culture in the region.
Public and Private: a Fictional Territory
“In years marked by new dimensions of the reality – defined by words such as social network, augmented reality, virtual reality, reality show – it is increasingly more evident how reality and fiction have ceased to be perceived as opposed elements. Authenticity and mystification, truth and lie, within a world marked by likelihood, are simple ingredients of a same universe, although always with real effects on the persons who perceive them.
Besides, in the last decades people seem to have changed their approach to reality. Not only is private life consistently more used in the entertainment of media fictions but, from the opposite perspective, people increasingly tend to behave in their ordinary lives as if they were playing a role within a drama of monumental proportions. Where does reality lie then? In the experience, in the fiction, in the documentation? Can we find an authentic reality outside the illusion? Or is it all fiction?”
Gabriele Salvaterra evokes these significant issues while introducing and commenting on the recent solo show by Rä di Martino, ‘Authentic News of Invisible Things’ (curated by Frida Carazzato) at the MUSEION in Bolzano, Italy.
These considerations are extremely significant when referring to Rä di Martino’s practice as he deals with the blurred area between the two dimensions of fiction and reality. Nevertheless, the considerations about the intertwinement of public and private can be extended to a wider context as they reflect on an area of miscommunication with a delusional flavour to it. Whether fictional or authentic, the appropriation of the private sphere operated by public media as well as the appropriation of public personas’ behaviours by private individuals echoes a wider sense of confusion, impermanence and transience. 
Intentionality therefore becomes the key element for evaluating the level of self-confidence and self-positioning in this tricky territory where the private dimension is trivialised in public and the public is immortalised in the private arena, indeed a field for self-confrontation and continuous redefinitions. 
Cristiana De Marchi
Artist, curator and writer. Born in Italy, currently living between Dubai and Beirut.
A Public Privacy
9 March - 8 April 2015
Cristiana de Marchi & Mohammed Kazem
Inaugural exhibition of "U.A.E. Unlimited Artistic Exploration," a new platform under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan.