Emirati artists explore the ambiguous relationship between self and society.

London - SEP 12, 2013

The United Arab Emirates is a fascinating place in the context of artistic production. In Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, the arts scene is dominated by international museum projects, global biennials, wealth and spectacle. Investment in the arts is often conducted via international channels, with English its language. It is rare to be exposed – in the UAE or abroad – to home-grown artistic talent. This is not to say it does not exist: the very title of Three Generations at Sotheby’s, London, stresses the temporal lineage and existing history of contemporary art in the UAE. Initiatives such as Tashkeel, The Flying House and ADMAF are celebrating and funding UAE art at grass-roots level and in schools. Yet the question persists: does the government’s rentier bargain and political sensitivity hinder professional arts careers and discourage criticality? Amid this complexity, what picture do Emirati artists construct of their society?

Ebtisam Abdulaziz’s film piece explores the self as the coded product of a consumerist world. Dressed in a bodysuit peppered with neon lines of information, seemingly from her credit card receipts, Autobiography sees the artist roam everyday Sharjah, rendered utterly anonymous. Reduced to a schematic female body, she is a surreal presence lounging on the grass with foreign workers, strolling through a supermarket, waiting for a coffee. The suit condenses her vital statistics to those of her bank account’s activity; defined entirely in the present temporal moment, and in the context of commerce. There is a kind of revelation enacted here, not least in the form-fitting lycra and legible lines of information on her limbs. And yet, in essence the artist has concealed her real self. Lacking identity beyond the economic, the human person is subsumed beneath the data of her credit card.

The theme of concealment is also present in Shamsa al-Omaira’s work Diffused, 2012. On unprimed wood three lampshades are painted in matte white acrylic, atop bare shoulders sketched in graphite. The use of academic drawing echoes powerfully with the raw skin of the wood, and contrasts the thick flatness of the paint. The addition of small schematic clowns perched along the edge of the shades feels a little arbitrary, but the mix of textures is arresting. The artist writes that she intended to reflect ‘the struggle to restrain [her] personality’. The metaphor of light and its control is not terribly subtle, but the ambiguous co-existence of concealment and revelation resonates with Abdulaziz’s work, with which it shares an attitude of ambivalence towards the self.

Dana al-Mazrouei’s work casts literal shade as a pair of giant orange sunglasses suspended in space. These have a horizon of skyscrapers thickly painted into their lenses, the gallery’s lighting casts their shadow on the wall behind. The work reflects the glossy, metropolitan, commercial world of the UAE’s malls and towers, but this superficial plasticity is underscored by a personal dimension. Sunglasses are a screen for the self, establishing distance from the outside world, for celebrity aggrandisement or quotidian disguise. While the piece feels a little one-dimensional, the impulse to explore the partial is clear again. The work is driven by a commercial object, one which complicates the presentation of identity.


©Hamdan Butti Al Shami, State of mind (detail)

Hamdan al-Shamsi’s State of Mind, 2011, is a digital print of an Emirati man in profile, his hands held in front of him. These remain obscured by uncertain bluffs of white cloud that waft round his fingers and face, blurred against the crisp folds of his robe. In this work too, the artist’s concern appears to be with the concealment of personality. Clouds are simultaneously delicate and intangible, translucent and weightless, and yet also constitute an uncontrollable force of nature. He should be able to brush them aside, but in the bounded frame of the picture surface they are as flat and hard as the lampshades in al-Omaira’s piece. Operating similarly to Abdulaziz’s work, identity is stuck beneath the ephemeral, revelation firmly denied.

What picture of Emirati identity is being portrayed in Three Generations? One intertwined with commerce, concerned with identity, and defined by ambivalence. The need to hide the self, or explore the human as inevitably concealed by external forces, feels pervasive in the exhibition. The show is a mixed-bag of quality – not every work feels truly resolved – but is good to see. Not only does it herald greater visibility of art from this region, the exhibition suggests that artists are examining the complex relationship between self and society, and are contributing to a contemporary cultural landscape that reveals the UAE to be more than the sum of its skyscrapers.


Rachel Dedman

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