Transform your world: the changing landscape of the UAE in art

26th February 2017, The National

Transform your world: the changing landscape of the UAE in art

By: Anna Seaman. The National.

Munira Al Sayegh describes the rapid transformations the UAE has undergone and its constantly changing social and physical states, as "the in-between".

A curator and programme officer at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, she has worked with eight emerging artists on bodies of work that illustrate this, for an exhibition titled Bayn: The In-Between, which opened at Abu Dhabi’s Warehouse421 last week.

It is the third exhibition held under the UAE Unlimited banner – a platform founded by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, one of the youngest prominent patrons of the arts in the country – with the aim of promoting young talent and contributing to the overall cultural production in the Emirates.

In her essay for the show’s catalogue, Al Sayegh uses the word "liminal" to shed light on what she means by the in-between.

"Liminality derives from the 17th-century Latin word limen, meaning threshold. [This exhibition] seeks to describe, question and expand on the threshold found between a starting point and its end."

She also shares personal anecdotes about her childhood, growing up amid "drastic physical change" in Abu Dhabi and a culture and language that was being diluted by increasing foreign influences.

This interest, sparked by her own early experiences, continues to influence her, along with many other artists of her generation.

Al Sayegh began her curator role for the exhibition by gathering eight emerging artists and one guest – Manal Al Dowayan, an influential artist from Saudi Arabia – at monthly group-reading sessions to ignite their creativity. Then she worked with them all on individual projects that addressed the exhibition’s theme in a variety of ways.

Sara Al Haddad – one of five Emirati artists who will represent the UAE at the Venice Biennale this year – chose a personal take. She created an installation made of sheets of tissue paper stitched together and placed on the ground, through which visitors are asked to navigate a path. She also presents a cast of a cardboard box she used while moving house, as well as single eyelashes in glass jars.

"Sara is using the eyelashes to talk about the idea of in-between being inevitable," says Al Sayegh. "It is something that you cannot escape because change is constant. Her work also highlights loss as a factor for adaptation and transformation."

Other artists chose to focus on the dynamic physical landscape of the country. Asma Al Ahmad, an Emirati from Ras Al Khaimah, studies the disappearance of the mountains in the northern and eastern part of the UAE and their reappearance in construction materials used for building skyscrapers and man-made islands.

For this exhibition, she has made a mountain using mesh wires with a hollow centre, to represent the excavation of the mountains. It is presented alongside photography of quarries.

In the courtyard of Warehouse421 there is a piece of art that Al Sayegh says actually is in a state of in-between while the exhibition takes place.

Hatem Hatem, an Iraqi, used a very scientific approach for his piece, titled Calcified Landscape. After studying the decline of coral reefs around the world, particularly in the Gulf region, he sounded out how to manufacture synthetic coral reefs, which are used by conservationists. For the exhibition he installed two water tanks and uses electrical fields as salt magnets to attract artificial limestone formations in order to create transient sea habitats. Throughout the exhibition, the landscapes will be in a constant state of evolution.

Visually, the exhibition is highly appealing, with several different forms of art on show. There are relatively few pieces actually hanging on a wall, in the traditional form of an art exhibition. A notable exception is Talal Ansari’s illustrative piece based on the evolution of the UAE since the discovery of oil.

The piece, called Masan’a Alrijal, is inspired by a quote from Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, and reveals an aspect of the industrial post-oil revolution that the country underwent.

Audio also plays an important part in the exhibition. Maytha Al Shamsi created a 10-minute sound piece titled I Am Hear. It is a loop of natural and electronic sounds that consist of echoes and sonic nuances commonly heard in Abu Dhabi. Sounds such as car horns, the movement of water in the sea, animals and the various languages that populate the country comprise the recorded sounds in this work. By illustrating an evolving language, the piece aims to show the constant sense of change and transformation that exists in the country.

What is special about the exhibition is that all the artists – other than Al Dowayan – are just starting out in their careers.

Even Al Sayegh is an emerging curator, and this is her first solo-curated show. The quality of the work shows great promise, and Al Sayegh underlines the importance of the UAE Unlimited platform for providing such a wonderful opportunity.

"It is thanks to this platform that the likes of me and these emerging artists have a chance to participate in the overall art scene that is taking place in the UAE, and specifically Abu Dhabi," she says. "UAE Unlimited is giving us a voice that otherwise wouldn’t have been heard."

• Bayn: The In-Between runs until June 18 at Warehouse421, Abu Dhabi.