Abdul Qader Al Rais in Nuqta: The Diacritic.

Abdul Qader Al Rais in Nuqta: The Diacritic.

Leila Heller Gallery, Dubai

23 March – 15 September, 2020

Nuqta: The Diacritic presents a series of paintings by the pioneering Emirati Artist Abdul Qader Al Rais, across his  third period of his work, which is marked by his engagement with bringing abstraction and local cultural heritage into dialogue. Al Rais incorporates the contours of calligraphy as well as the rocky cliffs, deserts, and shores of the region’s unique natural world into his rigorous study of the fundamental elements of color, form, and light. The works exhibited range from oil on canvas to watercolor on paper, and offers a painterly alternative to current understandings of the UAE’s art history as rooted in highly concept-based and anti-aesthetic installations.

Serenity Series, 2008-2009
Watercolor on paper
155 x 105 cm

The show’s title, Nuqta, derives from the diacritical marking used in Arabic script, which in stark opposition to the use of circular dotting in Latin scripts, is a diagonal definitive square, and often a central motif in Al Rais’ paintings. Appearing in an enlarged size, and contrasting with the sway of the smaller, surrounding curving letters, the Nuqta takes on an authoritative presence, adding a surrealist element by distorting the viewer’s sense of dimension, while recalling the relationship between geometry and language and its potential role in abstraction.

Serenity Series, 2018
Watercolor on paper
105 x 75 cm

Beginning painting in 1964, at a time of limited cultural infrastructure, the self-taught artist struggled to access paint, and was isolated from international markets and Eurocentric forums of critique. Instead, Al Rais’ practice is informed by Gulf traditions of representations of the divine, culture and community, and is grounded in humility. Spending his youth in Kuwait in the 60’s and 70’s, while the country experienced an artistic and literary renaissance, he often visited Al Marsam Al Hurr, a studio and meeting point for artists, and encountered key figures in the Gulf modern art movement, including Sami Mohammed, and Khalifa and Lidia Qattan. Al Rais’ early works were representational and rooted in realism, where he mostly depicted traditional Emirati landscapes and architecture. The artist then took a hiatus from 1974 until the 1980’s, where his work began to take on political themes, and was particularly responsive to the first Palestinian Intifada, which is seen as the artist’s second period.

Calligraphy Series, 2017
Watercolor on paper
105 x 75 cm

In the 90’s, Al Rais increasingly turned to abstraction and calligraphy, marking his third period, recognizing their shared meditative and spiritual qualities. Revitalizing calligraphy with a modernist take on the age-old tradition, singular letters are repeated and engulfed in color fields, and incite a sense of synesthesia, where the guttural sounds of the Arabic languages are celebrated and emphasized.

Alsamaer Series, 2019
Watercolor on paper
257 x 157 cm

Abdul Qader Al Rais was born in 1951 in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, twenty years before the country was formed, and is considered one of the most iconic painters of the country. Al Rais received a Bachelor of Sharia Law from the United Arab Emirates University in 1982. A founding member of the Emirates Fine Arts Society, retrospectives of Rais’ extensive artistic career have been held at the Sharjah Art Museum, and the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute. The artist was featured in the UAE Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, and his work is currently held by The British Museum, the Louvre, the Northwest Museum of Culture and Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai, and the Museum of Modern Art in New Delhi. Al Rais work has also been displayed at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, and his public murals can be found in the Dubai Airport and the Dubai Metro. Among his numerous awards are the Sheikh Khalifa Prize for Art and Literature, Abu Dhabi (2006); Golden Palm Award, Gulf Cooperation Council Art Exhibition, Doha (1999); first prize at The UAE in the Eyes of Its Artists, Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation (1999); Sultan Al Owais Award for Scientific Studies and Creativity, Dubai (1992, 1994, 1996) and first prize at the UAE Exhibition in China (1991). 

Departure, an immersive installation by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota at the Jameel Arts Centre, DUBAI

Departure, an immersive installation by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota at the Jameel Arts Centre, DUBAI

Artist’s Rooms: Chiharu Shiota
11 NOVEMBER 2018 / 17 AUGUST 2019
The Jameel Arts Centre, DUBAI

Departure is an immersive installation by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota, which explores ideas of displacement, time and the entanglements of life. The work has been specially commissioned for the opening of the Jameel Arts Centre. Working with large quantities of yarn, Shiota creates immersive web-like structures that take over entire rooms. Building on her experience growing up in Japan and moving to Berlin in the 1990s, her work often touches on the notion of travel, belonging and the complexity of the human condition. In this particular installation, Chiharu works with traditional abra boats, referencing the history of the Dubai Creek and the city’s identity as a meeting point of people, goods and ideas.

Artist’s Rooms

Drawn largely from the Art Jameel Collection, Artist’s Rooms is a series of solo exhibitions by influential, innovative artists, with particular focus on practitioners from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. These capsule shows are collaborative: curated in dialogue with the artist, with some presentations including new commissions. Winter 2018-19 features rooms by Maha Malluh, Mounira Al Solh, Lala Rukh and Chiharu Shiota in galleries 1, 2, 3 and 10.

About Chiharu Shiota

Chiharu Shiota (b.1972, Osaka) lives and works in Berlin, Germany. Through performances, installations and sculptures, Chiharu Shiota examines existential human interests such as life, death and relationships. She originally studied painting at Kyoto Seika University, Kyoto and is known today for creating large-scale installations from ordinary objects such as beds, shoes, keys, boats, dresses and chairs often in combination with thread or organic materials such as water, fire and soil. Shiota’s international exhibitions include: Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf (2018), The Japanese Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale, Venice (2015), Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian, Washington D.C. (2014-15), The Museum of Art, Kōchi (2013) and MoMA PS1, New York (2001).

National Identity and Sensitive Spaces: Socially Responsible Art in Dubai

National Identity and Sensitive Spaces: Socially Responsible Art in Dubai

by Hania Afifi

As you walk through the gigantic concrete slabs which serve as entrance doors to Concrete Gallery and over the chalk-like floor drawings that depict the silhouettes of soldiers on stand-by carrying bayonets, you are greeted by a subdued blowing sound emanating from Reetu Sattar’s Harano Sur (Lost Tune) sound piece that lends the entire space an eerie atmosphere.  Indeed, his subdued artwork which uses the Bengali Harmonium to create a sustained droning hum throughout your gallery visit imparts an extra sensory element to a highly charged exhibition which explores “sensitive-spaces”that challenge the fabricated notions of state, nation and territory. Timely conceived during the UAE’s declared Year of Tolerance, Fabricated Fracturesis an exhibition which features 15 artists from South Asia including India, Pakistan, Nepal and Thailand who contest the artificially created border lines that form modern nations. By highlighting the violence resulting from reductive regional and national narratives which created the non-natural territorial divides, the artists successfully force us to rethink the complex nature of a geo-political identity. How do you divide lands between its inhabitants? Is language the distinguishing factor that creates a common identity? Is religion the common element that makes-up a people? What are the building blocks of a well-integrated community?

With the recent EU migration crisis, the growing social unrest amongst nations and the rise of populist movements which often culminate into tragic events like the March 2019 New Zealand Mosque Massacre, many artists chose to engage with the discourse de jour.  They operate along a continuum of socially engaged art practices that span from poetic gestures –where the artist agency role serves as a conduit between the public and official institutions in which it remains confined to the single function of shedding light on a particular issue –to effecting social change that reverberates across civic institutions and alters daily existence. For example, the recently commissioned artwork, Imperfect Isometryof Suchitra Mattai for the Sharjah Biennale14 considers “how spheres of politics, community and individual experience overlap in complex and sometimes contradictory ways”.  By gathering vintage saris from India, Sharjah and her own Indo-Caribbean family, she wove a unique topography of intercultural relations that challenges notions of national identity.  Another artist renowned for his minimalist futile poetic gestures is Francis Alÿs. His artwork The Green Lineof 2004 in which he traced the 24km Jerusalem green line that separates east and west Jerusalem, lent a voice to the city’s inhabitants beyond the official national narratives.  By recording the spontaneous reaction of both Israeli and Palestinian citizens to his march, Alÿs provides a platform for the speaking of truth.

Almost a decade later, visual artists Shilpa Gupta travelled to Chitmahal, the landlocked islands of India within Bangladesh and Bangladesh within India and photographed the overarching skies from which we are unable to distinguish the territorial land divides.  Like Alÿs’s The Green Line, Border Sky2016, reflects on the relationship between people and their ancestral land: the sense of belonging to a claimed land underneath a free sky in which the clouds move liberally across fabricated borders. On the other end of the spectrum, we encounter artists who prefer to effect change and physically alter the existing reality, rather than quietly observe and analyse then make a gestural statement.  For example, Decolonize This Place; an artists’collective,  occupied the grounds of the Whitney Museum in March 2019 to rally for the expulsion of the museum’s Board Vice Chairman Warren B. Kanders who owns a company that manufactures tea-gas canisters often used by authorities during indigenous struggles.  Renowned for their political activism, the collective asserts in an online statement about The Crisis of the Whitney // Nine Weeks of Art and Action“There is no safe space for profiteers of state violence.”  They challenge authority and official narratives which cause ongoing conflicts and human suffering like the Israeli/Palestinian border dispute in which they staged weeks-long protests, holding up banners that read ‘Resistance Until Return’in Arabic.  Decolonize This Place operates at the extreme activist-end of socially ameliorative art in which artworks are judged by their ethical value and affectability rather than aesthetic disposition and creative merit.

Perhaps a more moderate activist artist who boldly confronts the establishment on socio-political disputes is Banksy.  Drawing inspiration from the environs of sensitive spaces across the world, Banksy employs sarcasm to challenge imposed narratives of power and political agendas that divide up cultures and territorial grounds.  The provocative murals depicted on the bedroom walls of the Walled-Off Hotel in Bethlehem; which was supposed to be a temporary art installation that draws tourists to the site of the Palestine-Israel Wall, have proved to be highly effective in drawing global attention to the living conditions in the disputed territories and expanding the Israeli/Palestinian discourse beyond the usual socio-political spheres. Moreover, he continues to spray-paint multiple subversive images on the physical structure of the Israeli/Palestinian Border Wall to create global news headlines and bring back the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to the forefront of global public awareness.  Whilst he is not calling for a particular action like Decolonize This Place, he is laying the grounds for official institutions and responsible parties to initiate the change. Whichever end of the spectrum they operate, citizen artists continue to provide a creative platform to hold constructive dialogues about sensitive spaces. Although we may argue that no artist has successfully resolved a political border dispute, we cannot deny the fact that almost all of them disclose the alternative truths that elude our immediate perceptions.

Hania Afifi

Crude: A Slippery Inauguration Exhibition / Art Jameel Centre, Dubai

Crude: A Slippery Inauguration Exhibition / Art Jameel Centre, Dubai

by Hania Afifi

The ambitious exhibition Crude curated by Murtaza Vali for the inauguration of Art Jameel’s Jaddaf Waterfront Centre on the 11th of November 2018 has certainly shattered the prevailing commercial vibes that dominated much of the Dubai art scene since the 2000s.  Spread over all 5 galleries of the 1stfloor, Crudeis fundamentally an intellectual exploration of crude oil’s agency role in shaping the Middle East’s social, cultural and economic reality. Opening with a fragmented polyethylene title banner (a nod to the plethora of petrochemical products made available by oil’s discovery), the exhibition is archive heavy.  Allocating almost equal display space to straight-out archival documentations as to artworks inspired by archival material, Crudeis essentially an episodic narrative of oil history in the region.  Timely conceived, it encourages visitors to reflect upon historical nodes that affected and continue to affect the geo-political status of the GCC.

Exhibition Title – Opening Banner

Jameel Art Centre, Dubai

Despite Saudi Arabia and Iran’s political dichotomy, Vali successfully demonstrates their shared oil narratives.  He selected works that highlight the transformed but often exploitative nature of oil production across the region including countries like Iraq and Kuwait, to assert regional commonalities. In Gallery 8, archival photographs of Iraq Petroleum Company’s (IPC) designated photographer Latif Al-Ani taken of Baghdad between 1954 and 1961 that showcase the modernisation and urban developments taking place across the city, resonate with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) archival documents displayed in Gallery 5 that recall the company’s unsuccessful efforts to produce propaganda films that hail the company’s positive contribution to Iranian urban development.

Gallery Description Plaques printed on clear polythelene banners

The ARD Study For A Portrait 1 – 28, Hajra Waheed, 2018, collage cut photographs, mylar, archival tape, xylene transfer, and ink on graph paper

The ARD Study For A Portrait 1 – 28, Hajra Waheed, 2018, collage cut photographs, mylar, archival tape, xylene transfer, and ink on graph paper

Another shared narrative that is subtly weaved between the displays is the colonial nature of oil exploration across the Gulf.  Strongly pronounced in Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck & historian Media Farzin’s video installation Chronoscope 1951, the edited 24-minutes video of gathered film material from CBS TV show Longines Chronoscope demonstrates the vital role Middle Eastern oil plays in driving global foreign policy.  Video installations were one format of archival artworks that propel the colonial sub-theme to the forefront.  Another is the archive inspired collage work of Saudi female artist Hajra Waheed; The ARD: Study for a Portrait 1-28.  Within A3-sized backdrops, Waheed assembles fragments of archival material including photographs, geological diagrams and topographical maps to question the official narrative of ARAMCO that has been presented to the world by its unknown centre of information: The Arabian Research Division (ARD).  In fact, Waheed anchores her project to a “key artefact … an annotated copy of Brill’s Encyclopaedia of Islam… the Berkley-trained Arabist who established and ran ARD.”  The accompanying wall plaque states that the entry of “Djazirat Al-Arab” (Arabian Peninsula) continues to be a widely referenced text for the overall history of the region. Fitting with the contemporary global issue of Fake News and Fake Information, Waheed’s presentation of a global reference text that claims to be an objective account of the region’s history even though it was “strategically constructed to expand and protect the interests of ARAMCO” invites the exhibition visitor to reflect upon learnings of the region conveyed via mass media.

Slippers and Wire, Hassan Sharif, 2009, plastic flip flops, metal wire

Through the 55 works on display, Crude investigates a discourse between 17 artists and collectives from the Middle East and outside it.  What it lacks in visual enticement, it makes up for in intellectual stimulation.  Perhaps the paintings of Houshang Pezeshknia, the modernist Iranian painter who also worked as an illustrator at AIOC between 1948 –1958, are amongst the very few works on display that can be admired for their visual aesthetic quality.  True to his signature style, both Untitled 1949and Untitled c.1958are portraits of sorrow oil refinery workers. His bold brushstrokes and angular lines that construct form are reminiscent of German Expressionist portraits that convey inner destitute and angst. The tempestuous colonial and social themes evoked by Crudeare offset by the equally urgent topic of environment pollution.  Manifested by Hassan Sharif’s 2009 Slippers and Wire, the colourful mount of neon plastic slippers is a cheery, albeit grave visual.  If it was not sitting in Gallery 7B which is entirely dedicated to Petrochemistry and Plastics, Sharif’s sculpture and Lydia Ourahmane’s 2014 installation Land of the Sun, would feel utterly out of synch with Crude.

Land of The Sun, Lydia Ourahmana, 2014, perspex, recycled engine oil, lemon tree, tyre

Launching a new art centre with such a challenging exhibition is a brave undertaking by Art Jameel’s Director Antonia Craver.  She emphatically stresses the scholarly nature of the centre and her focus on “the curious visitor”.  Whilst there is no doubt that Crudeis a rich and thought-provoking exhibition, its weighty themes and dense archival manifestation may prove to alienate many visitors.  Without a sound background in contemporary arts, the aid of the Gallery Introductions (which have proven to be very challenging to read) and the accompanying exhibition catalogue essays, Crudeis a hard nut to crack open.  But once opened it fuels an inspiring rush to learn and understand the history and geography of this turbulent region.

Hania Afifi

The Art Supermarket. The opening of the Abu Dhabi louvre

The Art Supermarket. The opening of the Abu Dhabi louvre

Last November the Abu Dhabi Louvre opened its doors to the public. The agreement for opening in the Saadiyat island a branch of one of the most popular museums in the world go back to March 2007. During that year, the Abu Dhabi leaders and France decided to give life to a “cultural project never seen or attempted before”, as the Museum itself says. Luckily for us, that “never seen before” truly reflects reality by being a direct consequence of the historical moment we live in. Here, art – and those that make it – has lost its aura, also losing its primary purpose. In 2008 when Jean Claire stated that “the art trade tranforms art into entertainment and museums into amusement parks”, she was pointing to the new phenomenon where museums completely lose their role of preserving heritage, evolving into places close to shopping malls and shop windows. The newborn museum is designed by Jean Nouvelle and it is based in the island which already hosts important museums, such as the Guggenheim of Frank Gery. On the same island there are also shopping malls and residential districts, therefore the new cultural hubs will also have a recreational purpose. 

Louvre Abu Dhabi Ottoman mosaic pavement © Louvre Abu Dhabi, Photography Roland Halbe

Terms and conditions were made public, stating that the new Louvre has permission to use their actual name for thirty years and six months. This is enough time to conquer people’s hearts and to stay in the collective memory. This is why it was decided to create a museum capable of representing a bridge in between cultures, between humanity and its history in order to protect the heritage and recount interconnections between different populations and their art. What is not told is that the project has been entirely designed as the launch of a new product in the marketplace. The ingredients for success are pretty easy to determine, it’s necessary to create a need that the public did not know it had; have a recognizable name; build a good structure and make it identifiable as well; display pleasing contents and saying they are for the common good; finally, make everything look related to a healthy way of living and people’s wellness.

Louvre Abu Dhabi Germination by Giuseppe Penone © Louvre Abu Dhabi, Photography Roland Halbe

The result is a product of our present, which does not manage to keep a relationship with the past either in purpose or in fact, and doesn’t even break relationships with it, but it simply forgets it. This mindset is connected with the distortion of global art, which planned to tear down and destroy borders between nations and populations. This happened, in the art field, in order to demonstrate how every population could be a part of the art world and there were no hierarchies between different arts, artists, and world’s populations. The fact that today, almost thirty years after the first attempt to create a global art, it is still common practice to build places that are not even capable of creating an identity, is also deeply alarming. The sense of identity and belonging to a certain place, or to a certain culture, are ideals that have not been swept away from these new “cultural centres” but have left the door open to the creation of money machines, of places where the price is misidentified and portrayed as value and where history and heritage becomes an illustrated book.

Jenny Holzer ‘For Louvre Abu Dhabi’ 2017 © Louvre Abu Dhabi, Photography Marc Domage

In the art world the identity crisis is even stronger than before, we stopped asking ourselves the right questions, instead there is a ruthless pursuit of profit in a world which should be different, where the difference between commercial product and work of art should be clearer. This change of direction seems necessary, as it looks essential to reveal the real reasons at the core of this “innovative cultural opening”. It is correct to talk about opening, but the world “cultural” really cannot be applied to this case. As long as the main purpose is primarily that of making art a purely economic matter, there will not be a breakdown of the hierarchies, and if we prefer to hide the real economic and political goals under the badge of art and in the name of equality, we will not be interested in producing any kind of culture anymore.

Chiara Guidoni




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