Najat Makki presents kaleidoscopic, evocative body of work in new solo exhibition

Over a career spanning decades, Makki has remained one of the UAE's pioneering women artists

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In a solo exhibition at Dubai’s Aisha Alabbar Gallery, Najat Makki engages with her past through speckled, vibrant paints, hallucinatory paisleys and patterns, and forms emerging from dizzying brushstrokes.

The Scent of Memories exemplifies Makki’s sensibilities towards colours and what they can evoke. In Arabic its title literally translates to The Spectra of Musk, or atyaf almusk.

The title, Makki says, is a nod to her father. “My father had a perfume store, and he sold musk there,” she says. “The smell of musk has a strong presence in my memories.”

The Scent of Memories opens with a quartet of works titled Four Seasons. They embody summer, winter, autumn and spring, with circles of gold, white, black and teal painted on Indian textiles with backdrops evoking each of the four seasons.

The paintings, Makki says, reflect on rain. As the circles vary in each of the paintings in size and colour, Makki says they embody the atmosphere and type of rain that falls in each season. In the summer work, the circles are smaller and wider apart. In contrast, the winter work features gold droplets painted in close huddles. Each work evokes a distinct visual dynamism, with the eye seeing moving patterns across and along the circles.

“Inside the works of art are memories,” she says. “And within the memories, events.”

In a career spanning several decades, Makki has remained one of the UAE's pioneering women artists. The female perspective has long been prevalent in her work, as she used painting to represent the women in Emirati society in her idiosyncratic silhouetted forms.

At first glance, The Scent of Memories seems to veer away from the female-centric works that Makki has been known for. In fact, only two works bear her famous abaya-clad silhouettes. Yet, the stories and memories each work bears pay tribute to the women in the artist's life.

“Women have a strong but invisible presence [in the artworks],” Makki says. “They are represented in the emotions and spirit of a specific time and place.”

Echoes of Musk #3, for instance, is a homage to her sisters’ passion for embroidery. On a backdrop of blue and white horizontal lines is embroidering of paisley and palm frond patterns. Embroidery was one of the first mediums that “opened my eyes to colours. It is a part of memory,” she says. “This work reminds me of that and of my sisters.”

Meanwhile, the works in her Resonance series employ a material that holds a special place in Makki’s memory: an Indian fabric worn that was the height of fashion when she was a child, and worn by women on special occasions.

“I took these women’s fabrics that are tied to a specific time and place,” she says. “It is called zari and it came from India, and it was used by our grandmothers, mothers, and even by us. It was a trend at the time. It was worn during weddings and Eids.”

Makki used a stamping technique on the zari, an iridescent textile whose silver and gold floral patterns ebb and flow with the light, to superimpose other shapes.

“It was the first time I worked with hand printing techniques,” she says. Each work uses a distinct stamp, which was a way, Makki says, of differentiating the pieces from mass-produced works.

“As it was done by hand, there are inconsistencies with the print,” she says. “I wouldn’t call them mistakes but scratches. The patterns I used are found in traditional buildings across the UAE. I took different patterns and merged them to create new ones.”

The result, like much of Makki’s new body of work, inflicts a visual experience full of rhythm and magnetism. It shows how the artist, now in her sixties, continues to push the boundaries of her own practice, in a process that is bravely introspective.

While a portion of the works are executed in neatly repeating patterns that come together with kaleidoscopic effect, there are also paintings that employ a more dynamic, and apparently chaotic, approach. However, even in the most dizzying of Makki’s works, there is a precision with how she manipulates the eye, how she slackens and pulls perception.

In Imprint #1, for example, strings of psychedelic hues swirl around a canvas that is segmented into panels. Patterns of a mashrabiya are evident behind the rippling designs. As the eye flits this way and that, Makki provides the viewer with a lifeline in the form of a neon green stroke painted in the centre. The line is a break from the motion, a momentary breather before diving again into the pearlescent tides.

Then there is the largest piece in the exhibition, a tarp that covers a large portion of the gallery’s wall. An artwork composed of vibrant orange, pink and blue horizontal lines layered with squares and rectangles, Makki says the work is an abstraction of seeing Dubai from a plane at night as she returns home from abroad and looks down the window.

Even the most abstract of works within The Scent of Memories has a concrete significance to Makki. The works, she says, are dialogues she had with herself as she aimed to recollect key moments from her past.

With the exhibition, Makki says she hopes to evoke in her audience what she herself experienced when making the works. That is, “to evoke an intimate memory of a time and place” in a way that is individual to the viewer.

The Scent of Memories will run at Aisha Alabbar Gallery until November 2

Updated: October 09, 2023, 6:38 AM