Abu Dhabi Art: Winning Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award 2023 project unveiled

On display at Manarat Al Saadiyat, Shaheeq delves into the proficient photosynthesis processes of mangroves

Shaheeq was conceived by Vivi Zhu, Hala El Abora and Majd Alloush. Victor Besa / The National
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The winning project of this year’s Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award has been officially unveiled at Manarat Al Saadiyat, on the eve of Abu Dhabi Art opening to the public.

An installation delving into the proficient photosynthesis processes of mangroves, Shaheeq was conceived by Vivi Zhu, Hala El Abora and Majd Alloush. The artists were named the winners of the 11th iteration of the prize earlier this year, but their work was not publicly revealed until Tuesday.

Shaheeq comprises three columns of varying sizes displayed on mounds of sand. With stacked gradients of grey, brown and blue, the work aesthetically pays tribute to the mangrove’s efficiency in taking carbon from the air and using it to support marine life. It is perhaps due to these qualities that the tree forms an important aspect of UAE heritage.

“They actually absorb the carbon dioxide and trap it into the soil, and convert into organic carbon,” Zhu, an NYU Abu Dhabi graduate, says. “You can’t see it but a lot of things are being converted underneath the ground. These little trees are doing so much. You see them so short but there’s so many things underneath. They’re also so resilient. They are the only trees that grow in salty water.”

Shaheeq’s homage to mangroves extends to its material form and fate. After Abu Dhabi Art concludes on Sunday, the installation will be exhibited at NYU Abu Dhabi and Umm Al Emarat Park before finally being installed at Jubail Mangrove Park, where it will be left to biodegrade.

This degradation process will be gentle and beneficial to the Shaheeq’s future neighbours. The columns are made of rammed earth, providing the nutrients necessary for a mangrove environment.

“The two main components are basalt sand and beach sand,” Alloush, a graduate student at NYU Abu Dhabi, says. “We sourced them from a supplier near the warehouse we were working at in Umm Al Quwain. We used mineral pigments to mix with the sand. We used a concrete mixer to get an even layer and even colour.”

What is also significant about Shaheeq is that the three artists built the installation themselves instead of outsourcing its production. After its design was in place, the project took a month to build.

“The physical labour was one month, every single day in the summer,” El Abora, who is also a graduate student at NYU Abu Dhabi, says. “Of course, I’m doing it with the best people so it makes a difference. The connection that we had, the materials we were using, and the [association] we had with the mangroves themselves. The work was worth it.”

The Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award has been held annually since 2013 in honour of the late art couple. The award is open to UAE students and recent graduates. It serves as a launch pad for artists across the country.

The award is held under the patronage of Sheikha Shamsa bint Hamdan. It is presented by NYU Abu Dhabi in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation. The Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award is produced in collaboration with The NYUAD Art Gallery.

Emily Doherty, director of the award, says the initiative has grown alongside the creative communities of the UAE, and is continuing to mature in reflection of the local artistic scene.

“We've had 11 years of winning works, and because the arts education in this country has matured, our award has matured. We’re picking up students who are now doing much more considered work, doing master’s [degrees] and not just BAs. Not just architecture and design, they’re doing actual fine arts,” Doherty says.

“This is a huge shift and our award totally reflects what's happening in the UAE.”

Updated: November 22, 2023, 10:50 AM