A patriarch’s desert portrait

Sylvain Tremblay creates a supersize portrait of Sheikh Zayed out of desert sand.

The Canadian-born artist Sylvain Tremblay created a massive portrait of Sheikh Zayed in the desert near Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
The Canadian-born artist Sylvain Tremblay created a massive portrait of Sheikh Zayed in the desert near Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

Never work with children or animals, or so the saying goes. Perhaps after yesterday, Sylvain Tremblay will be adding hot-air balloons to that list.

The Canadian-born artist had been planning for weeks to drop sand from a hot-air balloon onto a huge canvas laid out in the desert to create an image of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

He travelled to the borders of the desert between Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s Eastern Region on the Al Ain Road before sunrise yesterday morning to complete the task but fell foul of the weather.

At first, all went to plan, Tremblay laid the canvas – massive at 10.5 metres by 12 metres – in the sand and began painting on a thick layer of PVC glue to the parts he had already marked out with a red line.

The technical team opened the fans and filled the hot-air balloon with air and then fired up the kerosene engines to heat that air and lift the vehicle off the ground.

But as Tremblay was finishing the glue application, the wind speeds picked up, making it impossible to control the balloon even at 15m, the height at which the team had planned to hover at while Tremblay completed the art.

They were forced to abandon their plan and the artwork was eventually created on the ground.

“I did a lot of tests and a lot of planning and really I haven’t slept in the past week, running through different scenarios that could possibly happen today,” says Tremblay. “The one thing that I was really hoping wouldn’t happen was this – too much wind. I think we started a little bit too late, too.”

The artist had been practising from a rooftop at the Canadian University of Dubai, where he is also a lecturer.

The technique worked perfectly, he explains. But of course, nobody can control the weather.

“We had to figure it out completely differently but in the end, the painting was finished and it still looks very nice,” he says.

At such a size, the portrait of Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE, is the largest ever made, according to Tremblay.

He achieved shading effects by using black sand from Fujairah for the hair, beard, eyes and black egal or rope that fixes the headscarf in place.

For the mid-tone, he used the sand from the Al Ain desert, and for the lightest parts, such as the face and the headscarf, he used sand from the beaches in Dubai, where it is almost white.

“It’s a great honour for me to be able to produce this portrait,” says Tremblay.

After it was completed in the desert, the portrait was moved to the university campus to dry.

It will later be transported to Liwa where it will be displayed at the Upcycle exhibition at the Liwa Art Hub on Thursday.

Tremblay completed a one-month residency at Abu Dhabi Art Hub in February.

“Sheikh Zayed is in our hearts and our minds forever. And he always loved the desert,” says Ahmed Al Yafei, the owner of the Art Hub. “Liwa is one of the areas he converted to an oasis at the edge of the Empty Quarter, so we think it will be a landmark in that area. We are very proud to be holding this artwork there.”


Published: May 12, 2014 04:00 AM


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