What is water? It is a deceptively simple question — but one that Jameel Arts Centre’s current international group exhibition, An Ocean in Every Drop, explores in an expansive and diverse way.
While there may be no straightforward answer, the journey at Jameel Arts Centre reveals that water is even more important than we realise. It is an ancient, sacred and crucial element that has defined and sustained mankind across many intersecting fields and facets.
The exhibition allows visitors to reconsider their relationships with water through the perspectives of artists and thinkers across an expansive timeline — re-enchanting and recontextualising the significance of an element that many take for granted.
The title of the exhibition is derived from a phrase by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi: “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are an ocean in every drop,” which speaks to the abundance of water in the world, simultaneously alongside the potential of abundance within each individual.
The nuanced existence of water in all its forms is explored throughout the exhibition by 15 artists from indigenous communities of 14 countries.
“This theme of water has been really key for us from day one,” Antonia Carver, director of Art Jameel, the arts organisation which runs the centre, tells The National.
“Even before we moved into Jameel Art Centre we would come to the construction site and really think about the role of the creek and how this kind of artery of the city really gave Dubai its trading mandates. And, always with the exchange of goods through trade, you also have exchanges of cultures and ideas and languages.”
The exhibition is a timely one, with the UAE hosting Cop28 in November.It follows from last year's event, held in Egypt, as the region places the spotlight on various issues pertaining to the climate crisis, including polluted oceans and scarcity of clean water in many parts of the world.
Through existing and newly commissioned works, the exhibition examines water through the prism of the environment, mythology, spirituality, lived experiences and folk traditions. Water is repositioned in the minds of visitors as a central element that connects us to one another and to the world. It is reframed as an undeniable force that has shaped history, culture, language and social and spiritual relations.
“The theme of water relates also to sustainability and ecology,” adds Carver.
“The exhibition has come at a really timely moment when, globally, people are thinking about our relationship with water. And this exhibition grounds those ideas about water in a deeply historical timeline as well as a very broad geographic one.”
A manuscript in a glass case shines in the dark. A spotlight on the ageing, open pages reveals an intricately drawn map depicting, even to a novice reader, that the body of water isn’t an obstacle to sail across and doesn’t separate land masses, but is a connecting element — just as important as the land itself.
This is a map of Bahr al-Rum, The Roman Sea, which is today known as the Mediterranean Sea. It is the work of the 10th-century Persian author and geographer Al-Istakhri from his major work Kitab al‐Masalik wa al‐Mamalik, also known as The Book of Roads and Kingdoms.
Al-Istakhri travelled extensively throughout the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Gulf, East Africa and the Mediterranean, his maps were significant in the representation of the then vast and expanding Muslim world. Bodies of water, including oceans, seas and rivers, were central in his work, not only to denote their importance for trade and movement but equally to signify their link between the earth, the cosmos and the divine.
“I really wanted to have this kind of trans-historical approach,” says Nora Razian, head of exhibitions at Jameel Art Centre.
“I was super interested in medieval Islamic maps and how water was always at the centre of the world. So the maps were not really meant to be used for navigation, but rather for visualising the world, like an iconographic image. So it's easy to memorise, it's easy to place.”
Water is a monumental theme to explore in its scope, history, symbolism and context. However, the exhibition narrows what could seem overwhelming, into a seamlessly enjoyable experience through many access points for visitors.
“I really wanted to explore the way that humanity was formed with water essentially,” Razian says.
“It's a foundational part of many cultures and religions. We are, you know, bodies of water ourselves. We relate to the world in that way, water is constantly coming in and out of us as well.”
While water is used to connect with visitors through carefully curated spaces, themes around water are also analysed and magnified.
Palestinian artist Jumana Emil Abboud’s evocative and engaging series of drawings and paintings are created from the folktales she gathered from local communities in her home country during her research on water sites and the stories they hold.
Perpetual Brightness is a series of paintings by Vietnamese visual artist Thao Nguyen Phan, who uses traditional lacquer painting techniques on silk, held within a folding screen. The piece depicts the fragmented map of the Nine Dragons River also known as the Mekong River in Vietnam, as well as fishermen mourning and worshipping the spirits of stranded whales.
Daniel Otero Torres's installation Lluvia, or Rain in Spanish, looks at the ingenuity of engineering born from the marginalisation and discrimination affecting indigenous communities in Colombia.
More than seven meters high, Lluvia was created in the UAE using found objects, acting as a tribute to the resourcefulness of community-driven infrastructure and the resilience of marginalised indigenous communities around the world.
The breadth of the exhibition isn’t limited to a historical timeline but also through varying geographic perspectives and mediums of work. From ancient manuscripts and videos to paintings and sculptures, this diversity of time and space invites visitors to think about water through a nuanced lens, and its place in our collective history and our future.
An Ocean in Every Drop runs until April 2 at Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai. More information is available at jameelartscentre.org