Street art show moves from Sharjah's abandoned Mleiha village to metaverse

The project to give the site an artistic makeover and its resulting Useless Palace show was led by Inloco Gallery

The Birch House by Turben, as it is now that the art has been taken to be exhibited in a Dubai gallery and in the metaverse. Photo: Inloco
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An abandoned village in Sharjah’s Mleiha region has become a playful exhibition in the metaverse.

The village is thought to have been deserted in the 1990s after the historical value of the area and archaeological potential was realised, meaning further developments were banned, and lucrative jobs attracted residents to nearby cities.

Up until a few months ago, it was the dusty, nondescript site of empty cinderblock houses, desolate swimming pools and crumpled litter. In December last year, however, 10 international street artists descended upon the location to take part in the Useless Palace project. The artists each picked a site within the village, giving it a whimsical new coat of paint before producing a series of works there.

Scroll through the gallery below to see the street art in Mleiha, both in the real and virtual worlds

The initiative was led by the Inloco Gallery, a pop-up at Al Khayat Art Avenue. The artworks created were displayed in the gallery as part of the recent Useless Palace exhibition.

Now, the exhibition has been uploaded to the metaverse, creating an experience that toes the line between street art and the digital world.

Visiting the village in real life recently, it felt clear it had been the site of something remarkable. The houses, painted vibrant colours, appeared almost suddenly in between the fenced-off palm farms and stretches of flat desert.

One of the first buildings on the site had its outer and inner walls coated with a deep pink. Slender birch trees painted along its exterior lend the name to the structure, The Birch House. It was one of the brightest properties on the site and it was painted by Turben, an artist who lives in St Petersburg, Russia. Known for his quirky characters, Turben also created a series of paintings displayed inside the house that expanded on its mythology, including a spotted cat designated “the birch guard” and The Birch Sisters, whom the artist envisioned as having lived in the house.

Those paintings had already been removed, though, the pink walls remain they are now home to chalk scrawls depicting fish, as well as other doodles, presumably left by those who had visited the site after the artists had moved out.

Exploring the artistically revamped village, and going through the teal, black and yellow houses yielded some fun finds, such as tyre instalations and pool graffiti.

It was also fascinating to see how nature had begun to take over the site and sand had piled up over some of the works.

But for those who weren't able to see the site and the artworks in their full, original glory, that’s where the metaverse comes in.

A link on the Inloco Gallery's homepage takes you to an online experience that presents the works as if displayed in a gallery, as well as the village as the artists created it, all brought to life through technological dynamism.

You’ll be prompted to make an avatar in order to navigate and interact with the space, and the virtual walk-through begins in the lobby of the gallery, which is almost identical to the real one on Al Khayat Art Avenue.

The works are displayed across two floors of the gallery and provide an animated reproduction of those featured in the Useless Palace exhibition.

To see the works in their element, you can take your avatar outside the gallery. The virtual desert landscapes opens up unexpectedly and, as only the virtual world can do, it merges the real and the fantastical. Large animated hands emerge on either side of the dirt path, wiggling their fingers at the sky. A shark fin glides effortlessly above the sands. A newspaper clipping hangs from the sky to give you more information about the project and the artists involved.

Walking, jumping and sprinting across the sand, I come across The Birch House. Online, Turben’s pink structure is a facsimile of the original, but this time the paintings are all there. The sisters smile out of one window, and the house cats are displayed in the adjacent room.

“It was my first time in the desert,” Turben is quoted as saying in the hovering clipping. “The scorpions were very memorable: you can’t really relax because of them or just lie down on the sand. It was so hot, and I wish there were some greenery. This striking piece with birches stood out against all this sand.”

In another piece, Abderrahmene Salah, known by the pseudonym Lokher, decorated the bottom of a pool discovered in the village with a 3D-mural of his favourite childhood breakfast. Vibrant and exaggerated forms of eggs and toast burst against the blue tiles. The piece is meant to allude of the past we always carry with us, and the deeply ingrained memories that tend to resurface when we least expect them to.

The Algerian artist also created a piece that features a dog as it waits for its owner to return. The works continue Salah’s 2022 Dream series, which explores themes of nostalgia and home.

Another work recreated in the metaverse is the stacked mirror cubes by Russian artist Ivan Ilinskii. Positioned at the edge of the village on a high dune, the work reflects the desert landscape, juxtaposing the transience of humans when compared to nature. The artist also worked on a series of canvases in a black hut in the village, which featured his signature black stickman, a symbol of the endless search of personal identity.

Ilinskii's futuristic cubes were installed near the village, reflecting the age-old dunes and emphasising the eternity of nature in comparison to humans.

Elsewhere, artist Sergei Kk covered one of the huts in the village with reportage photos. The black-and-white photos in Twilight feature himself and the disparate subjects of his artistic excursions, all glued together haphazardly. The photographs draw an analogy between animals and people, namely their communal and territorial nature.

Italian artist Filippo Minelli placed objects depicting window areas and doorways with mashrabiya elements in the desert for a piece in his What Things Are Not series, which he began in 2016. He combines digital and natural landscapes in his works, showing how much a work depends on its surrounding context.

Russian artist Maxim Ima’s work Everyone had the clocks, but no one had the time, an instalation that was located in the corner lot within the site, features car tires painted with clock faces. The artist had been interested in the physics of motion during his trip to the desert, and his subjects soon became tires and dry plants that the wind rolls over the sand dunes.

“The desert inspired me with its lack of anything excess,” Ima is quoted as saying in the show notes. “It’s a quiet place where your head just works differently. I was finding objects and immediately getting ideas about how to use them. The idea of meaningless and uncertain constant movement was foundational here.

"It is movement for the sake of movement — not for the sake of purpose. There is only the horizon ahead, and there is no clarity, no final point. The stylings of my paintings with their plant motifs and tangled lines were perfect for embodying this idea. Today, in a time when people are forced to migrate and leave their homes, this seemed like a pertinent idea to me.”

The Useless Palace exhibition also features a light instalation made of sand by Iranian artist and architect Neda Salmanpour, portraits of a cheetah by artist Xeato, as well as The House with a Botanical Garden by artist Dusto. The experience culminates with a documentary by Anton Selone in the virtual theatre space. In the work, Selone used a 60-year-old Hasselblad camera to document the artists as they worked.

While a fun and imaginative venture online, the Useless Palace exhibition is also instrumental in bringing renewed attention to the abandoned village in Mleiha. It doesn’t attempt to answer its mysteries, but embellishes and adds colours to them. The real reasons for the village's abandonment, and whom its denizens were, may be unclear, but the artworks in the metaverse show offer the chance to interact with a remote environment, while possibly encouraging you to visit the actual site to see how nature has reacted to the artists’ imaginings.

Updated: April 06, 2023, 1:15 PM