Tashkeel artist-in-residence Alonsa Guevara evokes mysticism of nature in solo show

Counting Leaves will be running at the Al Serkal Avenue gallery until April 25

Alonsa Guevara's Counting Leaves exhibition at the Tashkeel concludes on April 26. Pawan Singh / The National
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After a year-long residency at Tashkeel, Chilean artist Alonsa Guevara has revealed a series of works that show a mystical and hypnotic appreciation for nature, while drawing from local inspirations.

Her exhibition at Tashkeel’s Al Serkal Avenue gallery, Counting Leaves, which closes on April 25, encompasses paintings, textile and audio installations, and a lavish dining table laid out in the centre of the space.

Pomegranate branches swirl in spring in circular mandala-like canvasses. Cross-sections of fruits reveal, in glistening oil paint, the pulpy depths of figs and tomatoes. The luminescent brush strokes of a ghaf tree, meanwhile, conceal birds, nests and a gawking owl — elements that Guevara encountered during her research in the UAE.

Stepping into Counting Leaves is a bit like accepting an invitation to a spiritual forest banquet. But in Guevara’s works, nature’s fantastical aspect is not buffered by folklore or imaginary beings such as fairies and wisps. Rather, the artist goes back to the roots, branches and fruits of life, converging their patterns with spiritual motifs to instil in the viewer a primeval connection with nature.

Guevara’s artistic practice is inextricable from the natural world. The artist is heavily inspired by memories of her childhood spent in the rainforests of Latin America with her family. Her experiences of living in three countries — Chile, Ecuador and the US, where she is now based — are all potent sources of inspiration.

Guevara arrived in the UAE in April last year with a handful of ideas about what she wanted to work on during her residency at Tashkeel. They were all scrapped soon after arriving in the country.

“Everything changed after being here,” she says. “I started making small paintings on canvasses that were already primed. I wasn’t attached to the material itself and was playing around. I’d make at least two a day, just to get ideas out.”

The smaller canvasses, which are among the first works on display, are composed with a strong sense of symmetry. Some were inspired by Guevara’s meditation practices and art workshops. Others were more spontaneous, featuring thumbprints and mushrooms that were gradually coaxed out of the canvas.

Spurred by her daily routine, Guevara began examining local flora and their cultural significance. These included the ghaf tree. The desert evergreen is the national evergreen of the UAE. It is a symbol of peace, stability and endurance in the UAE’s arid environment.

Guevara’s Ghaf and Migration: Uncovering the Unknown, a five-panel oil painting, pays homage to the tree. The work is imbued with species that require time and attention to spot — exhibited in front of a series of ethically-sourced tree trunks which offer visitors a chance to sit and meditate on the work.

The audio of the space makes it easy for visitors to lose themselves in thought. Birds chirp, the call to prayer faintly sounds in the background, a soothing vocal chant lilts in the fore. Then there is the distant warble of a helicopter passing overhead.

“A lot of people that come and see the painting here say they see it moving and I think that may have to do with the sound as well,” Guevara says. “It was recorded here in the UAE. I was recording the sound of the birds in Tashkeel and the call to prayer began.

“Then there is my humming, different layers. I love singing and I think that music can move a memory, so I wanted to bring something that connected with the piece. The helicopter, I didn’t want to add, but it constantly happened, and so I thought ‘you know what, this is our world now’.”

While exploring the local flora and fauna, Guevara found several unexpected similarities with the natural environment she knew.

“Chile is such a long country,” she says. “It stretches from the desert to the forest in the south. We have similar species of owls, foxes and flamingoes. Even the ghaf tree, there is a tree that is very similar. Here it is the prosopis cineraria, whereas we have prosopis chilensis. When I first saw it, it was so familiar, and it turned out it was the national tree of the UAE.”

“My culture is very different from this culture, but we have a lot in common,” she says. “The food, the celebration, the warmth, the sense of family.”

While painting the series of round canvasses that depict the cross-sections of disparate fruits and vegetables, Guevara found her subjects in local markets, which sourced produce from across the world.

“Sometimes I’d buy them not with the intent of painting them but simply to eat them,” she says. “But I always have a ritual of cut the fruit, look at the pattern and be inspired. The watermelons from Iran, for instance. They are small and long. I’d never seen a watermelon like that. Some of them I found in the desert, like that squash. Similar looking to a watermelon.”

In her studies of fruit, Guevara also touches upon their symbolism, many of which resonate across the globe. “The banana, for instance, is a symbol of abundance in many cultures,” she says. “It’s a tree that as soon as it blooms signifies that food is coming. The banana brings so much to eat from one flower.

“The pomegranate, on the other hand, is a symbol of fertility, love and also of something forbidden,” she says, pointing out Persephone in Greek mythology, the daughter of Zeus who unwittingly wed herself to Hades by eating pomegranate seeds, the food of the underworld.

“Then the olive tree is a symbol of family,” Guevara adds.

One of the centrepieces of the exhibition is a long dining table, decked in silverware and floral designs. When Counting Leaves opened on February 26, a feast of fresh fruits and vegetables was laid out. Though a photograph of the installation during the launch is displayed, the table has since been cleared and now holds bare plates and cutlery. The floral table designs have also wilted. Guevara says she had planned to let them stay, as decay is also a part of the natural world.

Another highlight of the exhibition is a sprawling textile sculpture depicting a plant spouting green and golden leaves. There are more than 550 leaves in the work, all of them handmade out of dyed and reclaimed fabrics.

Its roots, however, are much more expansive, taking up a lion’s share of the space. The piece, marking the first time she has experimented with fabrics, alludes to the cyclical nature of life.

“Our roots in the ground are our strength,” Guevara says of the work. “Then, the things that happen in the middle can be intricate but they all eventually lead to the end of it and it comes back to the root.”

Guevara's residency at Tashkeel coincides with the 15th anniversary of the organisation's residency programme. More than 80 artists, curators and designers from more than 30 countries have taken part in the initiative.

The Residency Programme consists of three strands: residencies for overseas practitioners at Tashkeel (Nad Al Sheba) for between four and 12 months, consisting of teaching, research, experimentation and the production of a new body of work; two-month residencies at Tashkeel (Al Fahidi) leading to a public outcome for UAE-based practitioners; and international opportunities for UAE-based practitioners, resulting so far in residencies in Japan, the UK and US.

Currently in residence at Tashkeel alongside Guevara is Anja Bamberg, an artist who lives in the UAE and whose solo exhibition ran until March 5 at Tashkeel Al Fahidi.

Counting Leaves will be shown at Tashkeel’s Al Serkal Avenue gallery until April 25

Updated: April 23, 2023, 10:40 AM