Emirati artists inspired by heritage light up inaugural Dhai Dubai Festival

Dubai’s first light festival is taking place in Al Wasl Plaza at Expo City

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Dubai’s first light art festival has begun, illuminating Al Wasl Plaza at Expo City with seven installations to represent the city's diverse cultural fabric.

Running until Sunday, Dhai Dubai showcases the work of seven Emirati artists from different generations and styles. The installations have been curated to take visitors on a visual journey of light around Expo City’s centrepiece dome, each depicting a different facets of Dubai’s story.

“The uniqueness of Dhai Dubai is that it’s led completely by Emirati artists and designers,” says Khalid Al Shafar, whose work is being shown at the festival.

“There are only seven of us but we have a nice mix of different generations and different career lifespans. It feels like I'm complementing my colleagues and fellow artists. Every work has a story to tell but we feel connected because we are actually telling the story of one nation.”

Al Shafar is primarily known for blending aspects of UAE culture and craftsmanship with distinct, contemporary sensibility.

His piece, The Nomad 2.0, is the only work enclosed within a structure. It is based on the idea of the arish, a traditional large hut-like structure made from panels of palm fronds found in the UAE. They are usually woven to keep the elements out, creating a shared space for the community to gather.

It's a theme that Al Shafar has explored before, but never through light.

He has reimagined the idea of the arish by building a glass structure. His signature interpretation of the palm tree – a wooden column with stylised offshoots of the trunk – stands at the centre of the space. At three-minute intervals, a sound and light show enchants those who gather inside as lasers shoot out from a number of sources around the trunk.

“We started from the column in the middle, then decided everything else should be built by light,” he says. “The light is continuing or completing the design. The enclosure is built by the light itself.”

Al Shafar explains that the lights were designed to mimic the way in which palm fronds naturally weave through each other. During the show, which is on a continuous loop, smoke is also released to highlight and exaggerate the beams of light and their formations. From a distance this creates an intriguing effect – reminiscent of a party atmosphere and inviting the public to explore inside.

“We want people to gather even if they don't know each other,” Al Shafar adds. “They gather around and see how the construction of the whole thing has happened by light through the audio experiences. It becomes a digital illumination version of the original.”

Visual artist and designer Reem Al Ghaith’s work, Daraweezna, is another piece that delves into the history of the UAE in an unexpected way.

Three traditionally-designed colossal doors stand majestically as light illuminates on them with stunning, detailed illustrations. Arabesque patterns, the recognisable symbol of the falcon and illustrations of UAE’s flora glow and shimmer over each door.

Al Ghaith has spent the majority of her practice documenting and studying the old wooden doors of Dubai.

“The actual concept of documenting these doors was just to bring them back to life again and light is the best medium to do that,” she says. “Light is a beautiful medium and when the opportunity of Dhai Dubai came up it made sense to show these documentations.”

As the viewer observes the light pattern and the play of their own shadows on the doors, they also hear fragments of stories from the accompanying sound piece, in which family elders recite tales of their families.

“I made the doors bigger because I wanted to give them that gracefulness to represent how families welcome you in – these homes had a graceful presence,” she adds.

“The sound that I used are stories of a grandfather and grandmother telling children that your father or grandparent was a seafarer or your mother was someone important. Those were the stories we were hearing behind these doors. There was always a life behind the doors.”

Other works showcased at Dhai Dubai are just as striking and layered. Renowned artist Mattar Bin Lahej displays a piece of work called Movement of Stillness, which combines calligraphy and the essence of a speeding horse.

Pioneering artist Najat Makki’s work The Scent of Memories shows seven stylised female figures to represent the seven emirates, while artist Mohamed Yousef’s piece, I'm Still a Child, captures the perspective of childhood and elements of domestic life in the UAE.

Young designer Abdulla Almulla’s light sculpture Minaret 2.0 is a stunning geometric piece inspired by the design and function of a mosque’s minaret, while multidisciplinary artist Maitha Hamdan’s cylindrical piece, Afterlife, displays unique and contemporary elements of graphic design and signage.

Dhai Dubai will be running at Expo City Dubai until February 4. For more information visit www.dhaidubai.com

Updated: February 01, 2024, 3:42 AM