Spirited Ras Al Khaimah Art brings life back to Al Jazeera Al Hamra ghost village

Contemporary pieces, NFTs and vibrant installations re-energise abandoned pearling town

The Fort: Ephemeral Whispers, a fabric installation with woven textiles from diverse cultures, leads Ras Al Khaimah Art. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Ras Al Khaimah Art is returning to Al Jazeera Al Hamra, revitalising the abandoned pearling village and its coral structures with installations, artworks, live performances and a souq.

The festival will run until February 29, with its outdoor exhibitions continuing until the end of March.

The annual event has been steadily expanding since its inauguration in 2013. Formerly known as the Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival, it has rebranded this year and is promising to host its most extensive programme. More than 130 artists from 36 countries are participating, displaying their works at historical sites in the town, which is often referred to as the emirate's "ghost village", and responding to the festival’s theme: In Motion.

The theme was conceived by the festival’s curator, Alfio Tomassini. It aims to celebrate movement, change and dynamism in its various forms. The exhibitions in the festival touch upon the theme in historical, individual, cultural and artistic contexts.

The works, and how they respond to the concept of motion, are open to interpretation. But the nature of the event itself – a festival dedicated to contemporary art in its many forms, from film to sculpture, painting and even NFTs taking place in a 17th-century village – underlines the theme with metaphysical glee.

The village itself has gone through a series of changes. While many of its original structures are untouched, some of its more prominent elements have been restored.

The full splendour of the village, as well as the festival, can be observed from a new viewing deck that has been raised near the entrance. It is perhaps the finest view of the village there has yet been, rivalling even those of its now-ancient watchtowers.

“The name of Al Jazeera Al Hamra translated to the red island, after the rich colour of the sand here,” Aaesha Al Dhuhoori, a tour guide specialist at Ras Al Khaimah’s Department of Antiquities and Museums, says. “It was established in the 16th to the 17th century. The village was well known for its pearl diving, fishing and also boat making. It has another name, Jazeerat Al Zaab, after the tribe that was living here.”

The village was abandoned in the mid-20th century when oil was discovered in the UAE and, at about the same time, artificial pearls were gaining traction in the market, causing the pearling industry to falter rapidly. As many as 2,500 people left and Al Jazeera Al Hamra gained a rather mystical reputation, with plenty of jinn stories associated with its name.

Walking along the village’s alleys today, it is difficult to sense the eeriness that once stalked its shadows. Its solitary walls, empty doorways and windows overlooking the wreckage of coral stones and beach rocks have been turned into ad hoc galleries. Artworks are displayed among the ruins, their colours made vibrant against the beige and grey of the old houses.

Among the village’s most splendid structures is the one that belonged to Abdulkarim Julphar, a prominent merchant who owned the largest housing complex in the village. The complex is impressive even by today’s standards, featuring an office, a majlis, as well as several rooms, verandas and courtyards. Designated as Bayt 16 and 17, the complex has been turned into a gallery displaying paintings and photographs in its various nooks. Exploring the premises, like much of the island, will be a rewarding process.

Pressing on into the village, viewers will come across one of the festival’s highlight works. Stone Garden (Portal of Peace) by Slovenian artist Marko Pogacnik is a sprawling installation comprising 32 natural stones from local quarries. The assemblage aims to bring to mind human invasion of the environment and its detrimental effects. The work is curated by Marinko Sudac.

This is the second year the Croatian collector, and his globally renowned foundation, is taking part in the festival. The Marinko Sudac Foundation, in Bayt 3, is highlighting works by Radomir Damnjanovic Damnjan, specifically the Serbian artist's series called Three-dimensional Paintings. It comprises sculptural works alongside digital works. Vibrant, nuanced block shapes are the central subjects of his pieces, which seek to blur the lines of media and pay homage to the ever-changing landscape of contemporary art.

This year’s artist-in-residence, meanwhile, is Indira Urrutia. The Chilean-born artist is presenting mesmerising forms suspended in the rooms of Bayt 2. Woven with copper wires, the works are formed with lantern-like qualities with the way they are shaped, suspended and catch light. The pieces were the result of Urrutia’s study of minarets as well as her exploration of knitting techniques.

A landmark of the village is its circular watchtower, which was pivotal to the city’s defences. For the festival, the tower is draped in fabrics that pay tribute to different cultures, with an installation titled Ephemeral Whispers. The courtyard by the fort, meanwhile, is where many of the festival’s workshops, live programming and performances will take place.

Bayt 7, meanwhile, presents a culinary experience visitors will be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. The house is dedicated to Antica Australis, a food pop-up by Australian chef couple Paolo and Kelly Picarazzi. In Australia, they fuse dishes from Paolo’s home of Ciociaria, Italy, but use seasonal produce. The couple bring that same approach to Ras Al Khaimah. This time, however, they source their ingredients from the farms of Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah.

Antica Australis will be presenting weekly four-course meals, which start at Dh400 per person, with packages that include personal tours of the village and the festival’s attractions.

The festival will also shift its focus each weekend. While the first is dedicated to opening celebrations, a pet-friendly weekend is scheduled for February 9 to 11.

“The festival is divided into thematic weekends,” says Shabana Unni, marketing specialist at the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation, the organising body responsible for the festival.

“The pet-friendly weekend will have activities like pet yoga and a pet fashion show.”

The following weekend will be dedicated to families, with plenty of children’s activities such as workshops and magic shows. Finally, the weekend of February 23 will feature performances related to traditional Emirati culture.

While 34,000 attended last year, organisers are expecting more to pay a visit this month.

“Last year was limited to Ras Al Khaimah,” she says, adding how the teams have expanded marketing to Dubai, including around the DIFC and in Vox Cinemas.

Before visitors leave, they will be invited to write down their impressions, or what they hope for the future, on a massive pin board. “There will be a table with index cards and they can write it and pin it themselves,” Unni says. “At the end of it all, it’ll be a nice artwork in itself.”

More details of Ras Al Khaimah Art and its programme can be found at rakart.ae

Updated: February 03, 2024, 3:04 AM