A shackled tree, strange half-human creatures and a shimmering oasis. Across three different rooms, these artworks in Abu Dhabi Art’s Beyond: Emerging Artists programme tell stories of place and people in distinct ways.
Dedicated to rising talents from the UAE art scene, the programme has been curated this year by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, who also worked on the National Pavilion UAE presentation at the Venice Biennale in 2019.
'Too Close to the Sun' by Maitha Abdalla
At Manarat Al Saadiyat, each project for Beyond: Emerging Artists has been given the immersive treatment. Stepping into Emirati artist Maitha Abdalla’s Too Close to the Sun installation, for example, feels like being transported into an eerie domestic space.
Aglow in pink, the space’s painted walls are an allusion to the bathroom tiles of the artist’s childhood home. Hanging from them are Abdalla’s paintings of animals from Emirati folklore, flanked by shower curtains.
Towards the back of the room is a window looking out on a video installation, where the artist is seen roaming the forest and performing what appear to be rituals. In one instance, Abdalla marks a circle around herself on the ground before stepping out of it. The act represents a break from convention or “stepping out of boundaries”, the artist says.
This urge repeats itself in many of her works, including her performances, where the artist dons papier-mâché heads of animals and mimics their poses. “I cover the face as a way to show that there is still shame in attempting to do something different or out of the box,” she explains.
The inspiration of the video work at this exhibition is as forbidding as the setting. In Arab folklore, the spirit, or Sila, is a shape-shifting hybrid creature which lures desert dwellers and wanderers to their deaths. Abdalla draws from a particular version of Sila’s story, in which she marries a man and bears two of his children.
“One night, she saw lightning and took it as a sign to return to the wild, back to her clan, so she did,” Abdalla says. “The whole exhibition is around that attempt to bring out that wild nature. It’s about women who are doing things differently.”
Yet the artist is reluctant to define this wildness in one way or another. While her works express her own personal experiences, she says she leaves room for meaning to traverse into other points of view. “I’m a storyteller. I don’t give people advice on what is wrong or right. There’s no winner in my work … I want people to enjoy the story and interpret it in their own way.”
Instead, she relies on what she calls the “duality” of existing on the fringes. “Are you in the brightness or are you burning? That’s what the title and the work is about.”
'The World Was My Garden' by Christopher Benton
Christopher Benton’s The World Was My Garden, meanwhile, explores uncomfortable histories, specifically the link between date palm cultivation and slavery in the Gulf.
In the latter half of the 19th century, as many as 800,000 people were torn from their homes in Africa and brought to the Gulf, including Oman, Bahrain and the UAE, as slaves, working as pearl divers or on date farms, furthering the two biggest industries in the region at the time.
“It was an inflection point where the growth of capital really exploded and necessitated even more labour than before,” Benton says. “You can see how it leads up to this contemporary moment.”
Benton showcases glimpses of the Arab slave trade through a three-channel video playing scenes from markets in Zanzibar from around 1860 to 1910, where people were sold and then sailed off to the Gulf.
The artist, who is currently completing a postgraduate programme at MIT, has often investigated labour and capital in the Gulf. His previous works include a collaborative film project with local tailors in Dubai’s Al Satwa neighbourhood which captured their daily lives, and his installation How to Rest, in which he repurposed chairs used by shopkeepers to sit on Dubai’s pavements during the winter.
For The World Was My Garden, the artist’s purview gets broader, bringing in histories from his native US as well. Outside of the Middle East, in the early 19th century, the Coachella Valley in California had the largest date industry in the world, affecting the Gulf region economically.
“Once America figured out how to produce its own dates at an industrial scale, it really affected the industry in the Gulf,” he says. While the US date farmers marketed their product as “cleaner” than the ones from the Middle East, he says they were more than willing to promote the fruit with campaigns featuring women in orientalist garb. “It was a total fantasy of what Arabia is.”
Perhaps the most striking work in his presentation is a chained Medjoul date palm hanging from the ceiling. It is a brutal image, even under the bright lights of the exhibition hall, and conjures visions of historical atrocities of which little documentation exists.
“There’s something violent and sad about uprooting a tree. At the same time, art has the potential to be of a history, a system, or a speculative future,” he says.
A few have questioned him digging up a tree for the temporary installation, but the artist hopes it is the idea of the piece that will resonate. “It could be seen as spectacle, [but] I hope the gesture creates an encounter for the viewer to emotionally relate to a lesser-acknowledged history here in the Emirates. One could tell you a story or one could show you an image, but the symbolic power of an evocative object can have the most impact and help create a memory,” he says.
He is currently in talks with a Sharjah institution to see how the palm could be used for handicrafts, and arish — an architecture technique using palm leaves, after the programme.
'Neptune' by Hashel Al Lamki
Finally, Hashel Al Lamki’s turquoise landscape Neptune is a gateway to another world, one with paintings of amorphous, glittery dunes, pools of water, and interiors. His abstracted paintings refer to Al Ain, a popular place for weekend retreats for Abu Dhabi residents.
“The scene that is depicted here is the landscape, including man-made landscapes like Al Ain. I talk about the relationship between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, which is seen as a kind of exotic planet on its own,” he says.
“What’s interesting about Al Ain is that Jebel Hafeet, the highest peak of the emirate, is there. In my research, I learnt that the tectonic plate was separated from Africa and moved here, and it remains in constant motion. So there’s this idea of movement and transformation in these works,” he says.
Though very little is recognisable in terms of place or geography in these paintings, they offer an exploration into colour and light that the artist has been developing.
“I’m responding to density, volume and materiality,” he says. “In my process, I often refer to the natural resources in the region, including Oman and Morocco, where I have family connections. I grew up watching people making pigments and producing souvenir items, but these are industries that are slowly dissolving. So my pigments are collected from those places and artisans, and I use the process of natural dyeing to create the paintings.”
Neptune’s centrepiece is an arrangement of totemic sculptures where the artist has combined various materials, including discarded batteries, popcorn and stickers that stick out as rods from concrete pillars.
Though the works of Abdalla, Benton and Al Lamki are markedly different, they are bound by their connection to the UAE, not only in the artists' completion of the Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship programme in years past, but also in demonstrating the myriad concepts that can be cultivated by artists in the country.
Beyond: Emerging Artists is on view at Manarat Al Saadiyat until December 4. More information is available at abudhabiart.ae