Abu Dhabi exhibition Zemanna reanimates 1990s UAE history in a playful way

The show, on view at Manarat Al Saadiyat, offers a nostalgic take on a decade making a comeback through the works of 10 artists in the UAE

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The 1990s have been making a comeback – as most eras do – in fashion and popular culture. And it's this era that is the inspiration behind the latest exhibition at Abu Dhabi’s Manarat al Saadiyat.

Curated by Munira Al Sayegh and her Dirwaza Curatorial Lab, Zemanna is an enormous multiroomed exhibition showcasing installations by 10 artists from or who live in the UAE. These are namely: Afra Al Dhaheri, Aisha Al Ahmadi, Alaa Edris, Fadel Al Mheiri, Ghada Al Sayegh, Maytha Al Shamsi, Jumairy, Mays Albaik, Rawdha Al Ketbi and Sree.

Each delves into this particular period of UAE history through different angles and perspectives, from migration to media and childhood nostalgia.

The Arabic word “zemanna” translates as “our time”, a meaning shared by its Hindi and Urdu translations, two other languages that make up the UAE’s social fabric. Al Sayegh says the title is an invitation for audiences to come into the exhibition to reflect on the past through their own personal lenses, especially those who spent their childhood here, forming their identities and selfhood in those years.

Yet she also says that Zemanna, which is on view until June 13, is not simply a walk down memory lane. “It isn’t just about looking back at the '90s with reminiscence and nostalgia, but reframing what that decade gave us from the present,” she says. “The show looks at how those past influences shape who we are now.”

Munira Al Sayegh, curator of the exhibition Zemanna, on view at Abu Dhabi's Manarat Al Saadiyat until June 13.

Each installation is highly immersive, allowing audiences young and old to step into each unique reconstruction of history and physically interact with it. The act is akin to walking directly into an archive and being able to touch, hear and even smell the stories being told.

Al Ahmadi’s Outside In (2022), for instance, recreates the a typical makeshift football field that would have been found in neighbourhoods across the country in the 1990s. She uses sand taken from Dubai’s Mirdif residential area. A retro television set on the wall plays old footage from CNN, The Truman Show and Cartoon Network. Discarded flip-flops lay in the sand, while two white ceiling fans whir overhead. Their breeze and, oddly, the slightly musty scent of the room, evoke an after-school summer afternoon of leisure and play.

'Outside In' (2022) by Aisha Al Ahmadi. Victor Besa / The National

Media and technology also form a huge element of the show, especially in the works by Edris, Al Ketbi and Al Mheiri.

Edris’ Dish is a small dark room with two TV sets. One shows a face seemingly lit by the blue-white glow of a screen – the same illumination on our own faces as we doomscroll on our phones today – while the other, in a rather meta fashion, displays another television playing a snippet of a patriotic programme.

The '90s for me is the notion of community and the crossover of communities
Munira Al Sayegh, curator

Dish harks back to a work shown last year at Jameel Arts Centre, My Father’s Color Period by Hiwa K, which reflected on the time before colour television was introduced in Iraq. Both works explore the attachment societies felt with the television, an object that fundamentally exposed people to narratives they had never seen or experienced before, which was thrilling and freeing to some and threatening or terrifying to others, similar to our relationships with social media now.

Al Mheiri’s work al-Burkan, a gigantic, centrally placed pyramid of old objects and paraphernalia, from Michael Jackson vinyls to a clunky Apple Macintosh computer, offers a more playful and indulgent take on this narrative, while Al Ketbi’s Past Voices is a more minimalist display focused on cassette tapes and recording the past through sound.

 Fadel Al Mheiri's 'al-Burkan'. The volcano fountain reflects on the symbolic styles of the '90s. Victor Besa / The National

Al Sayegh says it felt important to showcase both a diverse set of artists and topics in the show. “We didn’t just want to look at pop culture but also architecture, migration and the introduction of globalisation, which influenced the state and the space in different ways,” she explains. “The '90s for me is the notion of community and the crossover of communities. While we had a smaller population then, new cultures were introduced or rerouted into the UAE, which changed the foundations of a lot of things.”

Concepts of migration, without which any show on UAE history arguably would remain incomplete, are most salient in the works by Albaik – whose experiential video essay Of Hope, Home, and Hauntology narrates the story of two Arab residents through an architectural lens – and Sree’s Vaadaka, which consists of two rooms and a telephone booth.

These rooms are reconstructions of actual living spaces in which South Asian migrants might have stayed, and continue to today. Suitcases and wrapped boxes lie on the floor as constant reminders of movement and impermanence. Trousers are laid out in wait of an iron, while a blender lies underneath a bed. Television sets play actual family footage courtesy of the artist’s parents, who migrated to the UAE from Kerala, India.

Meanwhile, foneBooth (2022) is a recreation of a typical UAE payphone, complete with plastered papers advertising bed space, a detail anyone living here would instantly recognise. Audiences can pick up the receiver to listen to stories in Malayalam, the tongue native to a large segment of the UAE’s migrant population, including Sree.

'Vaadaka' is an installation by artist Sree. It consists of two rooms and a telephone booth. Victor Besa / The National

In effect, Zemanna is a model for how a curatorial project can attempt to reanimate history with the benefit of hindsight, using objects, narratives, knowledge (both personal and gained) and archives to restage different kinds of memories of a single time period.

As much as the exhibition touches on sociopolitical and cultural stories, it is also incredibly playful, reminding us that nostalgia and the past are not always painful, but also bright and colourful, and reminders of the joys that led us to the present.

Zemanna is at Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi, until June 13. More information is available at manaratalsaadiyat.ae

Updated: January 31, 2022, 10:51 AM