Emirati artist Maitha Abdalla explores dark folktales in London show

Cromwell Place exhibition is the culmination of a UK residency supported by the Abu Dhabi Arts & Music Foundation

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“There's a saying that the donkey can see the devil,” says Emirati artist Maitha Abdalla. “So if you hear a donkey, then there are devils around. And you definitely shouldn't approach a donkey in the dark.”

The multidisciplinary artist is talking about folktales — particularly those from the Arabian Gulf and the surrounding region. These stories have inspired the images in her solo exhibition INT. The Body — Sunrise, showing at Cromwell Place, London, until Sunday.

Abdalla’s work engages viewers in the same manner as a well-told story; in captivating silence, with some foreboding and a sense of wonder.

Personifying various elements of folktales, Abdalla, who is represented by Tabari Artspace in DIFC, has created a realm of surreal, dark and otherworldly allegories which she developed from narratives she heard as a child.

“I remember my grandma would be terrified of me and my sister playing outside in the courtyard every time the sun started to set,” Abdalla says. “She’d call us and say, 'The devils are out now so you have to come inside'. She would be adamant about it.”

The large-scale works depict scenes where stylised mythical creatures dance and interact with each other. Like dark fairy tales, reminiscent of something one would read in Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales or those by the Brothers Grimm, Abdalla’s work is eerily familiar.

“These folk tales aren’t foreign in the region,” Abdalla says. “But when I was in London, explaining the stories around the work I do, it was very interesting to see how people react to them. Yes, the stories are based from folktales in the region, but the figures and the characters symbolise something much more international.”

Abdalla’s latest body of work is the result of a three-month residency supported by the Abu Dhabi Arts & Music Foundation. Centred on the theme of narratives, the An Effort programme supports artists seeking to connect with audiences in a unique way.

“Admaf has been supporting my practice since the beginning,” Abdalla says. “When it comes to arts and music, Admaf is always in the picture. They're trying to build this profile of artists from the UAE and residents in their database. They're also huge collectors, which is another kind of support, which is amazing.”

Abdalla was working out of London's Soho Square for her residency, where she researched and committed herself to exploring her usual themes in greater depth.

Informed by cultural narratives and folktales that are passed orally between generations, Abdalla's collection explores how these stories function as a form of entertainment and within the moral and ethical landscapes they operate in.

“Through my process, I like to build stories around memories and folktales,” Abdalla says.

“Yes, these are stories I heard when I was a kid but I’m also creating these characters that are part of the stories that represent different notions and different beliefs and ideas.”

Abdalla depicts a cast of strange characters such as a rooster, donkey, pig, with human elements that represent various facets of the self. Composed in theatrical scenes, they are engaged in an internal dialogue that audiences read as part of a greater narrative.

Abdalla’s technique is as enchanting as her subject matter. Painterly, and full of vital movement, the audience can see the gestures of her fingers, hands, arms, traces of her body drawn on the canvas. From the tactility of the material to the spontaneity of her movements, there is a muscular and impulsive method to the way paint is applied and the way lines are sketched.

'Midnight Ride' by Maitha Abdalla, 2022. Photo: Tabari Artspace

“I'm a very messy artist, I love using my hands,” Abdalla says. “I take a long time to process the ideas that I want to work with, the imagery that’s in my head. So when I start producing, I have to produce extremely fast. I'm impatient to see results, so I dive into the canvas.”

Abdalla’s immediate and urgent technique adds to the themes she explores. Recording the remnants of these folktales, magnified and diluted over time, is an act that not only investigates the fabric of culture, but also preserves it.

“Now you don't hear these stories any more,” Abdalla says. “At that time, my grandmother believed in these stories. It wasn't some old folktale to her. She’d tell these stories with a sense of belief that they happened. But today, they are just considered folktales and stories.”

Abdalla’s solo exhibition INT. The Body — Sunrise is now showing at Cromwell Place, London until October 16

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