Beauty and Chaos. That is the title Sheikha Wafa bint Hasher Al Maktoum has given to her meditative painting, which forms part of the exhibition Life Happens running this season at FN Designs. Created using a paintbrush with three bristles, its monochrome, circular pattern is reminiscent of a cross-section of a tree trunk. It is virtually impossible to work out where she began or finished, reflecting the perpetual circle of life.
Many of us feel life in Dubai runs at a faster pace than elsewhere – the question "what are you busy with?" often replacing "how are you?" in conversation. As John Lennon said: "life is what happens when you are busy making other plans".
For the past decade, Sheikha Wafa has been busy building an art and design community out of her own warehouse in Alserkal Avenue. Adopting a unique style, FN designs has always felt organic and home-grown. Sat alongside galleries with international agendas, it was from the start a refreshing, inclusive space doing something a little different. Creatives in the UAE found somewhere they could show experimental work and meet fellow practitioners in a relaxed environment.
Sheikha Wafa has chosen to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of her business by asking 12 members of her artistic community to respond to the theme "life happens" and create a new artwork. Each artist has exhibited at the gallery before and spent time in the UAE. Their nationalities are diverse – British, Emirati, Filipino, Indian and Peruvian.
Artist Matt Ryder had a solo exhibition at FN Designs last autumn, with his captivating land and seascapes inspired by the environment of the UAE, where he has been living for more than 12 years. His mastery of line and form, and his use of expressive brushstrokes to depict nature, are part Turner, part Abdul Qader Al Rais. It is a surprise to find a portrait by him here. "Portraits and landscapes really go hand in hand," he says. "It's all painting shapes, values and form. I've wanted to do a large, figurative piece for a while. This exhibition has given me the chance to explore that. It's the joy of a group show; it's a good opportunity to put an idea into the public space that you haven't necessarily explored before."
Taking the title of the exhibition literally, his subject is the precious time just before birth. His touching painting Taking a Moment depicts a friend of the artist sleeping on a sofa, with the familiar book – What To Expect the First Year resting on her lap with Post-it notes marking key passages. Her life, as she faces imminent motherhood, will fundamentally change. "We are all rushing around living such busy lives, it becomes difficult to slow down and appreciate the beauty that's all around us," Ryder muses.
Khawla Darwish’s starting point in her art practice is conversely the abrupt ending of life. The tragic, premature deaths of her brother and father from cardiovascular conditions motivated her to make the human heart the major subject of investigation in her artworks. She tells us that her art is therapeutic, but also comes with a strong message: “I feel that it is very important to spread awareness through art, for me this is about hereditary diseases, specifically heart diseases as it is what myself and my family went through.”
For her new commission, Darwish has added some transfers she has kept from her late brother’s sketchbooks: cut out drawings of knives and swords and texts of video games. The bright, childlike palette she uses throughout counterbalances the suggested violence of these forms. She explains why she divided the composition into nine separate parts: “I wanted to send the message that life is a journey of different phases that you might not understand separately or at some points, but when you put all the pieces together the bigger picture makes sense to you.”
Works in the exhibition share a sense of harmony and stillness, in Rashid Al Mulla's digital piece Mauna (silence in Hindi), a female form sits with her eyes closed in contemplation, her fingers across her lips. In some cases, artworks offer a mystical connection with the viewer. Take Ella Orencillo's painting, where a female form stares out from the canvas with an aureole of silver symbols of the four elements and text in gold stating: "God is greater than the highs and lows". She is still rooted to earthly concerns however, her large eyes bordered on one side by a lavender rose (a symbol of love at first sight) and the other a heart, while below flies a male monarch butterfly.
Human relationships are perhaps the most essential part of our lives. Rollan Rodriguez (founder of the Dubai design studio Ape Collective) made his mixed media work in tribute to his partner. A collage of found objects such as train tickets, he has created a visual diary of their time spent together and apart. The calming effect of nature is explored in the work of Mona Biswarupa, German Fernandez, Gian Juan (part of the Dubai art collective The Brownmonkeys), Kathryn Wilson and of course the piece we started with by Sheikha Wafa.
Ryder reminds us of the exacting nature of the artistic process: "When painting from life, you must truly look at your subject, sometimes for hours on end to capture all the small nuances of colour and shape. When do we ever get the chance to do that in everyday life?" As life just happens.
Life Happens is on show at Alserkal Avenue in Dubai until September 8