Art builds up before the UAE heats up

Art offerings in the UAE have come to an exciting climax before the height of summer strikes with two huge international institutions and a choice selection of local openings capping off the season.

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Turning our eyes to Sharjah this week, there are touring exhibitions in town from two of the West's best cultural institutions, while tonight sees Alserkal Avenue in Dubai host its final hurrah of openings before the summer rolls in.

Corrupted Theories

There's logic in the idea that the more detailed and complex a thing is, the more stable it will be. The French-Algerian artist Abdelkader Benchamma inverts that idea entirely: his drawings depict an intricate world evaporating before our eyes. Stable constructions are swept away in this disintegration - reduced to points of ink loosened from a central core - and their forms disperse around the paper in a blossom.

This is the first Middle East solo show for the artist, and shows off several of his drawings and installation/sculptural works. Everything is about points of weakness here. Benchamma wants to show his viewer the loosest synapse in a construction, the part that everything hinges on and, if removed, would bring the whole lot tumbling down.

This dismantling happens in a pretty splendid fashion in the artist's drawings. There's a sense of rapture as destruction blows into the scene like licks of a flame. La Mauvais Point (The Bad Point), on the other hand, is an assemblage of planks of plywood and solid oak that Benchamma has shaped to appear shattered. There's an illusory sense that the different pieces of wood are somehow one. Together they appear like a solid pane of glass that a bullet has perforated as it passed through at speed, sending cracks and ripples through the surface but not destroying it altogether.

These are works that question our assumptions of stability. The Last Time is a highlight here: a crowd of men fleeing an evaporating structure, drawn with a cold, precise hand. As the artist notes: "The more the line is precise, the more the nature of the mass remains elusive."

Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz, Dubai. Opening tonight until July 15

Text Me

A punchy round up of newer talent who all employ the written word for their own artistic ends. Some of these names have been knocking around Dubai's art scene for a while - the likes of UBIK (Vivek Premachandran) and the Sharjah College of Art and Design graduate Hala Ali. But there's also work here by the artist Aya Haider who augments the street signs found in Jeddah's dilapidating Al Bilad district with lines of hot pink, and Dariush Nehdaran, who has shot-from-the-hip aboard his moped on a tour of Tehran.

Collectively, the artists are "breaking from the clichés concerning text-based work in the region", says Lawrie Shabibi, meaning that they're trying to get away from immediate associations we might make of seeing the hallowed word inscribed in a gallery setting. Take the calligraphic subversions of the Pakistani artist Muzzumil Ruheel, for instance, who uses the lauded form to spell out some blunt and cynical one-liners in transliterated English. Or Behdad Lahooti, who inscribes the 2,500-year-old cuneiform script of the Achaemenid Persian Empire onto a set of bronze plumbing pipes.

We'll be curious to see how this group show goes - the gallery has had a long run of focus shows, concentrating and gleaning some depth about individual artists. It's also an uncharacteristically irreverent line up; making sure there's wise statements rather than unwarranted wordiness will be the writing on the wall.

Lawrie Shabibi, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz, Dubai. Opening tonight until July 21

Owen Jones: Islamic Design, Discovery, Vision

In the mid-19th century, British design needed a shake-up. Rapid industrial growth had taken some of the beauty out of objects. A new language of design needed to be cobbled together - one that wasn't nostalgic or kitschy but could still bring a little of the sublime back into the day-to-day.

At the helm of this curve was the architect and designer Owen Jones who helped assemble what is today the Victoria and Albert Museum's early collection of Islamic artefacts. Jones procured glasswork, ceramics, furniture and textiles for the burgeoning museum, sourced from Turkey, India and relics of Moorish Spain, as well as including these into the Great Exhibition of 1851. Selections from this innovative buying spree are currently part of a V&A touring exhibition, which has moved from Alhambra (the red stone fortress in Granada built during Spain's Al Andalus era) to Sharjah before continuing on to South Korea in July.

The show demonstrates Jones's search for a visual language that would be keenly modern, innovate notions of decoration and keep functionality at its heart. Jones set out his vision in the 1856 guidebook Grammar of Ornament, a set of principles of design that are still in print and a point of reference. His ideas were gleamed from the study of Islamic craftsmanship, pattern and design, and this exhibition seeks to illustrate exactly what sparked Jones's imagination about the collection.

A key moment in the evolution of western design, and a reminder that looking back can often innovate the future.

Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, until July 15

Ibrahim El Salahi: A Visionary Modernist

Another touring exhibition is from New York's Museum of African Art and details the career and wanderings of the Sudanese master Ibrahim El Salahi. Some 80 works make up the retrospective, showing how he led a generation pioneering a visual language that was both distinctly Sudanese (Arab and African) as well as modernist.

The exhibition opens with a selection from the Khartoum School-era, including A Vision of the Tomb (1965), with its ethereal loops and curls flowing out of each other as formless and unspecific as a mirage in the searing heat. These early works really show off the push to absorb new ideas running through European painting at that time, while forging a local relevance using colour, ornamentation and the importance of the Arabic script to Islam.

A Visionary Modernist then moves through the next five decades of El Salahi's life, taking in his time studying at Slade College in London, his exile in Qatar in the 1970s and his near-constant comings and goings from Sudan during its tumultuous modern history. His period in the Gulf, though short, is particularly interesting and shows the effect of a then-quiet Doha on the style of the artist.

This is a fine opportunity to see a true innovator in action and catch a show orchestrated by one of New York's smartest venues for art from beyond its borders.

Sharjah Art Museum, Heart of Sharjah, until May 31

1. Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde

Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz, Dubai, (04) 323 0502,,, Saturday-Thursday 10am-7pm

2. Lawrie Shabibi

Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz, Dubai, (04) 346 9906,,, Saturday-Thursday 10am-6pm

3. Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation

Corniche, Al Majarrah district, Sharjah, (06) 565 5455,, Saturday-Thursday, 8am-8pm, Friday 8am-4pm. Entry Dh5 adults, children free

4. Sharjah Art Museum

Heart of Sharjah, (06) 568 8222,, Saturday-Thursday 8am-8pm, Friday, 4pm-8pm