Artist Reflections: The cultural programme pairing American and Emirati artists in conversation

As part of a new series of online talks, two photographers discuss their similar styles, but different subjects

In the early 1970s, New York photographer Stephen Shore took off across the US to discover the launderettes, roadside motels, dingy diners and empty vistas of remote America. 

His photographs from the trip became the renowned series American Surfaces (1972-1973) and Uncommon Places (1973–1982). These works helped reinvent documentary photography to focus on the overlooked social fabric of everyday America and, crucially, in colour rather than newspaper-esque black-and-white.

“I was like an explorer,” says Shore, in conversation with Sharjah photographer Ammar Al Attar. 

U.S. photographer Stephen Shore attends a media conference to open the Photo London fair in London, Britain, May 15, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Coombs

Al Attar is one of the heirs to Shore's tradition. In 2011, he started the series Visual Diaries, for which he similarly set off to capture the glorious mundanities of his home country. From that point, Al Attar launched a number of projects that build a portrait, often laconic and understated, of the UAE. 

The two photographers crossed paths in 2011, when Shore was invited to the Emirates by Abu Dhabi Art, after a work he did about the capital city a few years ago. The pair were recently brought together again in a series called Artist Reflections, organised by Dubai art researcher Suzy Sikorski's online platform Mid East Art, on behalf of the UAE Embassy in the US. The programme, which is available online, features the American and Emirati speaking side by side. 

The choice of Shore and Al Attar is an interesting one, affording the chance to see everyday scenes of the UAE through the eyes of two artists with similar aesthetic sensibilities, but who are separated by geography and age.

The images that Shore took of Abu Dhabi, in 2009, shows the city’s binary mix of faded and bright colouration; the battered signs of the hair “saloons”; the cerulean tiles of the Corniche; or the bright flowers that grow out of dusty cracks in the pavement.

Other photographs capture the city’s dusty, warren-like streets, with their kerbs and pavements at varying angles to each other, and the rounded domes of mosques that break the vertical geometry of the tower blocks. 

Al Attar's works, in contrast to Shore's, and perhaps naturally, are more attuned to the social life that lives within this architecture. Visual Diaries is populated mostly by men, siting, smoking, talking, or features sites of activity, such as soft furnishings pulled out on to the street.

Other series by Al Attar look at recreational and professional pursuits, such as one on cafes, or another, Reverse Moments, that comprises an archive of local photography studios, often run by Indian, Iranian and Pakistani immigrants. In Prayer Rooms (2012-2017), a compelling body of work, he looks at temporary spaces for prayer across the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, which were created in the spirit of functionality more than visual magnificence.

<span>I find it more interesting to take a photograph of reality, whatever is there</span>

"Art will help us break stereotypes that are associated with our part of the world," Yousef Al Otaiba, UAE Ambassador to the US and Minister of State, tells The National about the project. This programme is one of a number of initiatives by the Embassy's Cultural Diplomacy Department. The body is preparing two major travelling exhibitions, one on architecture from the UAE and another a retrospective of Emirati artist Abdul Qader Al Rais. 

“One of the most interesting parts about being a diplomat is to serve as an ‘interpreter’ between two cultures,” Al Otaiba says. “While the UAE and the US may have different cultures, the arts offer a great way to learn about each other and uncover all that we have in common.”

One experience that is universal is being critiqued by strangers on Instagram. “I have comments on Instagram of, ‘I don’t understand why someone would take the picture – it’s like the world, it’s like life’,” Shore says in the talk. “Well, that is why!”

Al Attar agrees: “I also get the [same] comments.”

With echoes of another famous Sharjah artist, the late Hassan Sharif, Al Attar says when he began making more documentary-style work, it was not accepted by people. “Maybe it was not that beautiful for them, like it was not that dreamy, with the nice beautiful sky with the moving clouds – which is fine,” says Al Attar.

“I find it more interesting to take a photograph of reality, whatever is there.”

Shore explains that he rarely crops images after he shoots them. Once he takes the image, that’s it. “And if I make a mistake, if I don’t like what I’ve done, I just don’t use the picture.”

Sikorski's programme has also featured a panel discussion with Clare Davies, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art, Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, for the Metropolitan Museum of Art; former Christie’s specialist Hala Khayat; New York University curator Lynn Gumpert; and Art Jameel director Antonia Carver. 

Other talks include a discussion between Syrian-American artist Diana Al Hadid and Emirati sculptor Shaikha Al Mazrou and a studio visit with Nujoom Alghanem, moderated by Sikorski.

Artist Reflections is available on the YouTube page of the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Washington, DC