At Abu Dhabi's Bait 15, artist in residence takes on whole new meaning

In a villa near Salam Street in Abu Dhabi, bedrooms have been turned into exhibition spaces by five people who believe grassroots art is the way ahead

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In a residential area of Al Muroor, tucked off Salam Street in Abu Dhabi, is an otherwise unremarkable villa from the 1980s. Last month, a group of artists designed a green neon sign reading, in English and Arabic, "BAIT 15," and hung it on the house's slightly crumbled wall. The sign announced the opening of Abu Dhabi's first artist-run exhibition space. "There was no such place in Abu Dhabi – a place that is run by artists and is for artists, where we could critique each other's work and just hang out," says Maitha Abdalla, a co-founder. "I realised that many artists I talked to had similar ideas. It was just a matter of finding the right people to start this with. Or – just starting it." Bait 15 hosts studios in the upstairs bedrooms and the reception rooms have become an exhibition space which will be curated on a revolving basis. It was opened last month by five young artists: Abdalla, originally from Khorfakkan; Afra Al Dhaheri from Abu Dhabi; Hashel Al Lamki from Al Ain; and Kris Mortensen and Tony Bragg, a US couple living in Abu Dhabi.

They had all crossed paths before – Abdalla, Al Dhaheri and Al Lamki are all alumni of the SEAF programme, where Bragg is the studio manager – and they had been looking for a place where they could work and host the growing community of artists in Abu Dhabi.

An artist-run site “is what we’re missing from a cohesive or constructive ecosystem of the arts”, says Al Dhaheri. “If we are to have a proper ecosystem, we need the institutions, we need the museums, we need the funding and the grants, but we also need artists’ opinions, and dialogues, and discussions, and so we wanted to have something from the grassroots.”

The latter aspect is significant. The problems that artists perceive – from workaday concerns such as a dearth of affordable places to manufacture sculpture in the UAE to more fundamental ones such as a lack of places to foster critical debate – are different from those encountered by institutions.

“We didn’t want it to be associated with a government entity because everything that we have right now is top-down,” says Al Dhaheri, who makes drawings and sculptural assemblages of wood and concrete. “Louvre [Abu Dhabi], Warehouse 421, ADMAF – these places are amazing and we’re happy to have them, but when we were in the SEAF programme [we felt that] the reason for these fellowships and scholarships is to qualify us in order to have us do things.”

In many ways, Bait 15 is a measure of success of programmes such as the Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship (known as SEAF), run by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation in partnership with the Rhode Island School of Design, which have focused on capacity building. SEAF provides teaching, seminars, and studio spaces for a group of around 15 artists based in the UAE each year, and then, by application, a fully funded MA at an international art school. It has been highly successful – notable alumni are Farah Al Qasimi, Vikram Divecha, Talin Hazbar, and Walid Al Wawi – and Bait 15 indeed has the sense of a baton passing to a new generation, both via SEAF and in terms of support within the UAE community.

The exhibition features a large-scale sculpture by Russell Hamilton, who taught Al Dhaheri and Abdalla at Zayed University, and at a suhoor the house hosted over Ramadan, he presided, like a proud pater familias, at the head of the table. On the wall behind his sculpture are three paintings by Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, an artist who was part of the early contemporary art community in Sharjah. Ibrahim was delighted to show his paintings alongside the younger artists’ work. “The new generation now are very serious and they are working hard,” he tells me. “They are going to continue what we did.” 

The house itself has its own artistic pedigree: it was originally the home of Mohammed Al Janahi, an Emirati actor from the TV series Ashhofan that was popular in the 1970s and 1980s in the UAE. When he died, it passed on to his son, the filmmaker Nawaf Al Janahi, who leased it to the artist Mohammed Al Mazrouei. It was through the friendship between Al Mazrouei and Al Lamki that the house became Bait 15. After he returned from living in New York, Al Lamki struck up a friendship with the older artist.

Click below to watch a clip from Ashhofan:

“He wanted to meet someone who was not like him,” Lamki says. “I needed someone with a little more knowledge.” The two formed a creative relationship – a unique collaboration that will be the subject of a show at the NYUAD Project Space in November.

Then, earlier this year, Al Mazrouei's lease came up and he planned a move to Egypt, where he has begun, after a long career in painting, working in film and video. Nodding to this career change, the exhibition downstairs boasts Al Mazrouei's first foray into this medium: a video of a young girl obsessed with the idea of marriage. Al Lamki, who had been speaking about setting up a workspace with others, asked if they could take over the lease.

"We'd thought about a warehouse in Mina, but we would have needed a commercial licence," he says, sitting below an enormous work-in-progress that is expected to be part of the November show. Al Mazrouei agreed, and one morning in February Al Lamki found himself coordinating the deposit and the handover. "Everyone came into my house carrying the cash and I thought, suddenly, I'm rich! There was cash all over," he says with a laugh. Al Lamki took the first-floor bedroom that had also been Al Mazrouei's studio, and in just four months, the artists began readying the house and starting plans for the opening show.

“Us being five artists, you might think it would have been easy to set up the exhibition,” says Abdalla. “We wanted all of us to come together and discuss things, but it wasn’t that easy and it shouldn’t be easy. We’re different artists from different backgrounds. But we agreed on the main idea that it should feel like a space for a community.”

They invited a range of artists to the show: those who were historically important to the art scene in the UAE, such as Ibrahim, Nujoom Alghanem, and Lamya Gargash; artists in Abu Dhabi who often fly under the radar; and international artists they know and admire.

The show feels classical: it’s a mix of painting, sculpture, video and photography, broken up by a few surprising, almost Franz West-like sculptures by Al Anood Al Obaidly that hide within the show. Abu Dhabi isn’t a front-and-centre subject – when it appears, it’s almost covert and other narratives emerge. Alia Zaal shows two dark paintings of the police who used to guard Abu Dhabi, painted in blurry outlines, as if depicted from a long-ago memory. A photograph from a performance of a woman sitting at her laptop, encased in a wireframe cage, is a beautifully balanced mix of realism and allegory, by the artist Camilla Singh – an Abu Dhabi resident who rarely shows here. Hamilton’s sculpture, a painted wooden structure pierced with feathered arrows, is a political reminder of the US’s long history of suppression of Native Americans (Hamilton is part-Native American).

The show is fitting for the community aspect Bait 15 wants to engender, and the site retains the unpretentious feeling of a family home. When I visited, Abdalla’s precocious two-year-old son, Mubarak, was sitting in her studio drawing, shouting out the colours of the crayons in English. Around him were papier-mâché masks – two pigs and a rooster – as if it were a children’s play area gone slightly awry; they were heads that Abdalla sculpted for a recent video in which she explores how sin shapes the body. She dramatised the story with animals symbolic in Islam.

“I grew up on a farm in Khorfakkan,” she says. “In Islam, you believe that if you hear a rooster, there are angels nearby. So every time my grandmother heard a rooster, she would tell me it was a good time to say a prayer.” For good luck, Bait 15 has placed one of her roosters outside the entrance to the house.

Bait 15 is open by appointment in Abu Dhabi


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