Dubai exhibit features art on paper, a much-neglected medium

An unexpected artistic windfall in the form of two paintings on paper by Anish Kapoor has inspired a Dubai exhibition celebrating the underrated medium, writes Tahira Yaqoob

The art exhibition Paper, featuring works by contemporary artists Anish Kapoor, Debjani Bhardwaj, Imran Channa, Mohsen Ahmadvand and Walid Siti, at the XVA Art Gallery in Dubai. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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It started with a couple of astonishing works falling into their hands - works they never knew existed in the Middle East and from a collector they had never come across.

The two Anish Kapoors had been in her collection for more than a decade, the reserved British woman explained hesitantly, and she wanted to sell them to make room for newer acquisitions.

"I was quite surprised," says Meagan Kelly-Horsman, the director of the XVA Gallery. "We know most of the collectors in Dubai and yet this private collector had Kapoors, Tracey Emins and Bridget Rileys without being on our radar."

The two works were the inspiration for an exhibition called Paper, which opened on February 4 in the gallery's Dubai International Financial Centre base.

On the surface, its other four artists - Pakistani Imran Channa, Walid Siti from Kurdistan, Iranian Mohsen Ahmadvand and Indian Debjani Bhardwaj - might appear to have little in common, aside from the medium they work on.

The title and theme also might seem superficial; most artists at some point will sketch their ideas on paper.

But as the gallery's curators saw common themes between them and in their juxtaposition, their subtleties become more apparent.

"Paper," says Kelly-Horsman, "is so underrated.

"Gallerists don't show it because it is cheaper; they would rather have canvas shows. But for all of us, it is the first thing we use as a child to learn and to express ourselves. We make paper airplanes, we do our homework on it; it is a very versatile medium.

"For artists, if it goes wrong, it is less of a big deal than ruining a canvas."

It can be more affordable for new collectors, she adds, with prices at the exhibition ranging from Dh3,700 to Dh220,000 for its big-name draw.

For Kapoor, of course, paper is neither the medium his most famous works are associated with nor are the two works on show on the scale his fans might be familiar with.

The untitled pieces, though, are clearly works on the way to somewhere else, part of the process, which as the artist says, is as significant as the end result: "Content emerges in the studio much like in psychoanalysis and the psychoanalytic process is very important to me."

In his pieces Untitled (1987) and Untitled (1994) now-familiar obsessions emerge, his preoccupation with monochrome - in this case, red - form, shape and the voids that have echoed through the decades since.

The earlier work splatters across a parchment-like piece of paper, which crinkles and bows under the weight of its bleeding heart, as if the paper itself is seeping blood and guts.

In the later painting, Kapoor has switched to a more structured form in gouache and pencil, the edge of a deep red void that drips a single inverted teardrop or drop of blood across the pristine, crisp white paper.

They explain what came later: the search for the perfect visceral red to symbolise Freud's theory of looking into the back of the cave rather than outwards to see, as Kapoor says, "where the real adventure lies … that's the demon fear, that's where war comes from, that's where death lives.

"I keep coming back to red, because I am interested in the way a colour goes to darkness and red makes a kind of darkness that no other colour does."

While Kapoor is fixated on red paint, Siti is focused on moving water.

The Iraqi Kurd returns repeatedly to water to explore his themes of home, dislocation and the erosion of nature in the country he was uprooted from during the Iran-Iraq war.

His palette in The Fall parts I, II and III (2011) is much more muted than Kapoor's with earthy browns, greens and blues painted in numerous delicate narrow lines to suggest fluidity and movement as well as the fragility of the part of the landscape they form.

His inspiration was the Great Zab River, which flows through Turkey and merges into the Tigris near Mosul in Iraq. It triggered his earlier water series shown in the Iraq Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011 and, he says, "resembles a snake, a large vein or artery of blood that supplies the land with a vital element of life".

Just as his show Erbil-Dubai: Chasing Utopia at the XVA last year demonstrated the precarious existence of Kurdistan's ancient city as parts are flattened to make way for modernist structures, nature, in all its delicate forms, provides a refuge even as it is under threat.

It is no coincidence that at the heart of the waterfall in each painting, an ethereal light forms a mountainous peak with echoes of Siti's 2010 work Pyramids, where paper gave way to an installation representing the "places we can escape to hide and sources of water and food. The symbolic habitual space referred to as 'the mountains' … has lost its respect due to chaotic construction and development taking place that have little regard to the environment."

Siti's own father hid in the same mountains he now paints repeatedly. For Iraqi Kurds, they were both a solace and a backdrop to Saddam Hussein's regime.

The exhibition was not intentionally curated along the themes of the elements, but if Kapoor represents fire with his bold reds and Siti water, then newcomer Debjani Bhardwaj is earth with her papercut works exploring the idea of self through works inspired by fairy tales and fantasy worlds.

It doesn't seem to sit too comfortably at first with the other more established artists: the jaunty, feminine pinks and blues of In My Comfort Zone and Between Sadness and Happiness (both 2012) appear almost too upbeat.

But there are darker elements in her work, from the snake-like tendrils curling malevolently around the flowers or chrysalises she takes refuge in to the morose figure trapped in Pickled in a Jar (2012).

While she also sculpts, Bhardwaj says paper allows her to be creative by taking something away: "It is about adding value by taking away … about creating whimsical worlds using negative spaces."

Mohsen Ahmadvand, another emerging artist, takes Bhardwaj's playfulness and runs with it with his cast of grotesques, a parody of the miniature portraits favoured by the Persian and Mughal empires.

His works in coloured pencils and ink veer from the banal to the macabre: In the Garden (2012) features a demented-looking warrior, rendered effeminate by the flowers adorning his hat while Flower Man (2012) laughs manically, despite bearing an amputated stump for an arm and his bare torso being covered by a black band, reminiscent of the blackouts used by censors in Turkey in the last century to cover the eyes of "fallen" women and rape victims in newspapers.

The theme of censorship takes on a sinister note in Untitled (2012) where a starchily dressed woman is gripped tightly by masculine arms wrapped around her legs; her mouth is a smear of lipstick, suggesting either wantonness or, as Ahmadvand indicates in his other works, that she has been silenced.

Paper, he says, gives him the opportunity to show intricate detail with lines and etchings impossible on a canvas with paints.

For Channa, possibly the least accessible of the artists, the opposite is true: the medium gives him the chance to blur the lines and with his smudged graphite works, to distort his images and create a sort of white noise, leaving the viewer disorientated.

The effect of the six untitled works on display from his Memory series, recording moments in his native Pakistan's history, is to give the sense of glimpsing a moment in time through an open car window. The scene is blurred, the grasp of reality uncertain and the understanding of what has taken place as disembodied and opaque as the country itself.

It is a natural progression for the artist from his 2009 series The Kings, where graphite portraits of Mughal emperors appear out of focus, like ancient fading photographs, and Badshahnama, where Channa physically dissembled the characters from historical records to question their authenticity.

Sometimes leaning toward digital media, he says paper "is the most important object in our lives … in our childhood we used to make toy objects with it, we wrote our homework and sometimes we drew images on our notebook … these associations make it more powerful as a medium of transferring and preserving intellectual ideas".

Ÿ Paper is showing at the XVA Gallery, DIFC, until March 13

Tahira Yaqoob is a regular contributor to The Review.