Gulf galleries at Cromwell Place bring the best of Abu Dhabi Art to London: a review

The exhibitions, curated by the Emirati art fair, are on show until June 13

Anuar Khalifi's 'Mockingbird' (2018), which is on show at London's Cromwell Place as part of Abu Dhabi Art's international showing. Courtesy the artist and The Third Line
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London's Cromwell Place launched last October during Frieze London. The idea of the South Kensington site is to offer members exhibition space as and when they need it, rather than galleries occupying a permanent home. So far, it has proven sensible for Arab galleries in particular. Many of their collectors live in London or Europe and, with the pandemic, a second outpost has been especially important.

Last week, a group of Gulf galleries installed exhibitions at the UK hub, painting a multi-generational portrait of regional art. Anchored by the curated show of Abu Dhabi Art, Cromwell Place is also hosting Lawrie Shabibi, Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Tabari Artspace and The Third Line from Dubai, and Hafez Gallery and Athr from Jeddah.

Lawrie Shabibi's presentation of works by Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim is set across from Tabari's pieces by Maitha Abdalla – a fitting juxtaposition as Ibrahim has been a mentor at Abu Dhabi art space Bait 15, which Abdalla co-founded in 2017.

Both artists were raised in Khor Fakkan, too, which remains important to their thinking, but the similarities don't spill over into their style of work. Ibrahim's sculptures, works in papier mache and paintings are invested in formal explorations, such as one long-running series in which he paints the canvas in bright, lurid colours, and then overlays lines of black and white paint on top of them, as if hiding the brilliant cacophony beneath. It's a perplexing move and, when asked, he impishly conceals his reasoning.

As Ibrahim's works move into the mainstream of UAE art history, via his 2018 Sharjah Art Foundation retrospective and his representation of the country at next year's Venice Biennale, what is extraordinary is how he holds on to his outsider status and personal, inimitable style. His odd little sculptures, in a Seussian, animalistic style, his evocations of rock art, and his almost obsessive repetition of the line all continue to shape his work in new ways, without influence from international conceptual currents. The man holds his nerve.

Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim's sculptures and paintings on view at Lawrie Shabibi at Cromwell Place. Courtesy Lucinda Emms

Abdalla's show, in parallel with an exhibition at Tabari's Dubai space, tapped into her interest in ritual and personification, with photographs of animal characters – figures in papier mache – set against a sickly pink wall of bathroom tiles, as well as paintings of similar, pink-gilded scenes.

The young artist, who also works in performance, questions the line between ritual and theatre: the presence of the public, the cues given by props and stages, and fundamentally the idea of participating in, rather than performing for. How does identity transform when it's on show, and what else might guide this metamorphosis?

Another stand-out presentation is by Manal Al Dowayan with Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde. The Saudi artist has for years tracked the issues of women in her native country, from the prohibition of women driving to guardian accompaniment. Now that these restrictions are being lifted, Al Dowayan's artwork finds itself having to move in response – reflecting the end of this era, but also trying to work through what these changes might really mean for women on the ground.

An installation, O Sister (2021), of a desert rose, made out of woven silk, was overlaid by text from the handbooks that women used to receive to govern appropriate behaviour; in this case, how women ought to go to the market (its main suggestion: don't go).

The near-human-sized sculpture is blackened at the edges, in smudges of paint covering the fabric, as if charred – suggesting violence against its content, but also ageing the work, like it was a document recovered from the past.

In the foreground is the superb installation The Emerging (2021), a field of bent limbs, cast in diminutive scale in jesmonite and coated in black wax. It evokes a field of women suddenly showing their knees, coming up from the ground with their illicit contours, but also of hunched figures in black abayas – coming into visibility still tinged with wariness.

Manal Al Dowayan's 'O Sister' (2021). Courtesy Galerie Isabelle van den Eynde

Aya Haidar, in her work Highly Strung (2020-2021) at Jeddah's Athr Gallery, also addressed the question of female visibility in the form of labour. For each day over the past year, the artist, who is a mother of three, embroidered a piece of fabric that she had used – a cleaning cloth, child's clothes or breast pad, for example. The neat embroidery tells the story of her task: ordered school uniforms, cleaned the fridge, pumped milk. She then hung up the items on laundry lines, giving tangible form to all the work mothers do that (mostly) goes unnoticed.

Haidar regularly uses embroidery, and the installation is a strong testament to one artist's desire to keep going while having children, folding together two types of working practice. But the relation between craft as women's work and the subject of invisible domestic labour also feels like an overly direct metaphor, and was nicely made concrete by the pricing structure that she has built in.

Haidar will sell the work according to the hours she worked, calculated as the minimum wage at a rate of £8.72 ($12), and clocking in at 24 hours, seven days a week, for the past year. The collector can decide to buy one year, a half year, or three months.

A detail of Aya Haider's 'Highly Strung' (2020-2021), in which she did a piece of embroidery every day, marking a task she'd completed. Courtesy Athr Gallery

The Third Line also has great shows: a suite of paintings by Moroccan-Spanish artist Anuar Khalifi; a smaller presentation of works by Syrian artist Sara Naim; and a video piece by Sophia Al Maria, which thrums eerily in the space's defunct marble fireplace.

Khalifi’s portraits are wonderfully classical, with reclining subjects surrounded by significant items, and many vaguely resembled the artist himself. The grand domestic setting of Cromwell Place worked well here; while these paintings are doing many things, one undeniable move is their swapping of the conventional subject of portraiture – wealthy white males – with a young black man in Moroccan dress, confidently taking his place above the carved mantlepiece.

A presentation of works by Naim is a nice counterpoint: she zoomed in to Polaroids to tease out the dotted, tonal shades that make up images' colours, and then placed them in frames of amorphously shaped Plexiglas. The effect is of little splodges of digital unreality on the wall.

Images by CPG Photography Ltd

The show also offered the chance to see the Abu Dhabi Art's annual Beyond: Emerging Artists presentation from 2020, which few visitors got to see in the flesh because of strict travel protocols in place in November in the UAE capital.

The show, curated by Maya El Khalil, centred on the idea of memory, and drew from three female UAE artists: Afra Al Dhaheri, Hind Mezaina and Afra Al Suwaidi. Al Dhaheri's central work is a tall sculpture made of rope, which defies its natural properties to stand rigidly straight, almost like a parody of a obelisk. Other work explores the properties of hair, and its ability to hold a shape, as if a memory of the object that held it.

Some note the connection to the late Emirati artist Hassan Sharif, who created a similar rope sculpture. Al Dhaheri has taken this lineage and inflected it with the personal, and specifically female, connotations of the medium: that hair must be braided to seem tidy, or that it must be covered in public – or the idea that long, thick locks are a source of feminine pride.

Afra Al Dhaheri installing her rope sculpture 'Tasreeha' (2020) at Manarat Al Saadiyat for Abu Dhabi Art. A smaller version of the sculpture travelled to London for the Beyond: Emerging Artists presentation at Cromwell Place. Courtesy the artist

Nearby, an installation by Al Suwaidi discusses the difficulty of approaching certain subjects. Her cut-up, angry collages are hung on rows of metal grids, meaning the visitor has to sidle awkwardly between the grids to view them.

Meanwhile, Mezaina shows a video collaging media representations of the UAE via images of people dancing in the Emirates – a flexing of the Dubai artist-curator-critic's capacity for analysis, as she mixes forms of documentation, such as The National's 2019 video of a dancing street cleaner in Abu Dhabi, with more specific cultural traditions such as Sufi-inspired performances.

This is the first international showing of Abu Dhabi Art and perhaps the idea of an outside look at the UAE would have felt more apt. But Mezaina's work, like the others, edged away from the idea of national presentation, leaving simply good art on show.

Cromwell Place's gallery shows are running until Sunday, June 13. Check individual galleries for their closing date