How young artists drew a crowd at Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai

Artworks, performances and discussion permeated the Jameel Arts Centre last weekend and resulted in a pop-up exhibition

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In the courtyard garden of Jameel Arts Centre lies a freshly dug grave. Its headstone reads: "In loving memory of a friend who died from not forwarding that email to 10 people." It is a humorous dig (pun intended) at the death of chain email, the likes of which used to pervade our inboxes but are now something of a distant memory, having succumbed to the short life expectancy of almost all digital phenomena.  

The grave, an artwork called Please Forward by Rakan Ghresi, will be in place only for this week, as it is part of a pop-up art intervention staged by a crop of the most creative and active young people in the UAE. The Jameel Youth Assembly consists of nine members nominated to the group last year, prior to the opening of the Jameel Arts Centre on Al Jaddaf Waterfront in Dubai. Since the centre opened last November, the assembly, whose members are aged between 18 and 25, have met every couple of weeks to discuss what they expect the centre to provide, as well as talking about issues most pressing to their generation.

Youth takeover

The result of these meetings crystallised last weekend with the Youth Takeover, an event that filtered into all corners of the centre, with artworks displayed in the library, foyer and hallways, as well as live performances and a panel discussion. It was a takeover in every sense, as the Youth Assembly had been given full control of the centre and its resources, pulling in a lively crowd of about 400 people of all ages.

“When we opened the centre, we had made a dedicated effort to engage specifically with the youth and to create a community that would call Jameel Arts Centre their home,” explains Murad El Zagal, youth programmes co-ordinator at the centre. “We reached out to the most creative and proactive minds and gave them the freedom to come up with programming that would interest them.”

Functioning like an advisory board, the assembly came up with three primary topics to which each member would respond: pace, affirmations and the now. While they spent a few months discussing what these themes meant, the assembly wrote a series of statements and invited artists and designers to respond to the themes. The result was 17 participants taking part in the one-day event, followed by a 10-day exhibition.

The works on display

Some of the artists, such as Ghresi, used their work to discuss the fluidity and rapid momentum of ideas spread online. Engy Mahdy encased objects, such as a blanket, a pair of glasses and a games console controller, in plaster of Paris and called her artwork Leaving in 5. It encapsulated the duality of the internal and external lives of many young people, who often want to be in two places at once, such as at home under a blanket as well as out with their friends.

In the stairwell of the art centre, Jenan Ismail hosted a soap-cutting dinner party – consisting of bars of soap on plates, small cutting devices and microphones to record the sound of soap crumbling. Ismail is one of the assembly's nine members and her artwork stemmed from an interest in scenarios that only exist online.

Soap cutting is part of the increasingly mainstream phenomenon of autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR. It is an online forum of videos containing sounds that users find so satisfying that they get a tingling sensation in their heads and necks. "I wanted to explore what happens when these phenomena are brought into reality," says Ismail. "I formatted the artwork like a dinner party to emphasise the way people come together online."

Many of the artists examined internet sensations and memes and how they take on a life of their own, while others responded to aspects of life that are distinct to the UAE, such as another work by Ghresi, who installed a car door in the centre's foyer and covered it with solicitous business cards.

Some of the artists took a more personal approach to the project. Sarah Al Agroobi wrote a series of personal messages submitted to an online platform, encased them in cubes of crystal resin and suspended them from the ceiling using thin wires. They showed the fragility of people's emotions and also how vulnerable we become when we share our thoughts online.

Raising the confidence of emerging artists

The centre was buzzing with activity all Friday afternoon and after the panel discussion closed, the audience gathered to watch a one-off performance by Shaikha Al Ketbi. Using large doors to symbolise the barriers between our true selves and those we allow to be validated by the thoughts, opinions and "likes" of people online, Al Ketbi used exaggerated gestures to pass through these doors and performed as her own alter ego.

A lot of my thinking for this came from the ideas we formulated in the youth assembly. I've been enlightened and enriched by this process. I also realise that there is a very big curiosity for these kinds of unconventional experiences and performances.

"A lot of my thinking for this came from the ideas we formulated in the youth assembly," she says. "I've been enlightened and enriched by this process. I also realise that there is a very big curiosity for these kinds of unconventional experiences and performances. I feel like this has fuelled me to create more performances."

Part of the wider aim of the initiative was to raise the confidence of emerging artists and designers by allowing them to exhibit their works on a public platform, while also opening doors for future collaboration and production between those involved in the takeover.

“We see the community itself as an incubator, and so the whole purpose of the assembly and the takeover was to activate this as well as making the arts accessible to everyone,” says El Zagal. “We are interested in a cross-disciplinary approach and to involving as many people as possible. Ultimately, we want to be inclusive and to open our space so that rather than feel intimidated, people feel embraced.”

The Youth Takeover exhibition runs until Saturday at Jameel Arts Centre, Al Jaddaf Waterfront, Dubai