Lest We Forget: new exhibition at Warehouse421 looks to preserve history through art

Spanish artist Maria Jose Rodriguez Escolar transforms archival photographs into paintings

A painting by Maria Jose Rodriguez Escolar from a series she has created based on archival photos. Courtesy of the artist 
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"Same, same but different" is a colloquialism familiar to anyone who has spent time in the Emirates. Common currency in exchanges with street vendors or taxi drivers, its roots are in South-East Asia, and it is a reminder of the true linguistic melting pot that the UAE has become.

Michele Bambling, creative director of art initiative Lest We Forget, uses this phrase when describing the impetus behind the new exhibition Lest We Forget: The Universality of Family Photographs at Abu Dhabi's Warehouse421, in celebration of the organisation's fifth anniversary

“Here in the UAE there are different ways of using English,” says Bambling.

The phrase has a particular resonance in the exhibition, which illustrates comparative experiences of families in two different countries: the UAE and Spain. It is also an example of the many possible connections between expatriates and local residents in the UAE. "The artist Maria Jose Rodriguez Escolar moved to Abu Dhabi two years ago and got in touch after finding our publication Lest We Forget: Emirati Family Photographs 1950-1990 whilst on a visit to Warehouse421," Bambling says. "She was struck by how many of the photographs taken by Emirati families in the last decades of the 20th century were similar to those in her own family albums. She had expected to see photographs showing a very different family and cultural life."

Very soon, the two were in touch and they developed a collaboration – Rodriguez Escolar inspired by photographs in the Lest We Forget archive for her painting practice and Bambling choosing to curate an exhibition juxtaposing photographs from the UAE with ones from Spain, along with a selection of Rodriguez Escolar's paintings. It's a small exhibition, with a tight selection of photographs (originals are included for the first time) displayed alongside paintings that correspond aesthetically. "The past is a little bit forgotten in this amazing country," Rodriguez Escolar tells The National. "I found very interesting images and saw how in 40 years the country has changed so much."

One of the images from the Lest We Forget archive. Courtesy of Amna Saleh Abdulla Mohamed Altenaiji

When asked to compare the images taken in the UAE and Spain, she says: "There were a lot of similarities – between the important things. The love for children, the family, friendships. Differences were clear in the way people dressed and the landscapes, but in the end the most important elements, the sentiments and emotions, these were the same. The images make clear that the family is the nucleus of society. It's the same everywhere I have lived."

An interest in the power of vernacular and everyday images revelling in the sentimental has been at the heart of Lest We Forget since its inception. As the wife of Spain's ambassador to the UAE, Rodriguez Escolar has spent many years living abroad in countries such as Belgium, Morocco and Syria.

A painting by Maria Jose Rodriguez Escolar, which is part of a series called 'The Colour of Memory', Abu Dhabi (2018)

Surroundings often inspire her practice. Her latest series, The Colour of Memory, was created after moving to the UAE. It features sand on black-and-white graphite and charcoal drawings on paper taken from archival images, creating different textures and depths of surface. Rodriguez Escolar will lead a workshop at Warehouse421 on Saturday showing how to translate photographs into paintings. "I love the technique as part of my work," she tells me when discussing the workshop. "To be a painter is not only to have an idea, but to also develop your idea."

Paintings from an earlier body of work, Kodak (2014-2016), made while the artist was living in Madrid, are where the affinities with the Lest We Forget archive are most closely found. Their vibrant colours, spontaneous quality and celebratory atmosphere refer to happy memories of a time of innocence, joy and togetherness. "Now, we take a lot of selfies and photographs of everything," Rodriguez Escolar says. "I am interested in the past, when we took photos to capture a special moment, something that we want to remember. Today, we take photos every time we eat, go out – everything becomes important and not important at the same time."

Lest We Forget has so far focused on the pre-selfie era, but there is always a contemporary relevance. In the more than five years Bambling has been working on this project, there have been significant shifts in our use of technology and habits in taking photographs. She notices that the young students she works with use their phones to take digital images of the archive, which adds a level to their significance. "The project highlights the expressive potential of art to communicate intimacy, to generate empathy, to inspire people, and to give a contemporary take on the past."

It is hard to escape the weight of the past with the title as it is. Taken from Rudyard Kipling's poem Recessionalwhich was composed for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, "lest we forget" is a phrase used universally in remembrance of war.

"Art is a creative means of exploring and expressing memory," says Bambling. "It opens a new way of looking, keeps people questioning and discovering. A huge part of the success of Lest We Forget has been the multi-layered discoveries Emirati women have made about their own culture, heritage and identity."

Given that this is the Year of Tolerance, it is fitting that for the first time, the exhibition features the work of a non-Emirati woman. Same, same but different.

Lest We Forget: The Universality of Family Photographs is on show at Warehouse421, Mina Zayed, Abu Dhabi, until July 28. Admission is free. For more information visit www.warehouse421.ae