Unwelcome and uncomfortable it may have been, but the 83 per cent humidity that saturated Sharjah on Saturday evening only served to highlight the issues that are explored in An Ecology, a new three-part installation by the 30-year-old Lebanese artist, Mahmoud Safadi.
Alongside new works by the UAE-based artists Al Anood Al Obaidly and Nasir Nasrallah and the Algerian artist Soufiane Zouggar, An Ecology is now on display at the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) as part of the March Project 2017.
An annual educational residency programme that is now in its fourth season, the March Project extends invitations to artists to come to Sharjah, explore the emirate and work on new projects alongside carefully-selected international mentors and members of the SAF team.
"It's a research process for us as well. It allows us to get to know a younger generation of artists who are working locally and in the region who we haven't worked with before," explains Sharjah Art Foundation's deputy director Reem Shadid, who also helps the March Project artists to realise their proposals by liaising with mentors and in selecting locations for the works.
"Every year it shifts a little bit but when we first conceived the project, we wanted to bring a group of artists together and to take them through a programme together that includes talks by professionals and technical workshops. One year it was about lighting, another it was about working with video," Shadid explains.
"We invite them in March to start their research; they are expected to submit a proposal in June; we discuss that and then we have the exhibition."
Housed in the Bait Hussain Makrani, one of the traditional buildings that cluster around the Sharjah Art Foundation gallery spaces in Al Mureijah Square, Safadi's installations examine life – both vegetable and human – as it is lived at the margins, and the blurring of boundaries between the natural and the man-made that occur in our urban environments.
"I grew up in cities and I remember that nature was always something that you went to, or you might go to the park, but with this work I am trying to look beyond that distinction," Safadi told me at the show's opening, which also took visitors on a walking tour of the various SAF spaces in Sharjah's Al Mureijah, Arts and Calligraphy Squares.
In Living byproduct those margins are both living and literal. Using plants collected from various sites around the city – car parks, waste ground, plots next to telephone boxes – Safadi has created a kind of crevice garden planted at the junction between the wall and the floor, in a small room whose only source of water is the condensate that drips from an air-conditioning unit, which was working overtime in the unexpected heat.
"The AC drips water depending on how many people are here, on the temperature, on the season, so it becomes an ecosystem, in a way. There's no more separation between nature and the urban environment," Safadi said.
"And if you walk around Sharjah, the green spaces that you see always occur where there is moisture, which happens because of our advancement, because of construction or happenstance– things that are the result of urban life," he added.
"But for this to happen, lots of things have to come together. There has to be a source of water and a seed has to fall in the right place."
Inspired in part by the month he spent in residency in the emirate in March but also by an existing installation in the Bait Hussain Makrani's courtyard, Lemos Auad's plant-based A Moment of the Sky / Four Humours – which was created for Sharjah Biennial 13 – Safadi's Of Flesh and Earth consists of a series of rough casts of the artist's hands that recreate gestures associated with gardening such as watering, digging and the sowing of seeds.
"I saw all of these people out tending parks and gardens at sunrise and sunset so I started thinking of that as a kind of invisible hand that takes care of all the greenspaces and public spaces," Safadi explained about the sculptures, which combine clay with another natural and locally-occurring material, gypsum, that is associated with construction. "It's a gesture we don't usually notice, not just here but in every city. We take our green spaces for granted and we don't see or think about the labour that goes into them but these things don't happen by themselves. There is a whole network of labour that goes into them and I wanted to make that gesture visible in some way."
If Safadi's work addresses some of the same themes as Vikram Divecha's Shaping Resistance (2015), which also sought to draw attention to the overlooked work of horticultural labourers, it also testifies to the contradictory fragility and tenacity of nature in the Emirates, urban or otherwise.
Safadi spent a significant amount of his March residency travelling around Sharjah with Soufiane Zouggar, a 35-year-old Algerian artist whose March Project 2017 installation, Temporary flesh walls' stories, permanent posters and one portrait, represents a kind of tribute to an altogether more human form of persistence – the life of a Pakistani, Izhar, who has lived in Sharjah for more than 40 years.
Now the caretaker of an abandoned Modernist cinema in Khorfakkan that has been saved for posterity thanks to the personal efforts of the Sharjah Art Foundation's president and director, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, Izhar previously worked as the cinema's projectionist and in its box office. Prior to that he worked as a labourer on various construction projects.
In Zouggar's multimedia installation, which is housed in the SAF's Dar Al Nadwa, Calligraphy Square, Izhar has become a kind of spectral figure who is only seen once, in a reflection, but whose presence seems to have become a part of the building's fabric. This is recorded in a series of photographs and alluded to in foud large temporary moulds for concrete supports, supported by scaffolding, which, like Izhar, have travelled from job-to-job but whose emptiness conjures notions of itinerancy and absence, alienation and loss.
Although there are no direct links, both Zouggar and Safadi's work contain distant echoes of Ali Cherri's UAE-based works, especially the 2015 film The Digger, which also featured the djinn-like figure of a Pakistani caretaker, this time of Sharjah's archaeological sites, and Cherri's 2016 film Petrified, which explored the artfully-constructed naturalness of Sharjah's Arabian Wildlife Centre, one of the destinations Safadi visited when he explored the emirate earlier this year.
If the March Project encouraged Safadi to explore themes and materials outside his usual, film-based sphere of practise and Zouggar to move his investigation of materials and memory beyond his native Algeria, it has allowed the Abu Dhabi-based artist Al Anood Al Obaidly to operate at a scale that is far beyond her usual scope. Starting with collages constructed from discarded consumer materials such as plastic packaging, which she transforms into sculptures that explore composition, colour, tension and humour, the size of Al Obaidly's work is normally limited by the fact that she works from a studio in her home.
Thanks to the March Project, however, she has been able to produce Slightly Related Elements, two sculptures that required one of the larger exhibition spaces in Calligraphy Square.
"All my previous exhibitions featured miniature sculptures that were the product of the move from 2-D to 3-D, but this is the first time I have had the opportunity to work at this scale" the Zayed University and Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Emerging Artists Fellowship programme alumna explained.
"It's still very early to see if I will continue to work at this scale but I feel that each year you should have a process that helps me to keep developing my concept."
Of this year's crop of invited artists, Nasir Nasrallah is the individual who knows Sharjah and the March Project best. Not only was he born in the emirate, but he also works for SAF as the director of its education programme. He was vice-president of the Emirates Fine Arts Society between 2006 and 2012 and exhibited at Sharjah Biennial 11 in 2013.
Nasrallah's March Project installation, The Communication Room, is housed in the Majlis Sheikh Mohamed, which forms a part of the traditional souk in Arts Square.
Comprised of four separate but conceptually-related artworks, The Communication Room explores the relationships between time, space, communication technologies and changing patterns of human interaction. It features outmoded methods of communication such as letters, typewriters and an old, analogue telephone.
A work composed of 225 red, white and blue air mail envelopes over which Nasrallah drew a unifying mural while they were originally mounted on his studio wall, Mailing System Rearrangement, is partly a product of Sharjah's postal system.
Nasrallah labelled each of the envelopes with his own address, affixed the same two dirham stamp to each and then posted them from different locations in the emirate. He is recombining the sketch on the wall of the majlis according to the date he receives each letter, producing a new composition that reveals the effects of space, time and chance.
Of the 225 envelopes, 164 have so far made their way to Nasrallah. The first envelope took almost a month to be returned.
Another work, Never to be Opened, presents two sealed envelopes bearing beautiful vintage stamps from Sharjah's pre-federal past. One carries the instruction that it is only to be opened in the past, while the other may only be opened in the future, reminding us that in the present, both are always out of reach.
"I tried to send these to my own address but the [postal service] doesn't accept them anymore," Nasrallah laments. "The first stamp after unification in 1971 is still accepted, but I wanted something that belongs to Sharjah."
The March Project at Sharjah Art Foundation runs until December 30. For more information visit www.sharjahart.org