A shopping mall is an unusual place for an art studio, but at the end of a line of clothing boutiques and cafes at Galleria Mall in Al Barsha, Dubai, stands Nine-01, a newly opened space run by three art students.
Inside, it looks like a typical studio – sculptures are scattered across the floor and unframed paintings hang on the exposed cement walls. A table in the centre acts as a workstation, on top of which are piles of sketches, tools, plaster and paint.
The young Emirati artists, Moza Almazrouei and brothers Talal and Ziad Al Najjar, moved into the space last month to produce work there, while fielding questions from people shopping in the mall – some are curious, others confused.
“People are always intrigued. Some really grasp the concept. Others ask, ‘What does this shop sell?’ and some ask if we do workshops,” says Talal, who, at 21 years old, is the eldest of the group. His brother, Ziad, 19, says, “We don’t mind when people come in and ask us what we’re up to. It brings a different kind of light to the mall.”
An artistic intervention
Nine-01 is an oddity that is distinctly Dubai, where malls not only serve as sites of spectacle, with Vegas-style fireworks and indoor ski slopes, but also as social spaces where the city’s disparate classes and nationalities converge.
Within this, Nine-01 feels like an artistic intervention. The artists see its location as an opportunity to start conversations about art with the public, some of whom may not often get a chance to visit galleries or museums.
“I think with art spaces in the region, there isn’t the easy ability to visit. With places like Alserkal Avenue or [other] artsy places, they almost create their own echo chamber. They cater to specific people and create their own community,” says Almazrouei, 20. “With a setting like this, it’s kind of comical in a way, but it’s also interesting to see different demographics overlapping.”
Before setting up Nine-01, all three artists were studying abroad – Talal and Ziad, who are half-American, are enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the US, while Almazrouei is at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.
After the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March, their schools closed and classes were moved online, including studio sessions. Days later, the UAE government issued a call for its citizens to return to the country, so all three came back in mid-March.
Adjusting to the ‘new normal’
They’ve since adjusted to the change, but initially found it difficult to produce their art while staying at home. “It’s not an ideal environment in terms of motivation, and we don’t have much space to work in,” Ziad says. Almazrouei adds, “It’s also been the flying back and readjusting to the ‘new normal’ and working around online art school. It’s so much to take in at once.”
In May, the management of the newly opened Galleria Mall in Al Barsha invited the artists to set up their studio. “We told them that all we need is AC, a sink, lights and ventilation. Wi-Fi is a bonus,” Talal says. “You don’t need to put in any flooring or any walls in. We like it raw.”
'It’s transcultural and transhistorical'
The students have now filled the space, working consistently and experimenting within their own practices, Almazrouei with sculpture, Ziad with painting and Talal with both mediums. “When you go to a studio, you’re in a different headspace, Talal says. "You think, ‘I have to make something. I can’t come and leave empty-handed.’
"Most of the work we’ve made since we got here has been experimental, and it’s not like every piece we make will be in our final portfolio. We’re just creating, being artists. Having a space gives you more opportunity to do that.”
There is a playfulness to his work in both subject and material. In a series of sculptures titled Ancient Contemporary, Talal has remodelled ancient artefacts, such as funerary masks and totems, using Styrofoam, and covered the surfaces with clippings – from ancient manuscripts to pop culture references – from the East and the West. There's a Silence of the Lambs movie poster alongside prints of the different historical forts across the UAE.
“It’s transcultural and transhistorical. I usually use references from cultures I’m somehow connected to, Middle Eastern, European and American. They start to have a certain conversation with each other,” he says.
This relationship between old and new extends to the look of the sculptures, too. “I’m playing with the idea that they look ancient and rustic, but I’m using new materials,” Talal says. This contrast in appearance and substance is seen in his other work, Excrescence, abstract sculptures that look dense and heavy, but are actually made of foam. With Talal’s skilful use of paint and papier-mache, they mimic stone or even bronze.
Ziad’s recent paintings contemplate space, rendering the outline of interiors – a hallway, a room – while experimenting with perspective and scale. He further breaks this down, adding lines and shapes as a way of shifting towards abstraction. “I feel like I’ve always been very influenced by architecture,” he says, attributing this to his architect father. “I’m exploring space in an abstract way, how you can create and obscure space in painting and drawing.”
His other paintings are more figurative, including spray-painted pictures of strange characters and a series of still-life paintings with pots, which he refers to as “vessels”. He sees the latter series as an extension of his interest in space, in how ornamental objects can transform their surroundings. Being in the studio has allowed him to revisit his ideas and build on them. “There’s a constant shift in what I’m interested in,” he says.
Almazrouei’s practice is more research-driven, diving into Mesopotamian ancient mythology and the narratives within it. “I was looking at the transfer of knowledge in this region and the movement of archives,” she says. “It’s hard to understand certain archives, and I want to understand how they move through colonial channels or language.”
In other words, how do ancient narratives transform by becoming categorised and coded within a system?
In her sculptures, Almazrouei wants to turn these myths into material. A current piece, Slices of Tiamat, for example, begins with the story of Tiamat, a Mesopotamian goddess killed by another god, Marduk. “She was sliced into pieces by this god, and the world was formed on the basis of her corpse,” she explains.
In the myth, Tiamat’s tail becomes the Milky Way. Sketching the stars, Almazrouei visualises the story, then transfers the same patterns into a piece of coral with a chisel. “I like the idea of mapping things that don’t exist physically,” she says.
This is her own form of pseudo-archaeology, creating a historical object from fiction as a way to question the air of certainty bestowed upon archives and artefacts.
While the three are busy experimenting at Nine-01, named after one of Talal’s works, they’re also waiting to return to school.
In a few weeks, they will fly back to the US and the UK. Most classes will still take place online, but they will have the opportunity to return to their studio classes, where they have access to facilities and can meet with peers and professors.
It’s a significant part of developing as an artist, says Ziad. “I feel this strange disconnect between students in our conversations online. When you’re in art school, the class environment is really important when it comes to making art.”
Almazrouei agrees. “When I’m alone, it’s like being in my own bubble. I’m not using people as a reference point or hearing their criticism, so there’s the issue of falling into the same way of making or thinking.”
Passing the space on
They hope that Nine-01 will continue to exist after they leave. Talal says they plan to begin an application process for other artists in the UAE to use the space in the future, especially since having a studio can be a privilege for most. “We want them to use the space and not be burdened with other things,” he says.
It will be a few years before they enter the art world as independent professionals, and while a looming economic crisis places pressure on the future of museums and institutions, they’re confident in their ability to adapt. “I feel it’s hard for artists who are making a living right now, but I feel we still have time to navigate and change with how things become. Things will get better,” Ziad says, with a sense of hope.