For four years, Arwa Al Neami photographed the summer funfair in her home town of Abha, in the south of Saudi Arabia, capturing comment on society by documenting the physical space.
In the expanding city of Karachi, property speculation means that public space is being carved up, as Yaminay Chaudhri demonstrates in a body of work exploring the fraught meeting of a working-class public beach and an upper-class neighbourhood.
The two artists’ investigations are in an exhibition at the Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah. One half of the gallery is given over to Al Neami’s work, the other to that of Chaudhri.
The show, aptly, was jointly put together by the Maraya’s curator, Laura Metzler, and the Pakistani curator Aziz Sohail.
The funfair in Abha
“Every year, I went to this theme park,” says Al Neami of Abha’s summer fair. “In 2007, I went with my brother and they separated us. I was angry but it’s so funny because it was like we were playing on the difference. But in 2013, I saw labels, and I was shocked at what was happening.”
Signs stipulated proper attire and behaviour for women, including a rule that they were not allowed to scream.
Al Neami decided to start photographing the theme park, documenting, as Metzler puts it, the “infrastructure of public entertainment,” or the way that social changes are reflected by – or challenge – the built environment.
One ride, where two cars of festival-goers rock from side to side, acquired a new function after the restrictions.
There, Al Neami says, “the ladies are screaming a lot. Even before the ride begins they are screaming”.
She suggests that the response may be more one of cheekiness and fun than excitement or terror.
On other rides, she says: “I cannot scream. When I go outside from the dropdown game, I have such a headache. It’s not healthy. The ladies are becoming more strong but the covering becomes more strong.”
Restrictions against driving were also in play on the bumper cars, where, as the artist explains, women seemed just happy to have the opportunity to drive.
“In 2013 or 2014, I went to the theme park and was trying to bump with the ladies,” she says. “They start shouting, ‘Please stop bumping. We’re just driving here.’ They cannot drive [real cars] so they love to drive the bumpers.”
“I’m trying to shoot this feeling. I hold the camera inside my body,” hidden between the folds of her abaya.
Al Neami recorded the park from 2013 to last year.
The video and photography that she displays at the Maraya Art Centre as part of her Liff presentation show the heavy black drapes that were put up to keep the women from view as they wait for the bumper cars, or the coloured acrylic that is affixed to the outside of other rides to hide their participants.
Aerial shots show the crashing riot of colour of the fun fair – the brashly painted metal of the rides’ infrastructure, the blinking yellow and green lights, and the acrylic walls.
Veins of black and white run through the busy scene, formed by the women in their black abayas and the men in their kanduras.
Karachi's public beach
The slightly gaudy aesthetic of the fair complements Karachi’s Sea View beach, which Chaudhri explores in an exhibition comprised of video, photography, oral testimonies, digital prints and a quietly affecting installation of spindly miniature seaside viewfinders arranged in a semi-circle, as if standing in a shoreline cove.
“Sea View beach is one of the most important public spaces in Karachi,” Chaudhri says. “We don’t have a lot of mixed-class public spaces. It’s visited by blue-collar workers who want to escape from the pressure of the city.”
Chaudri portrays the area through a video taken at night, which mixes the sounds and the sights of the waterfront – people chatting, young men laughing and the LED lights of rented buggies being driven around. But these activities, Chaudhri says, are under threat.
“There’s a sanitisation of the beach under way right now,” she says. “A lot of people are being moved off, a lot of vendors being pushed to the fringes, illegal structures being built that prevent public access. It’s a systematic rejection of open space for real estate.”
One way the aspirations of neighbouring Darakhshan, the upscale area that overlooks the beach, take form is in their imitation of Dubai aesthetics.
“They’re very inspired by Dubai and the Emirates, so they will try really hard to put these Khaleeji date palms on the beach and they never survive. The indigenous plants are considered weeds – they’re completely removed, even though they don’t need any water.”
As shown in a set of prints, the Darakhshan houses have borne strange fruit, sprouting balustrades and cornices, eaves and extensions.
“This housing was designed in the 1970s, occupied in the 1980s, and over the past 30 years went from a modernist, utopian housing township to a series of individual houses that have been renovated so much that they look nothing like they did once upon a time,” says Chaudhri, who trained as an architect at Cornell University in upstate New York. “Every façade is completely different.”
She gives an impression, through snippets of text placed in the viewfinders, of a walk from this neighbourhood back down to the beach. The texts start with factual descriptions of the ocean view and end as surreal fantasies.
“They are dreams of what people want the space to be. It’s like a personal cinema,” Chaudhri says. “You look at the text but you imagine what you could possibly see if you were on a walk here.”
The walk down to the beach was not a ferocious leap of the imagination for the artist. Chaudhri has been living in Darakhshan for 30 years.
A striking parallel between the two bodies of work is their intimacy with their subjects. These aren’t diversions viewed at an abstract, but attended by the artists themselves.
Farjam Foundation's exhibition considers conflicts between bordering nations
Chaudhri notes the “complicity that we have in the loss of public space. We keep talking about how the city is constantly expanding but our houses are also constantly expanding.”
The work of Al Neami – who is now based in Riyadh, where her husband, Ahmed Mater, heads the Misk Art Institute – isolates facets of daily Saudi life in order to tease out their greater significance.
The photographic series Piece of Paradise (2014) pictured the beautifully painted ceilings in the busy Prophet's Mosque in Madinah, which visitors pass beneath without seeming to notice.
“I want to catch the things that people don’t see,” Al Neami says. “I catch what nobody catches.”
Yaminay Chaudhri: Rooms are Never Finished and Arwa Al Neami: Liff are at the Maraya Art Centre at Al Qasba, Sharjah, until August 23, 2018.