Unsolvable riddle: Shaikha Al Mazrou's new art show 'conceals rather than reveals'

The Emirati artist's exhibition at Maraya Art Centre weaves in personal elements, but viewers may never get to figure them out

Shaikha Al Mazrou's exhibition 'Rearranging the Riddle' is on view at Maraya Art Centre. Courtesy Maraya Art Centre
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At Emirati artist Shaika Al Mazrou’s new show, the first thing you will notice is the colour blue. It comes in many forms – from the heap of coloured sand on the floor to the cyanotype prints on the wall.

On view at Maraya Art Centre, Rearranging the Riddle is Al Mazrou’s first institutional exhibition in the UAE. Working with curator and artist Cristiana de Marchi over the last six months, the artist has developed new works that depart from her usual practice of playing with material and form.

In her older abstract sculptures from 2018, for example, she made steel look like crumpled paper or even squishy rubber swim tubes. Her ‘greenhouse’, commissioned by and previously on view at Jameel Arts Centre, was a glass structure coloured in gradients of green.

This time, her work is more personal and experimental, but retains her interest in creating abstract minimal art.  “There is a biographical connotation in the work,” de Marchi says. “All the works originate from conversations the artist has had in the recent past. All the titles of the works are lines from these conversations”.

The curator, who has worked with Al Mazrou for seven years across six different exhibitions, says that it is the first time she has created works in this way – beginning with the title and the idea rather than the material. It is also unique to see this “personal touch”, as de Marchi puts it, in the artist’s work, which typically gives the impression of being precise, geometric and “detached”.

There are seven works in the show, including a series of 15 cast pigment blocks in varying shades of blue titled An Autobiography of Colour. The fixation on this colour came from a dream where Al Mazrou saw a distinct vivid blue with a specific name. When she woke up, she tried to track down the shade, but found that it did not exist.

In her search, she discovered the variety of market labels attached to colour, each denoting a kind of aspiration or mood each variant wished to evoke. The labels are embossed onto the blocks: “Deep Pacific”, “In the Mood”, “Epic Adventure” and “Gold Coast”, to name a few.

Shaikha Al Mazrou's exhibition 'Rearranging the Riddle' at Maraya Art Centre. Courtesy Maraya Art Centre
Shaikha Al Mazrou's exhibition 'Rearranging the Riddle' at Maraya Art Centre. Courtesy Maraya Art Centre

She extends the search for this shade in her work Close to the Coast But Not Too Close, a heap of hand-painted sand on the gallery floor.

It refers to the Sorites paradox, a kind of philosophical puzzle that examines the notion of vague terms. As Al Mazrou asks in her artist statement, “If you had a heap of sand and you keep taking a single grain individually each time from it (excluding the fact that taking a single grain will turn the heap into a nonheap), you keep taking a grain, what happens then? When you’re left with one grain only? Is it still a heap?” It reveals the limits of language when we attempt to define or measure objects, items or ideas.

It is all rather conceptual and philosophical, so where is the “personal touch”, as de Marchi described it? These biographical elements remain hidden throughout the show, and as the curator explains, “We should enter the exhibition with our own questions and not thinking on voyeuristic terms.”

A visitor at Maraya Art Centre, where Shaikha Al Mazrou's works are on view. Courtesy Maraya Art Centre
A visitor at Maraya Art Centre, where Shaikha Al Mazrou's works are on view. Courtesy Maraya Art Centre

So while Al Mazrou may cite the work as deeply personal, we won't know the extent of it. Her cyanotypes titled Despite the Weather contain numbers, maps, coordinate and dates that seem to offer clues, but they're all "twisted and treated in a way that they are illegible, and even if they are legible, they do not refer to anything specifically… She is using those elements to conceal more than reveal," de March explains.

Across the heap are five glass panels coated in filmic blues. In casting the viewer’s reflection back at them, Al Mazrou asks us to draw our own insights from our experiences rather than decipher hers. As de Marchi says, “The paradox question is not necessarily an attempt to know the story for Shaikha … It is evident that the questions are meant to be self-directed.”

Rearranging the Riddle is on view at Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah, until July 25. More information on maraya.org