'We are wondering': Young artists ask the audience questions through Dubai exhibition

The exhibition features six young artists showing works in public for the first time

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“How does one navigate through the unknown?”

“Why do we have gaps in our memories?”

“How are you making a difference in the world?”

These are questions posed by artists to their audiences in WAW, short for “we are wondering”, a debut group exhibition of six artists living in the UAE.

As the title suggests, wondering is a theme throughout the show, most noticeably with the labels next to each work that spell out the artists’ questions. But there’s also wondering as a “collective exercise”, as curator Daniel H Rey puts it. It's an activity shared by us all, he says, not just for amusement, but as a gateway to critical thinking.

“These visceral questions, entirely generated by the artists, invite the audience to reflect on this past year and revisit their intentions as 2021 unfolds,” Rey says. He organised the exhibition at maisan15, a restaurant and art space in Dubai, a little over a month after meeting its founder Rami Farook.

Influenced by his recent projects, including his participation in Jameel Arts Centre’s Youth Takeover in October last year, Rey sought to bring together young artists whose works have not been shown widely to the public before. He calls the concept #YouthCuratingYouth, and WAW also marks his curatorial debut in the UAE.

“We are young artists with young spaces in a young country, this 'triple youth' is a powerful engine to catapult artistic careers from the Global South,” he says.

Curator Daniel H Rey hopes to showcase young talent in the UAE

Rey, 22, says the artists he has chosen are among those he met through previous projects, such as 101's exhibition at Alserkal Avenue, where he handled the platform's communication channels, as well as through social media. He describes them as "university students, freelancers and recent high school graduates who, from their homes, high-school classes and university studios, are generating nuanced works and proposing new forms, concepts and, above all, questions".

Here, we take a look at the artists participating in the show.

Ziad Al Najjar, 19

The Emirati-American artist works in painting and sculpture, creating works that contemplate space and abstraction. Drawing from his surroundings, including domestic interiors, Ziad Al Najjar experiments with forms, colours and patterns, fusing autobiographical elements into his creations.

He is a student at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is slated to graduate in 2023. Last year, Al Najjar, along with his brother and a friend, set up the artist studio nine-01, where he plans to host an exhibition later this year. He is also participating in this year's Sikka Art Fair.

Ziad Al Najjar in his studio space Galleria Mall, Al Barsha.

(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)


His painting on view at WAW is titled Labyrinth, and is an oil pastel containing curving, and at times anthropomorphised, botanical forms.

Speaking of his work, the artist says: "I explore ways of representing and understanding the physical environment and the association of a space to interpersonal experience … My exploration of spaces and objects is a reflection of my interpersonal relationships; as a result, the absence of figural representation allows for a component to take on the role of people, the objects are personified and become the figures that occupy a space."

His question for audiences is: “How does one navigate through the unknown?”

Lily Wallis, 18

The youngest in the group, Lily Wallis is an American artist born and raised in Dubai. Her digital collages come from what she explains as her "relationship with nature and experiences with youth".

“Digital collage is the medium that most speaks to me in my practice as it allows me to fully manipulate and express my ideas creatively,” she said. “I have been involved in this practice for the past two years, but I still recognise that I have so much to learn in the digital art realm. My practice is ongoing and I hope to always have art be a filter through which I feel empowered and can use as a tool to perceive the world.”

Though the themes and elements in Wallis's work vary, they are tied together by Wallis's absurdist style. In one work, for example, she creates a floral centrepiece with metallic bugs, petals and eyes. In another, an octopus tentacle passes over a mushroom as two hands bearing scissors prepares to snip it.

Each of Wallis's four works in the show ask a different question. The floral work asks: "What was the silver lining of 2020?" Another asks: "What are you cutting out of your life in 2021?".

This year, Wallis will begin her university studies at Bryn Mawr College in the US.

Maryam AlHuraiz, 22

Creating collages with string and personal photographs, Maryam Al Huraiz explores memory and childhood in her series Infantile Amnesia. In other pieces, a child's smiling face has been effaced by black ink, suggesting a lingering darkness over the memories. Through the works, Al Huraiz asks audiences: "Why do we have gaps in our memories?".

A mixed media artist, Al Huraiz studies visual art at NYU Abu Dhabi, where she is completing her final project before graduation in May. The work will eventually be shown at the university's art centre. Currently, she is also in a mentorship programme at Warehouse421 and preparing to exhibit photographs of Abu Dhabi's Mina Zayed, with the support of Gulf Photo Plus, at the end of the month.

Al Huraiz, who is showing her work for the first time, says: "As an emerging artist, the art scene feels very intimidating to put yourself out there in the community."

She says that artists like herself "should have a community and platform where they can comfortably work and be recognised".

Zeid Jaouni, 20

Palestinian designer Zeid Jaouni splits his time between living in Dubai and New York City. A student at Parsons School of Design, Jaouni creates graphic work that emphasises bold and striking elements. During restrictions on movement , he embarked on a project, 100 Days of Design, for which he created 100 posters in 100 days. Four are part of WAW. The posters are mostly abstract, with rippling neon and hallucinogenic forms.

One of the questions posed in his works is: “What is moving you?”.

Jaouni says his cultural background inspires his practice. He describes his interest in design and how it can be used to convey meaning to broad audiences, saying: "I am a design student … majoring in communication design, which revolves around the idea of speaking and communicating to the world through design. It could be done with graphic design, web design, branding, and more … Not only do I have an interest in this field of design, I am also into mixed media art. Ever since I was younger, I would always love to paint, sculpt, draw and build objects for my enjoyment, and I am glad to say that these interests grew into something much bigger."

Mariam Alkatheeri, 21

In an industrial area, a man is mid-jump inside what appears to be a tunnel ring. His carefree demeanour and lightness juxtaposes the heaviness of the materials around him. The photograph, shown in WAW, was captured by Emirati artist Mariam Alkatheeri. Her question for the audience is simple: "What feeling do you get from this artwork?"

'Creativity Revolution' by Mariam Alkatheeri. All images courtesy of the artists

Titled Creativity Revolution, the photograph is part of Alkatheeri's first photo shoot after restrictions on movement last year were lifted. "It really identified what I was feeling after being locked down for more than a month," wrote in a statement. Her photography borrows from "expression editorials", and she seeks to "capture the beauty of every individual person" in her work.

Alkatheeri has been working on her independent project Mariam Folder, which is mainly made up of portraits, for the past two years.

Lubnah Ansari, 22

Indian artist Lubnah Ansari specialises in photography and film, and has shown her work in Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong, Jaipur and Los Angeles. Her video collage series in WAW exemplifies her experimental style as it features several floating busts of the artist, face pressed against glass, wearing an expression of discomfort. "When did you last feel stuck?" the artist asks visitors.

In another work from the series, the upper half of an individual's head has been sliced off as fermented milk, known in the region as laban, is poured into it.

Ansari studies at NYU Abu Dhabi and is currently curating an exhibition on the cultural links between South Asia and the UAE. She is also a social advocate, founding the Udaan Pads Project for the Udaan Foundation in Jaipur. The project distributes sustainable menstrual hygiene products in rural parts of India.

WAW is at maisan15 until Sunday, January 31