When David Drake was asked to curate The Place I Call Home, a touring photography exhibition organised by the British Council to explore how the idea of home varies across the Arabian Gulf and in the UK, he decided he'd better get out of Wales and visit all six GCC countries. What he hadn't considered, though, was what it would be like to travel around Saudi Arabia, trying to hold meetings with artists and museums, during Ramadan. "It was," he says, "an interesting experience."
Drake was advised to wait until Ramadan finished to make the trip, but he believes it was actually the perfect time to see the country. "Not only did I have the pleasure of sharing iftar with artists and cultural representatives," he says, "but you can also be surprisingly lucid at two o'clock in the morning, fuelled with Arabic coffee."
Discovering the cultural diversity of the Arabian Gulf
These sorts of experiences helped Drake, the director of Ffotogallery, the national photography agency for Wales, to better understand the domestic culture of Saudi Arabia. "The places I visited were very varied," he says. "Abha is in the mountains and quite remote, but they have a very active photography society. And then in Jeddah and Riyadh, there are vibrant art scenes. It was important for me to get a feel, not only for the differences between the countries, but also the individual cities within those countries."
In the UAE, Drake wandered the old neighbourhoods of Bur Dubai and explored the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah. In Kuwait, he visited the Dickson House Cultural Centre, where he learnt about the British protectorate era and how it informs contemporary society. "I had completely not appreciated the cultural diversity of the countries," he says.
Drake quickly became determined to use this open-call exhibition to chip away at the preconceptions about the Gulf – the flashiness and the extravagance – and tell the stories of ordinary people, those who know these places simply as home. "One of the important things was to show that rich, textured history and those nuances that make these individual places special," he says.
How do we make a home away from home?
The exhibition, which will tour all six GCC countries, starting in Jeddah next month, before being shown across the UK, has an added layer, though. Many of the photographers are British citizens living in the Gulf, or Arab photographers living in the UK, so the concept of "home" becomes even more tangled. How do we make a home away from home? And what even is a home – a place, a person or simply a feeling, perhaps?
The works featured in The Place I Call Home will inevitably be diverse, since each person's notion of home and interpretation of the theme is different. Gillian Robertson is a British photographer who has lived in Ras Al Khaimah for four years. Her images capture what it means to immerse oneself in the local community, shopping at local markets, for example. For Robertson, where there is community, there is the infrastructure to build a home.
"Often it is the small details that make a place home," says Rehana Mughal, the British Council's senior programme manager for culture and sport in the Gulf. "The familiar smile from the guy at the shop where you pick up your laundry, or the woman at the coffee shop who knows your name and your order. There is something so reassuring about these moments."
For others, "home" is represented in a more nebulous way. British photographer Abi Green placed a structure made of mirrors in the sands of the Gulf coast. The structure is reminiscent of the shape of the houses in Hastings, on the south coast of the UK, were she grew up. Her new home is literally reflected in her old home.
Josh Adam Jones, meanwhile, a social documentary photographer from Cheltenham, travelled to Muscat to explore the lives of people who have moved to Oman. Moath Alofi, a Saudi Arabian photographer who studied in Australia, has attempted to counteract the culture shock he experienced after returning to a "home" he no longer recognised, due to the kingdom's rapid change, by documenting the stark simplicity of the western Madinah Region.
A study of how humans foster a feeling of permanence
Images such as Alofi's remind us that people in the Gulf and the UK share many concerns about the speed at which things are changing. "It is not necessarily any different from how it is in London or Cardiff or Manchester," says Drake. "How do you balance the human need against economic opportunity?"
Likewise, although the circumstances are different, the feeling of displacement felt by British photographer Ben Sodeira, whose family relocated from Dubai to Glasgow, is echoed in the work of Mohammed Al Kouh, who left Kuwait for Riyadh during the First Gulf War.
The Place I Call Home is a study, then, of how humans foster a feeling of permanence in a transient place. Many of us are in the Gulf for a defined or limited period of time. Similarly, the Arab diaspora in the UK may only be there temporarily. But we have autonomy over how we spend that time and creating a home is fundamental.
"There is always this thing – 'I'm not going to be here for ever' – but at the same time, you want to make what you are doing here really count," says Mughal. "When you leave, you will feel the experience shaped you but also that you helped to shape something.
“The whole idea of opening your mind to new ways of being is critical to the success of being able to live in another nation.
I hope the exhibition might inspire people to document their experiences, pressing pause on a few treasured moments, while the pace of change continues.”
"We all move around to connect, but even if it's temporary, we need to establish some roots to feel at home," says Drake. "I think that's what a lot of these photographers are expressing."
The Place I Call Home opens at the Saudi Art Council in Jeddah on Sunday, September 22, and arrives in the UAE at Manarat Al Saadiyat in December. More information about the exhibition is available at www.visualarts.britishcouncil.org