Why Maitha Demithan hasn't yet seen her striking #StayHome artworks on Sheikh Zayed Road

The subjects in the Emirati artist's series plead for viewers to stay inside amid the pandemic – as she herself is doing

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If you have driven along the Sheikh Zayed Road in recent weeks, you have probably seen Maitha Demithan’s artworks.

The close-up portraits are spread across large billboards dotting the highway and nestled under streetlights around Dubai. The subjects are young and old. They have sorrowful expressions with closed eyes, and they all wear the surgical masks that have become symbolic of the coronavirus pandemic.

Above all, Demithan’s subjects plead for viewers to stay at home. For everyone to do their part to stop the spread of Covid-19.

So, if you have seen them as you were out and about, we hope it was only on a permitted trip to get essential rations.

The Emirati artist herself has not seen how her works look on Dubai's streets, at least not in person. "It feels like a dream," she tells The National of having her work displayed on such a wide scale. "I will not believe it until I go out and see them for real as I haven't done that yet."

The artist was approached on March 26 by Brand Dubai to make artworks for its "stay at home" campaign. She began by building and collaging little houses with used disposable masks before the project grew to include the portraits as well. The artworks began appearing around the city on April 8, and will continue to be on display for the rest of the month.

“I am honoured that I was given the opportunity to contribute to this massive campaign," Demithan says. "Who said art was not useful?”

For her project, the artist used a technique called scanography, which she has employed in previous works. The method involves taking photos using an A4-sized flatbed scanner to create printable art, with Demithan then collaging the images together using Photoshop.

“A flatbed scanner is normally used to reproduce two-dimensional images and documents, or to make a copy from an original,” Demithan says. “In my pieces, I have scanned figures in parts and then reconstructed the images digitally. The composite result is both an objective and mechanical record of the figures but it also, through pose, body language and scan quality, includes an emotional statement."

I like to scan people I know and feel a connection with ... I wouldn't feel comfortable with a stranger

Demithan began developing her technique by working on self-portraits. She then moved on to using family members and friends as subjects.

“I like to scan people I know and feel a connection with," she says. "I would not feel comfortable with a stranger, unless I did a few sittings and felt that it was going well. I loved the scanning process because I found it playful and engaging and you never know what will come out.”

Demithan has been using scanography for the best part of a decade, often deriving inspiration for her works from traditional Emirati culture. Her earliest artworks involved making portraits out of traditional garments, many of which had a significant story behind them.

Maitha Demithan's 'Rashid bin Saeed' features a bisht once owned by the former Dubai Ruler. Courtesy Maitha Demithan
Maitha Demithan's 'Rashid bin Saeed' features a bisht once owned by the former Dubai Ruler. Courtesy Maitha Demithan

In her 2011 work Rashid bin Saeed, she displays a bisht – the flowing outer robe worn over a thobe – that belonged to former Dubai Ruler Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed.

After his death, his son, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Ruler of Dubai, gave the garment to one of his father's close friends, from whom Demithan obtained it in order to create the artwork.

Her 2012 piece Hamda bint Mohammed featured Demithan's first scanography of female attire, and showed a vividly coloured traditional Emirati wedding dress decorated with gold coins. It was worn by Sheikha Hamda bint Mohammed Al Nahyan and now hangs in the Women's Museum at Bait al Banat in Dubai.

I love garments that carry stories or were handmade and created with lots of attention

Demithan's 2014 solo show at Tashkeel, Mutajadid, also comprised a number of works that featured Emirati attire in portrait-like composition.

“I find that garments speak loudly about the wearer, their origins and taste. I love garments that carry stories or were handmade and created with lots of attention,” Demithan says.

"Mostly I have focused on childrenswear simply because sometimes we forget that children are also individuals with stories to tell through what they wear."

Much of Demithan's works are personal in nature, and explore how Emirati culture is handed down through the generations. Her 2012 piece Ajyal, for instance, depicts her brother with a falcon perched on his left hand and a quail in his right. Their father's hand reaches out of the darkness from behind the boy and clasps his wrist. Demithan says the falcon represents the nation; the quail, its sustenance.

The artist is also working on a project for the Dubai Expo. She says the piece, dubbed My Urban Freej, aims to "bring people together to create, and to take art into the public realm where everyone can see it, no matter their background".

Despite the dynamic, evocative nature of her work, Demithan does admit she can become unmotivated when using one particular art form.

“When I'm working on something, I give all my attention to it and can work on it for hours, fully focused over a short period of time," she says. "But with painting, the process is slow and I have to wait for the layers to dry. This is why I have so many unfinished paintings.”

Digital techniques, however, enable Demithan to work quickly without overthinking, something that tends to happen when she has a paintbrush in her hand.

“If a digital work seems to take longer than the usual time frame, I lose interest easily and move on. I never go back to unfinished work. The digital medium works well with the time my brain needs to create a piece.”