A few weeks ago, Saudi conceptual artist Dr Zahrah Al Ghamdi arrived in Dubai to begin work on her pop-up installation at Alserkal Avenue in collaboration with Jeddah’s Athr. Having participated in February in the Red Sea port city’s annual 21,39 cultural initiative with Cell of the Earth, Al Ghamdi decided to recreate this artwork in Dubai.
The entire premise behind her oeuvre is a fascination with the earth as a concept, a material and a historical narrative. It is as much about the process as it is about the end result. For six days, she scoured parts of Dubai’s desert in search for the right kind of sand.
“It’s important for me to smell the sand and feel it with my own hands, because those senses of touch and smell allow my work a synergy,” says the artist.
“And if I don’t get that synergy, I can’t work. The sand should smell natural, like the smell of rain on land, the smell that manifests like steam when it rains.”
Along with her husband, Al Ghamdi filled 15 bags with sand, each weighing 25 kilograms. In taking the sand as a metaphor for human beings, she opted for one colour of sand as opposed to varying shades as she strongly feels that “we came from the earth, but although we are different, at some point we have to unify just as the earth does.” Mixing the sand with a handful of clay and raw cotton that she had brought from upholstery stores in Jeddah, Al Ghamdi produced the Dubai version of Cell of the Earth, an ephemeral installation, the largest she has created to date.
Alongside it is the floor installation, Village Without Life, that again employs Dubai sand – 33 bags at 25 kilograms each – but which tackles the idea of disappearing traditional architecture and heritage vis-à-vis modernity and what is lost in this process. It is a predicament, she says, that is shared by many Arab nations. In an interview with The National, she reveals her fascination with the Earth.
How did the idea behind Cell of the Earth begin?
I started by understanding the concept of the Earth, going back to geography books and asking myself what is the earth? The Earth is the mother; it gives unconditionally. And for whatever reasons, we always go back to our land, our roots. The earth has a spirit, a soul, so I took these aspects and created tangible metaphors for them. I consider the earth as alive, so I took materials from it.
It feels as though the process is just as, if not more important than, the artwork’s end result.
Definitely. There is a state of heightened emotions and deep thinking; each piece was an allegory. I felt like there was a dialogue in my process. Each piece was a being; it was engaging with me, and not just me engaging with it. The work was created in the same place in which it sits. I sliced the cotton, not with scissors, as that’s not natural, but with my hands. I don’t even use gloves because that’s unnatural too; my hands and nails are involved in this, they are the vehicle for sensing the material and engaging in the process. I then mix the clay with water, sand and cotton, then hang the work. It’s automatic.
This is also about process.
I need to feel the journey. I need to enjoy and indulge in every step. There’s action and emotion in making the artwork and there is also engagement and dialogue. There must be synergy and connection too; I don’t want any gaps. You can come here and smell and feel the Emirates. I hung it because I wanted it to face people. It is a mirror.
You’ve mixed sand from different countries as a statement on borders.
The first time I did was five years ago, while completing my doctorate in the UK. I mixed sand from Abha with that from farms in the UK in an attempt to bring the present together. I wanted to fuse the tradition and past of Abha with the modern of the UK. I found that when I mixed them, it smelled of Abha but its colour was of the UK. I think there is something to be said about transporting faith and tradition to modernity.
That is a self-portrait in many respects. You are taking sand that represents you and seeing knowledge in the UK.
Absolutely. I wanted to go beyond borders. My supervisor kept telling me to stay in my studio until I find Zahrah. So I was trying to find myself. I wanted to know how I could express myself and how the work could do that too.
Why do you include clay?
With clay, the work lasts about a year, otherwise it hangs on for about three months. I use a natural colour of clay and just handful and take pictures of my work over time to see how it changes.
In a sense, you give life to something already alive.
People have often said that my work tells the truth. It does: it is transient like us. After all, we are of the earth so it must resonate with us.
Village Without Life is about urbanisation. What inspired this?
It’s the third time I create this artwork. Some traditional houses in Abha, Najran, Al Bahah and Jizan in Saudi Arabia have been abandoned and their owners have opted for modern homes, sometimes built close by. There is no relation between the old and the new. Some houses were so withered but still alive, there is sadness to them as they stand amidst modern structures. The lines in my installation are borders between tradition and modernity, entire villages that eventually became graveyards of homes. I took cloths from the garments of men and women from these areas, cut them in small pieces, tied each with a knot and mixed with sand. I took the cloth as a metaphor for those responsible for these homes and where they are in fact rooted.
For the Dubai iteration, you used Saudi cloth but Dubai sand.
We are one land after all. And this problem – the lack of importance for the traditional – exists everywhere.
• Zahra Al Ghamdi’s site-specific installation in Warehouse 59 in Alserkal Avenue runs until Saturday, March 19.