Faisal Samra’s new Dubai exhibition explores the transience of life through mixed media imagery

Faisal Samra, a prominent Bahrain-born Saudi artist, is having a suggestive retrospective show of his work at Ayyam Gallery in Dubai.
Faisal Samra's Performance #19 - Solo # 01 from the Distorted Reality series. Courtesy Faisal Samra and Ayyam Gallery
Faisal Samra's Performance #19 - Solo # 01 from the Distorted Reality series. Courtesy Faisal Samra and Ayyam Gallery

Faisal Samra is a simple guy. The Bahrain-born Saudi artist may have worked with various media – paper, sculpture, video, installation – and earned himself the title of the pioneer of conceptual art in the Gulf, but he prides himself on the ease of understanding of his work.

“The construction of my work never changes; there is always one figure at the centre – the architectural build-up of the artworks is ­always around this,” he says. “I always go straight to the point.”

Featuring prominently in his retrospective exhibition 39 that’s currently showing at Ayyam Gallery, are the artist’s blurred ­pencil-drawn portraits that were completed in the late 1970s while he was still at L’École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. They are ­reminiscent of the stills from his video series, Distorted Reality, ­completed between 2005 and 2011.

In both the portraits and the stills, the central figure is ­unrecognisable, caught in a swirl of motion meant to represent life.

“Dissolving is also a big thing in my work,” Samra explains. “Because we are temporary as humans; we appear then disappear. It is because of this that we want to make things; we want to make a mark. This tension between death and life gives us the motivation to do whatever we are doing.”

Although it is not immediately obvious, this theme is present in all of Samra’s work, and it seems to go in cycles. The newest pieces in the retrospective exhibition – which covers almost four decades of his career – are also work on paper, drawings done with charcoal powder where lines of energy are caged within the confines of room, that are visually very similar to the early pieces.

Distorted Reality is one of Samra’s most famous works, and he made three videos all with the same title to question the way in which we see images presented to us in the media as well as the distortion of memory.

Another seminal work is Resistance, a single channel video of a man standing in the force of an invisible but strong wind and whose face is manipulated and twisted by it. This work was first shown in Dubai in 2010 in the former Traffic Gallery and is key to Samra’s practice because again it nods to both the temporality of life and our ability to survive.

“Nothing stays the same, everything in life goes through these a cycle and nothing can stay forever,” he says. “But we resist because we have to, when you resist you exist, if you don’t resist you don’t exist. Resistance is actually living.”

This video is playing opposite from a newer work realised in a shanty-town in Casablanca, where he says he discovered life existing “from the bottom down”.

Shot from a viewpoint at the end of an alleyway, five characters walk up to the camera and knock on the screen. They represent poverty, which is “the source of most of our problems we are living in all over the globe”. At the end, a small child smashes the screen – a sign of hope, says Samra, that the youth will be the ones to make changes in this world.

Also in the exhibition is a series called Construction, Deconstruction, Reconstruction, which consists of many pieces included a shockingly frank photo diary of his wife undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

The show ends with an ongoing installation, Arab Spring, first displayed in Ayyam’s Jeddah gallery last year. The installation in its new form at the Dubai gallery consists of 22 balloons that represent the 22 countries in the Arab League, all weighed down by piles of sand that are shaped like graves only big enough to hold children.

“It is a homage to all the children who died during this time and is meant to make us stop to think about that,” he says. “All my work contains metaphor and irony. I may be talking about blood but I will not use blood. My language is visual art and I need to attract both simple and sophisticated people, which is one of the biggest challenges I face.”

39 by Faisal Samra runs until January 10 at Ayyam Gallery, Alserkal Avenue. For more details, visit www.ayyamgallery.com

aseaman@thenational.ae

Published: December 2, 2014 04:00 AM

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