Art that shows the social glue that holds Dubai together

Vincent Abadie Hafez, a French artist who also goes by the street name Zepha, uses the polymer as a metaphor for the social glue that holds Dubai together.

In construction, a substance called a superplasticizer is mixed with concrete before it is poured to strengthen it and provide more durability. In simple terms, the polymer makes the concrete less susceptible to stress.

Vincent Abadie Hafez, a French artist who also goes by the street name Zepha, uses the polymer as a metaphor for the social glue that holds Dubai together.

While often dismissed as fake or “super-plastic”, his work shows the emirate is strong due to the multicultural ties that link its population. According to the artist, people who live in the city also benefit from this cosmopolitanism, which helps them to withstand the pressures of urban life.

The works showing in Superplasticizer, Hafez's first solo show in the Middle East, take this metaphor to a literal level. He obtained cement from Al Quoz, sand from beaches in Dubai, waste water from air conditioning units, and superplasticizer and mixed them into a paste to create a textured base for his canvases. He then used discarded pieces of wood to mark and score the canvases, deepening the texture, before painting over the top with his distinctive style of calligraffiti, which he devised in the 1990s.

“I like the idea that it is a kind of alchemy,” says Hafez. “These are miserable materials, meant to be thrown away or disregarded, but I took them and elevated them into art.”

Hafez arrived in Dubai last month, after he selected as one of several artists to take part in Dubai Street Museum, a celebration for the UAE’s 45th National Day that turned the area into an open-air art gallery. Commissioned to paint a 40-metre high mural on the side of the Chelsea Palace Hotel in Satwa, Hafez painted an ancient Arabic poem from the classic Mu’allaqat series. He used gold and black paint to create a cascade effect, so the words appear to tumble down the building.

After finishing the mural, he spent two weeks working in Dubai’s industrial heart to create the works now displayed in The Mine gallery.

The pieces painted on his superplasticizer paste are quite different from the mural. They are abstract in that they feature snippets of script as well as gestures and lines that are futuristic in form, reminiscent of computer networks, urban architecture or even metro maps. They embrace both tradition and modernity and, in that way, speak of the city itself. “I try to observe the environment and atmosphere within which I paint so I can find a link to the people,” he says.

Also in the show are a selection of canvases that are covered in lettering similar the mural. Hafez’s signature script combines both Arabic and Latin letters in richly detailed compositions.

In one he has painted the words of Lebanese-American writer Khalil Gibran in Kufic Arabic and in French, and in another, part of poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in English and Arabic that reads: “My freedom is to be what they don’t want me to be.”

The complexity of the painted works is quite remarkable, especially considering that he does not sketch out or plan them at all.

“It is very instinctive and this is very important for me,” he explains. “It is my style. It is a dance between the East and the West but you cannot read it easily. Either I can give you a key to read it or you can spend time and look many times until you see the letters.”

• Superplasticizer runs until February 9 at The Mine, Dubai.