The fourth edition of Emirati Expressions is opening at Manarat Al Saadiyat on Thursday, November 12. Timed to coincide with Abu Dhabi Art, the exhibit investigates the relationship between art and social life.
The result is an exhibition in which thought-provoking artworks seek to engage directly with the spectator: spell your name out in tile-like blocks on benches designed by Abu Dhabi-based Sumayyah Al Suwaidi, try out Emirati letters on a computer keyboard set up by Salem Al Qassimi or post messages to Nasir Nasrallah from his in situ postboxes (both are Sharjah artists). You can even hang out in the majlis that Hind Bin Demaithan, from Dubai, created especially for the event.
In particular, Emirati Expressions looks at the different community clubs that are a historic part of life in the region.
“Social clubs are found across the Gulf,” says Reem Fadda, who put the show together with fellow curator Maisa Al Qassimi. “They are the focal points for different communities, and were used for a number of purposes, including exhibiting artworks.”
Fadda and Al Qassimi — also curators at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi — were struck by the idea of these clubs offering an alternative model for showing art to a public.
“We wanted to look at the places where art was exhibited before there were museums or institutions,” Al Qassimi says.
The two were also interested in the strong history of applied art in the region. Fadda says: “We asked ourselves, what if art was useful? What would that look like? There is a strong current of art in the UAE that responds to society, and we wanted to look at that alongside the social clubs.”
It is also the first time Emirati Expressions is spreading out beyond the galleries of Manarat Al Saadiyat.
Just as the curators have brought parts of the archives into Manarat Al Saadiyat, artworks have been installed in outlying clubs as well.
Nasrallah, for instance, put up his postboxes in the Indian Club and Writers’ Union, while Abu Dhabi-based painter Alia Lootah installed one of her works in the Armed Forces Officers’ Club.
Lootah based her paintings on archival images she found from the Club. “They resemble the work of Gerhard Richter,” Fadda says.
“But where he tries to put a distance between the spectator and the subject, she tries to bring each individual closer.”
The curators worked with the artists to uncover the history of the clubs and many of the artists used aspects from the clubs for their works.
Dubai-based Khalid Shafar, for example, created a gorgeous installation based on an image of a boat docked at the Abu Dhabi Sailing & Yacht Club, with glass and a moulded carpet evoking the reflections of a seascape.
Al Qassimi says the clubs were enormously welcoming to them and to the artists.
“They even loaned us a model,” she reveals, referring to the large-scale model of the vast, stylish Armed Forces Officers’ Club on Khaleej Al Arabi street that is exhibited in the show.
Importantly, the leitmotif of “engagement with the public” is not just a curatorial phrase, as was discovered during the preview tour. The show includes Dubai artist Rami Farook’s long-standing work of freely disseminating stickers to see where they might travel.
At Emirati Expressions, he offers for the taking a sticker showing himself carrying a pineapple and bearing the words, "Calm, Caring, Confident, Consistent".
I mention I know the sticker because it’s stuck on my fridge at home and is the perfect mantra for dealing with my toddler’s tantrums.
“But that’s his project,” exclaims Fadda. “The four Cs of parenting.”
• Emirati Expressions: Conventions of Arts runs from Thursday November 12 until March 31 from 9am to 8pm daily at Manarat Al Saadiyat, Saadiyat Island. Visit saadiyatculturaldistrict.ae