Shopopolis show of Arab art in UK and UAE lays a feast on the table

The 'secret life' of shopping malls in Dubai and London has been realised in tableware by a group of artists, including two Emiratis, for a show that's part of the Shubbak festival in London.

Artist Karima al Shomely westfield project


Colin Simpson
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Two Emirati artists are helping to expose the secret life of shopping malls in the UAE and UK in Shopopolis, a new show opening this weekend as part of a massive three-week celebration of Arab art in London.

Khalid Mezaina and Karima Al Shomely, from the UAE, joined forces with three fellow artists from the UK to work on the project for Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture. One of a number of UAE-linked events at Shubbak, the Shopopolis show is intended to delve beneath the conventional view that shopping centres are simply places where people go when they need to pick up a few essentials or enjoy some retail therapy.

The artists were invited to consider the role of malls as social spaces as well as the hidden relationships, networks and communities that develop inside them. The aim was to camp out, gather stories from shoppers and staff, and then design and make "products" - such as chairs, cutlery and table settings - based on what they learnt.

"All the chairs, all the spoons, the table, everything will be based on the stories we got from the people," said Al Shomely.

The artists used laser cutting equipment to reproduce the images on sheets of acrylic, which were then used to fashion their creations. Their work will be used at a private "feast", an actual meal to be held in the main atrium of the Westfield Shopping Centre in west London after it closes tomorrow; guests will include some of those who provided the stories.

All the products, together with videos showing how they were created, as well as footage of the feast, will be unveiled at Westfield from Saturday.

Earlier this year a group of British artists flew to the UAE to join their Emirati counterparts interviewing customers and staff at Dubai Mall. Last month the team moved to the UK, where they repeated the exercise at the Westfield London Shopping Centre.

From June 20 to 26, the artists worked out of something called the Mobile Porch, a unit designed by public works, from which they invited members of the public to drop by and share their personal tales or ideas for a new "product" for the feast - and ultimately the exhibit.

"One man in London said the shopping mall was like a small city," said Al Shomely. "He told me, 'I like it, especially in the winter because outside it is dark while in the mall it is light, so I don't get the feeling I am in winter'."

And Mezaina, a graphic designer, illustrator and artist who lives and works in Dubai, said: "We spoke to a lot of crazy characters at Westfield. There was this one guy who comes to the mall to meet his daughter because she studies nearby, so he meets her at the mall during their breaks or whatever.

"He comes to the mall every day, and every day he wears a different coloured suit, very flamboyant colours like neon blues and neon pinks, so that guy stands out."

Al Shomely, a visual artist who lives and works in Sharjah, added: "We went to the Dubai Mall and gathered stories from the people who were there. We heard personal things from people - they told us what their relationship with the mall was, whether they were satisfied with their salaries and what they wanted to get from their work.

"When we set up at Westfield we told people about the stories we had heard in Dubai, and they began to tell us their stories about the centre and the people who work there. Before I went there, because I'm female with the hijab, I was afraid that the people would not want to deal with me. But when I went I was really surprised because people had open minds and gave me their stories."

She had another surprise when she demonstrated the art of Arabic calligraphy to passing shoppers. "I wrote their names, and one man said his name in Arabic would make a good tattoo - and the next day he came back with it tattooed on his arm."

The project has been organised by the Delfina Foundation, which encourages artistic exchanges and dialogue between the UK and the Middle East and north Africa, with support from the Emirates Foundation.

Delfina's director, Aaron Cezar, said: "Every single facet that would be involved in a place setting for dinner has been based on a narrative that has come out of the stories. So in the place setting is a laser-cut illustration of a story that relates to one of the retailers or shoppers.

"Westfield, the Mall of the Emirates, Dubai Mall and all the other centres are social hubs in a way, it's more than shopping, they are really community spaces where people can come to enjoy themselves.

"This project is looking at both the commercial context and how they become these communal places, thinking about a shopping mall as an alternative public space."

Mezaina said: "A shopping centre is a very commercial space, so to have a non-commercial art project happening at a mall is interesting and it caught people's attention. People stopped to ask us what we were doing, there was interest from both the public and shopkeepers."

He said he had difficulty obtaining good stories from the people he met, but added: "At the end of the day we're all living our lives and adapting, so on a personal level I think that's the most important thing I learnt."

Al Shomely agreed: "As an artist, I got a lot from working with the public on a project, and it was very nice to work with other artists. I'm really glad to be part of Shubbak, I think it's a fantastic idea."

Shopopolis runs until July 23, one day before the end of Shubbak.

Shubbak: festival round-up

There are more than 70 events taking place at more than 30 venues across London this month as part of the Shubbak festival.

The Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) is staging two. On Thursday, in partnership with the Institute of International Visual Arts, it will screen a selection of works by Emirati filmmakers who won awards at last year’s festival and the 2011 Gulf Film Festival.

The programme is intended to reflect the contemporary Emirati experience and includes the director Khalid Al Mahmood’s Sabeel, Hamad Al Hammadi’s End of December, Slow Death by Jamal Salim, and Nayla Al Khaja’s Malal. The films will be shown at Rivington Place, an arts centre in the Shoreditch area of east London.

From July 19 to 23 DIFF and the Mosaic Rooms arts space will screen a selection of new Arab films, including Mohammed Al Hushki’s Jordanian feature Transit Cities and Mahmoud Al Massad’s This Is My Picture When I was Dead, a Palestine-Netherlands co-production.

The impact that the current upheaval in parts of the Arab world is likely to have on existing and future architectural projects will be considered at two debates to be presented by the London-based consultancy Nous.

Ahmed Al-Ali and Farid Esmaeil, who are partners at X-Architects of Dubai, will be among the speakers at a July 19 session called Forward Thinking: Discussions on the Future of Architecture in the Arab World. The debate will be held at the headquarters of the Royal Institute of British Architects in Portland Place, central London.

The Dubai-based arts magazine Brownbook is staging an event called Dubai Futures from next Monday to July 23. It includes an exhibition of photos shot in the emirate, Dark Lens by Cédric Delsaux, a book launch for Evolving Spaces – Dubai’s Emerging Cultural Districts, by Ahmad Makia and a discussion session at the AIR Gallery of the role of young creative entrepreneurs.

Also in the programme are works that won awards presented by the Dubai-based Abraaj Capital. Hala Elkoussy’s Myths and Legends Rooms: The Mural, a winner of the 2010 Abraaj Capital Art Prize, is on display at City Hall until July 24. Last week saw the global launch of the book Footnote to a Project, based on the pieces that won the prize this year, at the Mosaic Rooms.

Shubbak, which has been organised by the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, continues at venues across the UK capital until July 24.