Logs of tan-coloured driftwood lie scattered in Huzefa Goga’s studio office in Al Qusais, Dubai.
One of the few aquascaping artists in the UAE, Goga, 37, is busy slicing and glueing together pieces of driftwood to create his latest planted underwater landscape.
Titled Twists of Nature, as an ode to the knotted roots of trees, this aquascape will be adorned with aquatic plants, rocks and freshwater fish in a bid to emulate the river beds found amid forest trails.
“Aquascapes are living artworks built in water, where plants and fish co-exist in harmony. I recreate a natural landscape in an indoor space, which then grows and evolves over time,” says Goga.
These underwater tank gardens, carpeted with coloured pebbles and replete with rich foliage, marine life and even miniature mountains, caves and waterfalls, are live ecosystems. A step up from plastic plants and goldfish in a bowl, aquascapes are capturing people’s attention worldwide, and make for an aesthetic addition to one's living spaces.
Goga, who studied architecture and runs an industrial machinery business in the UAE, was inspired by Japanese aquascaping artist Takashi Amano.
“I made my first aquascape in 2014. From then on, it’s been a self-learning process. I mostly delve into experiences from my travels, books, movies and from my inner world to curate my tanks,” he explains.
Each aquascape is unique and bespoke, and can be customised as per buyer preferences. The artist’s last exhibition, called Nature and Me, for instance, featured aquascapes such as Miles to Go, which depicted a mini forest with a trail between mountains inspired by Robert Frost's poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening; Falling Waters, which showcased a waterfall in a tank and was named after a house designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright; and We are the World and Redemption, which reflected Goga’s inner turmoil and how aquascaping helped him overcome it.
His creative process, then, starts with a theme that Goga researches online or in books to arrive at a visual landscape image he wants to create. He then starts sourcing material from vendors across the globe. Each tank is imported from Japan, and made of handcrafted low iron sapphire crystal glass, which is known for its high visibility. Tanks can range from 30 centimetres by 30cm to 800cm x 1,000cm.
It takes Goga up to one month to complete a tank. “Everything in the tank is sustainably sourced including the driftwood, which comes from Indonesia, Japan and Sri Lanka,” he says. “I also layer in lava rocks that are excellent for aquatic plants to grip on. Some of the rocks used are sourced from Ras Al Khaimah.
"I need to also keep a check on the limestone content as that can raise the pH level in the water.” A layer of substrate is added before the aqua soil to help cultivate the beneficial bacteria needed for plants to thrive.
Aquatic plants, obtained from tissue culture laboratories in Denmark, add to the greenery in Huzefa’s tanks. “You will find anubias from Western Africa with broad thick dark leaves; tropical bucephalandras that grow on stones and rocks; and bolbitis ferns and hygrophila pinnatifida, with their distinct reddish hued-leaves,” he says.
The fish are introduced towards the end. Goga prefers cardinal, neon and rummy-nose tetras, plus rainbow fish or guppies. Snails and shrimps are also a part of the floating fauna as they help keep a tab on the algae in an aquascape. The open-topped tanks are fitted with overhead lights and carbon dioxide cylinders that aid in plant photosynthesis.
“Patience and attention to detail are key in designing a great aquascape. It is, in fact, a combination of art and science. Aquascapers need to be mindful of the ecological environment of their tanks,” says Goga, who charges from Dh4,000 ($1,089) to Dh90,000 depending on the size and detailing of each tank. Upkeep includes replacing the water every week and trimming the plants when required.
In addition to showcasing his creations at various gallery exhibitions, Goga plans to open a permanent gallery space in Dubai to display his aquascapes.
Lost for hours and days adding details in his tanks, he says making aquascapes is extremely therapeutic. “I am so immersed in my tanks that I lose track of time, sometimes even days and nights. It's like giving birth to a child, and the beauty of it is you see the leaves take deeper hues and the fish change colour, even as the plants spread their roots wide.”