Environmental artworks

A Dubai-based art exhibition displays the work of students imagining a cleaner, greener future.

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The Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz famously said that while art may not solve problems, it makes us aware of their existence and opens our eyes to solutions. None of the 25 students whose exhibit, Sustainable City, which opens today at Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre in the Mall of the Emirates, claim to have the answers to the world's mounting environmental issues. The ambitions of their mixed-media presentation are limited to putting forth ideas in the hopes of fostering debate.

The exhibit, this year's final project for the American University of Dubai's graphic design graduates - showcases varied interpretations of the sustainable-city idea. More than an academic project, the students see this exhibit as a springboard from student life to professional life. For some, its challenges have even helped them to discover how to use the skills they have acquired over the past few years.

The title of the exhibit was chosen initially because it was thought to encapsulate the challenges of urbanising while maintaining ecological integrity. As the students began working on their projects, it came to mean different things to each, though strong commonalities emerged. Rather than focusing on the environmental aspect, what struck the participants most was the human element of the sustainable city. Indeed, as the students say, the strongest themes in the exhibit are those of human vulnerability and the responsibility we all bear to address environmental and social problems.

Ever optimistic, Mona Mohamed, 21, and Dana Jamal designed their project on the assumption that ultimately, people want to make a difference. Rather than a lack of interest, they saw a lack of means as the obstacle for those who would otherwise take positive action. "We thought design was kind of shallow, but we saw our project as a way design could give something back," explains Jamal, 22. Named MakeDue, Mohamed and Jamal's social design project works as a conduit through which people wanting to volunteer are linked with specific projects or causes to enable change.

They have been pleasantly surprised by the success of their first campaign, called BuckIt. With the goal of raising enough money to have a well built in a small village in Kenya, Mohamed and Jamal removed all water bottles on campus, replacing them with empty bottles containing a note. "The notes said that if they wanted water, they had to come to us and donate a small amount to our campaign," Mohamed says. "We got all kinds of responses. Some people didn't like that they had to walk across campus."

Regardless, their campaign has so far raised Dh12,000, the remaining Dh4,500 that will be needed to realise their goal, they hope to generate through the Sustainable City exhibit. MakeDue may have begun as a semester-long project, but the young women don't see it ending with their school careers. "Hopefully the exhibit will be the start of something new, something big," Jamal says. "It's so important to empower people to feel they can make a difference. That's what we're trying to do with this."

What scares Arshaan Sarang, 21, most is the possibility of war. "I think there will be a massive war over the remaining fossil fuels," he explains. "That's why we need to do more for sustainability." As major consumers of fossil fuels, vehicles present a problem for Sarang, but also an opportunity. Admittedly preoccupied with alternative energy, he designed a vehicle that uses an enhanced geothermal system.

"You pump water into the earth, it goes through the hot rocks and comes back up and creates steam. That goes through turbines and creates electricity. Then the water goes back down." For Sustainable City, his idea takes the form of three large images which the viewer looks at using 3D glasses. Despite not being an engineer, Sarang hopes to present his concept to people at General Motors, though he hasn't arranged for a meeting yet.

"If my concept gets across to someone who can take it further and bring it to life, that's what this is about," he says. "The Middle East is vulnerable. The UAE is included in that. To prevent war we need to get serious about renewable energy. Graphic design is one of the strongest ways to get that message across." The lack of manual design makes Karla Cantalejo, 21, uncomfortable. "The whole graphic-design world is completely dependent on computers," she says, explaining that if resources continue to be used at their current rate, there may come a time when we won't be able to rely on electronic appliances. "My message is that there is an alternative to computers. I'd like to inspire people to start working manually."

To this end, she devised and produced a graphic-design kit from scratch, complete with pastels, water colours, charcoal and paper. It was, she admits, as much to prove a point as to offer an alternative. The process took time but cost no money, as she used only materials she found around her home and school. "I needed large containers for mixing, a wooden frame for the paper, some kitchen materials for the pastels, a barbecue set for the charcoal. To make the paper I used old paper, mixed it with other things like branches and twigs for texture and made a pulp. For everything I used everyday materials. Anyone could do this."

Her kit also comes with a guidebook that details how to make all of its contents themselves. Cantalejo has only made one kit so far, but would ultimately like to market her idea to do-it-yourself stores around the UAE. "I want people to see Sustainable City and get the message that we can't keep taking resources without consequences. Through my project I wanted to exemplify that we can reuse things. Graphic design is everywhere, people see it everyday," she says, adding that she will continue to push an environmental agenda as a professional designer. "We have the power to convey this message to a wide audience. This is important."

Personal reinvention is the key for 21-year-old Lama Odeh. "Before you change the world around you, you have to change yourself," she says, adding we are all are reliant on modern inventions and infrastructure that could be taken away at any time. She believes that taking these luxuries away is the only way to create a sustainable city. "If you take away everything you depend on, shed material things, only then can you create new order. And that's what's needed to make a sustainable city."

Her installation consists of a large wooden box filled with soil, charcoal, sand, dust. Next to the box are plastic bags. Odeh wants people to see the box, smell and dig their hands into its contents. The tactile experience is essential in her back-to-basics message. Then the viewer takes some of the soil mixture, puts it into the bag and takes it away. Meanwhile, 21-year-old Anike Marya's project deals with sustainable production of graphic design. "I wanted to make a creative green directory for graphic designers. So if they want to know about a photographer, printer or whatever, they can look at it and see who's green and who's not."

She began by compiling the email addresses of roughly 500 companies and sent an e-mail to each one with a questionnaire in order to rate them on their green credentials. When three of those companies got back to her, Marya took to the streets and made personal visits, conducting interviews in person. "About 32 companies were green, according to my survey," she says, explaining that she is confident this number will continue to grow. And, as the number of design professionals in the UAE increases, so, she hopes, will the relevance of her green directory.

"Consumers are demanding that companies are green," she says. "I want this exhibit to inspire people, consumers, to demand that companies are greener. In the future, in order to be competitive, companies will have to be green."