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  • Alienation: a personal response


    Review of the latest group show drawn from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, by Laura Egerton, curator, Abraaj Capital Art Prize

    The Barjeel Art Foundation is a key organisation within the arts infrastructure of the UAE, doing all the essential things to further awareness and discourse on Arab art. Sheikh Sultan Al Qassemi has more energy than ten men, and more followers on twitter than is humanly possible. On top of his day job, he is an avid collector, who – early on – understood the importance of making a private collection accessible to the public to provide a platform for intellectual debate and critical discourse on the current issues being tackled by artists from the Arab world. He is assisted by Mandy Merzaban, who organises and curates series of shows at the foundation’s exhibition space in the Maraya Arts Centre at Al Qasba – a half-way point between Dubai and the heart of Sharjah. It can be reached in twenty minutes from the DIFC, at the right time of day.

    Exhibitions are constructed around works from the collection, making broad, thematic connections. They are on for at least six months and are documented in nicely designed bilingual (English & Arabic) catalogues, which consist of images, interviews and academic texts about each artwork and artist. They are illuminating, and important archival material. The look and feel of the publication accompanying their second show, ‘Caravan,’ was wonderful – the show bringing together interesting work by artists who are not ‘easy’ to collect, such as the animation installation An Ongoing Tale (2006) by the East-Jerusalem based artist Shadi Habib Allah. The book for ‘Alienation’ is similarly informative, and interestingly designed with tracing paper as a cover and courier font throughout. The books eloquently echo the sensibility of each exhibition.

    Is ‘Alienation’ a situation or feeling which is imposed upon an individual by society or outside force; or is it a self-inflicted condition? Is it both? Through the branding of the exhibition a distinction has been made between ‘alien’ (individual) and ‘nation’ (collective). Perhaps tellingly, the ‘n’ from the end of the word alien has been taken to form the word ‘nation’, is this significant? Does any of it matter? For the most part the title of the show is confrontational in its overridingly critical connotations – to be alienated is to be alone, to not have anyone agreeing with you or being on your side, to be treated with suspicion, to disagree or to not be accepted by the status quo, to be without a support network with no sympathisers for your cause who understand your stance or ideology. When you are alienated, barriers exist between you and everyone else. You might be in the same position as countless others, but you are unable to join forces and create a common denominator and count in society as a whole. Perhaps the events of the “Arab Spring” have had some influence on this contemporary condition, but – as the exhibition examines – alienation is still a prevalent sentiment, especially amongst the region’s youth. One such ‘youth’ is Bashar Hroub, a Palestinian studying in the UK, whose series of photographs Here and Now place a (seemingly) sleeping man in various landscapes, whose head has been replaced with a mirrored cube.

    Bashar Hroub, Here and Now


    Bashar Hroub, Here and Now

    The show includes an excellent range of artists from across the region. Some of the works have hit the headlines – Larissa Sansour’s Nation State, infamously “uninvited” from the Lacoste Art Prize due to the work “being too pro-Palestinian”, being the prime example. Anyone who has visited galleries or exhibitions with a focus on the Middle East over the past five years will find many names familiar, but the key focus here is on drawing out subtle connections between the works, allowing the visitor to see and experience key works which can stand for themselves. What you do get is an open-ended enquiry, a crucial record and resource.


    Larissa Sansour, Nation State


    Larissa Sansour, Nation State

     


    Larissa Sansour, Nation State

    The gallery space is notable in many ways – there is good light, ceiling height and neutrality. However, the main space is one big rectangular room, very open (ironic given the suggestion of division and separation in this exhibition’s title). There is no chance to create a visual gap between one work and the next, you have to view them one after the other as you navigate the walls of the space in either a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction, eyes glued on artworks and informative captions. Often this circumferential circuit is an effective way of viewing work – particularly true here of Raafat Ishak’s Responses to an immigration request from one-hundred and ninety-four governments, 2006- 2009. This work made up of 194 MDF panels, each unframed and the size of an A4 piece of paper. There are as well two smaller rooms only accessible from within the larger room – and the repetitive nature of Ishak’s panels has a strong impact hung on eye level in and out of one of these smaller rooms and into the main space. The work is an eloquent visual expression of a frustration which citizens of the world regularly experience – that of processing visas to travel or, for some, migration. The artist has been there personally – being raised in Egypt and immigrating to Australia in 1982, where he still lives. The project is the conclusion of a protracted research experiment – writing to most governments to request permission to obtain a visa. He heard back from half, so neatly fifty percent of the panels say the same, ‘no response’. Replies are written in Arabic in white text over the top of oval, egg-like colourful shapes which depict country flags in a pastel palette. The choice of using Arabic was intentional, so that for the majority of viewers, especially in Australia – their initial response was purely abstract, with the English text displayed alongside the work to further explain it. Arabic, like any language – flows across national borders, historical and national.


    Raafat Ishak, Responses to an immigration request from one-hundred and ninety-four governments, 2006- 2009


    Raafat Ishak, Responses to an immigration request from one-hundred and ninety-four governments, 2006- 2009


    Raafat Ishak, Responses to an immigration request from one-hundred and ninety-four governments, 2006- 2009

    It makes sense to display the conclusions of Ishak’s research project alongside a work by Akram Zaatari, who has taken a lead in foregrounding research and archives in his complex practice.

    Abstract patterning with a greater message at its heart is a preoccupation of Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem, the silhouette of an armed soldier made to seem slightly less sinister by the traffic signal beneath. Across the Arab world the military are often employed in the ambiguous role of policing the streets close to construction sites or blockades. The work brings together the two main threats to the equilibrium found in a natural environment: war and urban expansion. Sama Al Shaibi’s Contested Land (2007) are photographs showing two views from the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem, one into Israeli-occupied land and the other to Palestinian territory, separated by the brutalist wall.


    Sama Al Shaibi, Contested Land (2007)


    Sama Al Shaibi, Contested Land (2007)

    In each exhibition in the space so far, the main space has been punctuated by three-dimensional work, here by the Iraqi Walid Siti’s Chasing Utopia 2 (2011). This project compares the skyline of Dubai and his native Erbil, reflecting again on how urban development can threaten natural harmony in the landscape – through using materials such as straw and clay, his structures are suggestive of ladders reaching higher and higher, perhaps becoming reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. Aesthetically Siti’s sculpture sits comfortably alongside Lateefa Bint Maktoum’s Observers of Change I (2011) that was exhibited at the 54th Venice Biennale as part of the UAE Pavilion. This photograph indicates the loss of an important natural part of the Emirates, the palm trees which need to be flattened and destroyed to make way for more expansion. Another element of the traditional environment in the Gulf is chronicled in Camille Zakharia’s ‘Coastal Promenade Series’ (2010) which takes as its subject the run down and often abandoned fishermen’s huts in Bahrain (which means ‘two seas’ in Arabic). This work also went to Venice, and won the Lion D’Or at the 12th Architectural Biennale in 2010 as part of Bahrain’s participation. The photographs are taken in a way to make clear their function is reportage: there is a uniformity in the group, with the horizon line where the sea meets the sky three quarters of the way up the image, and the access point to the hut, usually a rickety wooden bridge, placed at the base of the image, closest to the viewer.

    Perhaps the exhibition also draws on another manifestation of the term ‘alienation’: in ancient history, ‘Alienation’ could also refer to a metaphysical sense of achieving a higher state of contemplation, perhaps a richer and more positive view for the future.

    ‘Alienation’ continues at Barjeel Art Foundation until September 28, 2012.

    http://www.artdubai.ae/blog/alienation-a-personal-response/