While it is relatively easy to see canvases by Iranian and Lebanese artists in the galleries of London and New York, artists in the Gulf are still under-represented. But this is soon to change. Along with the UAE's presence at the Venice Biennale in June, a new exhibition taking place during the Brisbane Arc Biennale in October will put Gulf artists front and centre.
Curated by Dr Irene Barberis, the director of the Australian arts organisation Metasenta and the co-head of drawing at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University (RMIT), Across the Gulf features artists from Bahrain and the UAE. The idea sprouted after Barberis visited one of her students in Bahrain. Unlike other regionally themed art shows, Across the Gulf devotes itself to artists working on the ground. "It's an interesting project which aims to bring some of the Emirati artists working from a local base," says Barberis. "The idea of mobility is pretty well covered. I want to look at a small part of the overall global picture - the Emiratis who weren't leaving the country. This is about artists responding to their local area."
Barberis's search has led her to institutions in the region such as Albareh Art Gallery in Bahrain, and people such as Jill Hoyle, the manager at the independent art space Tashkeel, Hassan Sharif, an artist at the non-profit art space the Flying House, Marcelo Lima, an assistant professor of art history at the American University in Dubai; the curator Reem Qahtan and Lamees al Bazirgan, the director at Abu Dhabi's Qibab Art Gallery. "I didn't get involved with commercial galleries in Dubai because it's a strong international city with a flow of artists coming out of Dubai and I wanted to try to locate things happening in the communities," says Barberis.
Funded by Hong Kong's Po and Helen Cheung Foundation, Metasenta is a "research satellite" - an organisation that performs research, initiates workshops, publications and exhibitions - orbiting the globe in search of interesting art projects. In preparation for the show, Barberis conducted a series of interviews and workshops with artists which will be compiled into a film Across the Gulf: Viewed 09, produced with Keith Winter.
The exhibition is a kind of show within a show within a show. Across the Gulf will be part of Lucid 09, a show curated by Kevin Wilson that will be held at Fort Lytton on the Brisbane river. Lucid 09 takes place under the umbrella of the Arc Biennale, a young festival dedicated to arts, crafts and design, which prides itself on an extensive programme of symposiums. It aims to help familiarise Australians with the artwork of the region and give Gulf artists a voice in the increasingly crowded world of contemporary art. "It is a great experience because we are exchanging our culture, our thoughts and ideas," says Muna Abdul Qader al Ali. "It's about showing other people what we're thinking and what we feel and what is behind us. They will invite many people and these events really encourage us artists to do more work."
Though the actual artworks for the show have yet to be selected, it is clear from the chosen artists that the work will incorporate a strong local flavour from the colour palettes to social and philosophical issues. Al Ali's work, for instance, tackles some pertinent local issues such as urban development, consumerism and the changing ethnic fabric of UAE society. In her photographic series Cranes, a cluster of 20 brightly-coloured metal arms reach up into the overcast sky like totems to Dubai's grand architectural aspirations. "I was driving to work every day for two years and I liked looking at these cranes. One day I just took a photo of them. Everyone sees these cranes but they don't notice that they are involved in the development of Dubai," says al Ali.
She picks up on the theme in an installation piece called Congestion, which involves a room strewn with flaming orange construction pylons linked together by a chain of red and white striped tape. At the back of the room, the wall is lined with shots of hydro-pylons set off against a hazy blue sky. The scene is flanked by two wooden walls. Construction worker uniforms hang limply on the boards, devoid of the bodies that would hold them upright. From the ceiling hang red sale signs, tantalising the viewer with the promise of a bargain. The installation conveys a sense of dynamism juxtaposed with a feeling of loss and emptiness; here, "congestion" refers not only to the headache of Sheikh Zayed Road but also to the influx of people and subsequent competition for resources and the pressure to define material success with possessions.
Ebtisam Abdul Aziz, one of the UAE's most prominent conceptual artists, also explores themes of materialism in her performance and video piece Biography 2, which is currently on show at Emirati Expressions at the Emirates Palace. In it, the artist is dressed head to toe in a black cat suit printed with a series of dates in radioactive green. The dates read like a bank statement - a record of her ATM withdrawals. There is something very sci-fi about Aziz nonchalantly browsing the aisles of the Abu Dhabi Co-operative Society in her "spidey suit" or sitting in a cafe drinking a smoothie while a portly old man launches a slightly derisive look in her direction. Yet there is humour in the incongruity, humour which helped Aziz interact with her audience. "I did it in different places: in the museum, in the malls, in the street. I was also acting, sitting with Indian guys while they are taking their break in the grass. Some of them were laughing, some were asking what I was doing. And some kids were laughing and making jokes: 'Is that superwoman?' and some of them were still asking, 'Why are you doing this?'."
She then displayed the video on an ATM screen, with a soundtrack composed of the sounds one might hear at the bank machine - the impatient bleeps and the whirr of cash being counted out. Aziz is driven by the need to cattle prod us out of our usual routines and to have us re-examine what we consider as inalienable truths, things like materialism and our unshakable belief in science and rational thought.
They are topics that are particularly close to home for Aziz, who studied mathematics but left the discipline to become an artist. This drastic switch from right brain to left plays itself out over and over in her work. "I am always looking for results to search for reality. For me, numbers are my identity; we become numbers. Sometimes, we lose ourselves and try to find ourselves." In her artist's statement, she explains that her fascination with numbers and mathematical systems is a "cry of revolt against the shackles of oppressive regimes".
"It's related to the political," she says. "We do things without thinking, but it's a routine. We go to school and listen to the teacher and sometimes it's rubbish, but we don't know if we will need it. We just put some info in our head, in our memory." She revisits the question of science in another work entitled My Brain, which features two long bands of black and white light boxes. The top band is a series of CAT scans of her brain. The bottom is a series of images from a performance where she painted lines across her face to mimic the lines seen in the CAT scan. It is a juxtaposition which shows how science can speak volumes about the brain as an organ, but is virtually mute when it comes to the mind and spirit of a person.
"That work is also about me trying to find the things that we kind of know but are not really clear about. My doctor explained my brain and what medicine can do, to show my brain from a different point of view, but he cannot show my ideas," says Aziz. While the exhibition features a number of mature artists working with very heady ideas, it also offers a chance to younger artists who are still developing their artistic vocabulary - artists such as Alia al Shamsi, a recent graduate of Queensland College of Art in Brisbane, who is thrilled to have the chance to show her work in the city. The young artist majored in photojournalism and her work leans towards the side of documentary, but a recent series of work which showed at Emirati Expressions transcends mere documentation by using mannequins to delve into the issue of global standards of beauty. In it, we see mannequins of various shapes and shades, from a bronzed beauty with brown eyes and coffee-coloured tresses to a creamy-skinned Carmen Miranda complete with a crown of grapes and a bodice of cherries. Usually, these inanimate subjects are shot through a storefront - their images slightly obscured by reflections of the street.
"I had a few images that deal with reflection and I found mannequins interesting because they are a reflection of society and what makes something beautiful to them," says al Shamsi. She started researching the topic and took a great interest in the regional variations in body types and facial features. "It's the whole idea of beauty. The series covers England, Italy and the UAE. I've started realising that some of the mannequins in Italy have more details; they are very well-defined. One of the mannequins looks like she's out of a Botticelli painting, while in the UAE, the mannequins have more Arab features."
The budding artist Fatima Saif also incorporates regional specificities - locally procured found objects - worked into gorgeously weathered mixed media collages. Initially, her scavenging was driven by lack of funds when she was studying graphic design at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. She used everything from discarded office paper to notes from classmates to her old paintings ripped up and reconfigured to create a layered effect similar to peeling paint or tree bark. One work even incorporates an old plank she gathered from a ship yard. "I got this wood from an old dhow at Zayed Port, from the Iranian guys who work there. It's really old, maybe a 100 years old. Then I added on the paper I found in my company - most of my work is recycled."
She borrows from her surroundings in terms of her colour palette as well - sands, ochres and turquoises. "I originally used dirty colours because I love the earth. I love the smell of the rain. I go to the beach a lot to collect stones and the seashells have some really interesting colours," Saif says. The curator Reem Qahtan, who works with Qibab Gallery on the show, feels that Saif displays an inordinate amount of talent for someone with scant training in fine arts. "She never took fine arts courses [at university]; she just took some courses with an Iraqi artist. She uses mediums that are not recognised in the Emirates. When I first saw her work, I realised that she has an eye for real art." Qahtan was shocked when she learned that it was her first time working with paint.
Saif, like many young female artists, faced a lot of resistance from her friends and family. Being an artist is still something of a taboo profession and while realistic painting is generally recognised as a valid form of expression, media such as photography, video, mixed medium and performance art are still not very well accepted by the general public. That's why projects such as Across the Gulf are so important - they give artists like Saif a chance to gain international recognition to prove to her detractors that art is much more than high realism. At the same time, the show offers a window into one of the most rapidly developing areas of contemporary art - an area that has until now been largely under-explored.