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An image by the artist Maitha Demithan, Manara, 2011, which is showing at the Emirati Expressions Exhibition.
An image by the artist Maitha Demithan, Manara, 2011, which is showing at the Emirati Expressions Exhibition.
(In) Beautification, 2385, 2011, by Tarek Al Ghoussein. Courtesy the artist / TDIC
(In) Beautification, 2385, 2011, by Tarek Al Ghoussein. Courtesy the artist / TDIC
From left, Rita Aoun Abdo, Tarek Al Ghoussein, Faiza Mubarak, Fatima Al Yousef, Afra Al Dhaheri, Alia Al Shamsi, Salem Al Qassimi, Ammar Al Attar, Stephen Shore, JR.
From left, Rita Aoun Abdo, Tarek Al Ghoussein, Faiza Mubarak, Fatima Al Yousef, Afra Al Dhaheri, Alia Al Shamsi, Salem Al Qassimi, Ammar Al Attar, Stephen Shore, JR.

Current exhibition offers UAE artists a photo opportunity

As the Emirati Expressions exhibition gets under way, the artists and organisers talk about the burgeoning photography scene in the UAE.

It's an opportunity that emerging artists anywhere would leap at: a three-month workshop with one of America's foremost photographers, a showcase of their work on an island that will one day contain the nation's major museums and a team of designers and typographers on hand to style their exhibition to its professional best.

This neat package was offered to 10 photographers for Emirati Expressions, an initiative of the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), with the final exhibition currently at Manarat Al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi until January 28.

Fortunately, all the artists embraced this opportunity and ran with it. The previous Emirati Expressions, in 2009, was an open-call exhibition, resulting in a stampede of artists working in varying mediums and at different levels of their careers. This time around, things are a lot more focused, and the final show offers a good survey of a generation of UAE photographic talent.

"The exhibition is based on the idea of an artistic process, not on a final product," said Rita Aoun-Abdo, executive director of TDIC, at the launch of Emirati Expressions on October 18. "It is not about a competition of the best photographers in the UAE, but about a scientific process; a tool where artists interact to create a new aesthetic expression that can shape their vision."

The artists, drawn from around the Emirates, are Afra Al Dhaheri, Afra bin Dhaher, Alia Al Shamsi, Ammar Al Attar, Fatima Al Yousef, Hadeyeh Badri, Lateefa bint Maktoum, Maitha Demithan, Mira Obaid Al Qaseer and Salem Al Qassimi. Visual identity and publications were handled by a number of Emirati designers and calligraphers, including Mohammed Mandi, Faiza Mubarak, Sheikha Wafa Hasher Al Maktoum and Firas Bardan.

The 10 photographers each spent three months engaged in a workshop programme with Stephen Shore - an accomplished American photographer. Shore has taught at Bard College, New York, since 1987 and is recognised as a contemporary master of his medium.

The guiding principle of Emirati Expressions' protracted creative exercise, Shore says, has been to free the artists' minds from the desire for praise.

"When you want people to say your work is good," he says, "then you do what you've seen before - you play it safe. When you forget about praise, that's when you have the chance of actually progressing.

"Artists who are totally engaged have, at the moment of creation, forgotten about recognition."

Lateefa bint Maktoum has emerged from the workshop with a very apparent progression of style. The photographer represented the UAE at the Venice Biennale this year with her digitally manipulated and collaged images that exaggerate reality to express anxieties about the great recent changes to the landscape of the country.

Her images tend to be saturated with colour, heightened so that they almost flood out of the image. But for Emirati Expressions, Bint Maktoum has stripped this right down. She's taking fundamentally better, purer shots that depict two layers of the UAE landscape in clear opposition. In Meydan View 1, for instance, a solitary boy in a kandura walks, shoulders slumped, beside a parched ghaf tree. In the distance is the Meydan racecourse, its futuristic body shimmering like an extraterrestrial presence in the heat haze.

Another standout collection here is that presented by Fatima Al Yousef, who has documented her family's return to a house they'd lived in for 30 years - due for demolition shortly after the images were taken.

While there's a definite nod to the work of Dubai photographer Lamya Gargash's Presence series, whose work explored similar themes of erasure, Al Yousef has included people in hers; and we can imagine them remembering what each room once was. She captures their secret, personal relationship with this place. As Shore says, "Space and light have been used as a medium of emotional communication."

Hadeyeh Badri said of her work at the launch that she had examined "the dialogue that occurs when iconic objects are placed together". Some are clear (posters of the lush Pakistani countryside on the walls of a pokey office kitchen) and others are plain surreal (a man sits before a knight's suit of armour, with red LEDS in the helmet for unnerving eyes).

Ammar Al Attar, who Shore notes has demonstrated a huge progression in style, documents his life in and around Ajman. Al Attar has clearly been influenced by research into Shore's own oeuvre, with echoes of the American photographer's sense for dramatic yet fundamentally banal scenes: a neon-lit bakery, a rack of kandura tassels, a man sleeping with his feet up on the steering wheel of an asphalter.

Alia Al Shamsi has taken a close-up view of striking imagery found around the country - the chalice, serpent and crescent moon icon of a pharmacy, for instance, or a Charlie Chaplin poster concealed behind a hidden door in a sportswear shop. Mira Al Qaseer has made good use of the square aperture of an old Hasselblad camera to document the retro colours and interiors of her grandparents' home.

Meanwhile, Afra Al Dhaheri allowed nature to do its thing in her works: dipping leaves in paint and placing them so that they shook and dripped colour on to canvases below. She then photographed these on a lawn, with an unknown figure curiously spraying them clean with a hose. Afra bin Dhaher has built assemblages of open books, prayer rugs, small doors, and then lain down on top of them. Shot from above, it creates a two-dimensional effect and the images nod towards Persian miniature painting.

Finding new applications of photography beyond point and click were also encouraged. Maitha Demithan has used a flatbed scanner to create an objective, mechanical image. An entire woman's body, dressed in an ornate blue robe, was captured in 50 parts with the flatbed scanner. Demithan then reassembles these images into a shadowy, ethereal whole.

Finally, Salem Al Qassimi, a graphic designer by profession, continues the line of inquiry he began in his thesis at the Rhode Island School of Design: a new, hybrid identity that he feels the UAE has created for itself in recent years. He represents this by placing words, "here" and "hina" ("here" in Arabic), in street scenes in New York (representing the west) and Sharjah (representing the east), respectively.

Photography has long been an undernourished medium in the Middle East. Grand, well-funded projects like this may go some way to redressing that. But the creative process demands clarity: Asked if he had any piece of advice for this emerging generation of photographers, Shore offered: "Don't try to be good, don't try to get shows," he says. "But see what is burning inside of you and that you want to explore."

Emirati Expressions is currently showing at Manarat Al Saadiyat until January 28

 

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