The artists exhibited in MinD/Body at Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (Ductac) are veritable superstars in the field of regional art and culture, yet most of the pieces have never been seen before. The curator Cristiana de Marchi has taken the niche genre of performance art and attempted, in the most part successfully, to capture it within the small space of Ductac's Gallery of Light.
Although the works of Hassan Sharif, the founder of contemporary art in the UAE, have been widely shown both here and abroad, there was a brief period in the 1980s when he experimented with performance. In MinD/Body, the latest show to be launched under the Made in Dubai alternative art platform, we are shown a rare sequence of a much younger Sharif jumping through the streets of Dubai in 1983 and measuring his study library in London a year later. Sharif's protégée Mohamed Kazem, who will represent the UAE in a solo show at the National Pavilion in Venice Biennale this year, had a similar foray into performance and, through a series entitled Tongue from 1994, we see him exploring the modern world through his taste buds.
"These works are seminal," explains de Marchi. "Even today, there isn't really an opening for this aspect of the visual arts so the idea of performing without audience is very interesting for me as well as the way these performances are documented."
The body as art
The Palestinian photographer Tarek Al Ghoussain, who is now based in the UAE, has relied on the concept of performance to explore his national identity for more than a decade. For this Ductac show, he has shared three stills from (In) Consideration of Myths, his new continuing series of self-portraits taken in the construction sites on Saadiyat Island. Another notable addition is Nujoom Al Ghanem, a prolific Emirati poet and film director, who has also shared a collection of images for the first time. The blurred pictures depict her with a skull painted on her face and swathed in black or with coloured make-up and engulfed in fallen leaves. "It is a sign of trust that these artists have agreed to share their works and, in some cases, they are really historical," says de Marchi.
The moving image
Arguably, performance art is expressed best on video and as a nod to this, tucked away in a corner of the light-filled space is the eight-minute short of Abdullah Al Saadi's project Naked Sweet Potato. Although it was on display in Venice in 2011, de Marchi says it was largely overlooked and felt it was important to include. She also presents some of her own work - Fish Market - where clad in ethereal white, she sat cross-legged with her eyes closed in the centre of Sharjah Fish Market as gutting and scaling went on around her.
Among the work audiences are already familiar with is Ebtisam AbdulAziz's Women's Circles and Manal Al Dowayan's Landscapes of the Mind. They have been seen before but no exhibition exploring performance art would be complete without them, argues de Marchi. We tend to agree.
The representative piece de Marchi selected for the cover of the catalogue and has placed at the exhibition entrance is Inside Out by Shaikha Al Mazrou. The doughnut-shaped, tactile sculpture, made from coloured acrylic, captures the essence of the show. "The piece is very physical and the body has a strong presence although it is not really declared," says de Marchi. "The focus of so many works in this show is like this - they try to venture or question issues in discreet ways."
So, in a minimal collection and through many largely rough and ready pieces, de Marchi has managed to unveil a nuance of visual art that is seldom expressed and due to its temporal nature, is usually elusive.
"This exhibition is not just to show some works to the audience but to make the point about the phenomenon of performance art," de Marchi concludes.
MinD/Body will run until April 10 at The Gallery of Light, Ductac, Mall of the Emirates
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