As Jalal's Art Trip continues, the other participants learn that the cold, hard reality of the market in the Emirates often trumps artistic sensibilities.
A tough picture
Why on earth are we putting ourselves through this, I wonder more than once as I sit through the gruelling critiquing process that Jalal Luqman, the artist and gallerist behind the art initiative Jalal's Art Trip, has instigated at the second post-trip meeting. Awaiting my turn, I watch my colleagues' pieces be admired and torn down in almost equal measure, as they attempt to answer a barrage of questions from Luqman and the rest of the room. "Why did you make it this big?" "Why don't you change the colour?" "Why don't you turn it around? It looks better upside down." Why, why, why?
Accepting peer criticism is a tough but necessary aspect of exhibiting artwork, it seems. While you are painting, photographing or drawing purely for your own satisfaction, you can do what you want, and no one can say a word. Your friends and family will no doubt provide the necessary unconditional approbation, and you can remain safely unchallenged. Once you commit to putting your work in a public forum and up for sale, however, you are fair game and subject to all sorts of judgements, opinions and questions. And, says Marian Richardson, who has been through this all before when taking a fine art degree in Ireland: "It's horrible. You never get used to it."
At the most recent meeting of the participants in Jalal's Art Trip, this was the major lesson. As each artist was called upon to show, discuss and justify their work to the rest of the group, to Luqman and, often, to themselves, the comments were quick to flow, straight to the point and sometimes felt cruel. One by one, the artists timidly presented their pieces to the group, waiting with trepidation for the potential bashing they might receive and ready to chip in when it was someone else's turn.
Certainly, any inhibitions regarding discussing the works are by now long gone, and the group has moved on to arguing with Luqman about his own purported views - which is, of course, just what he wants us to do. When Rahma al Mehairbi shows her almost cubist painting, configured from abstracted sections of a picture of the ruined town at Jazirat al Hamra in Ras al Khaimah - site of the initial art trip - to show the sense of claustrophobia she felt in one of the houses, he relentlessly questions her about her colour mixing, her plans to finish the piece, her choice of canvas size. "Why are you using these bright colours?" he asks. "They aren't scary or moody. They're happy. Do you know how to mix oil paints?" Rahma takes it with a good grace, laughing at his joshing, but I can feel my choler rising as everyone takes a shot.
It's not just the unkindness of these comments that is causing me to see red: it's also the memory of my own anger in art classes long ago when the tutor would come along, point out areas to improve on and then - horror of horrors - take charcoal and draw the correct lines on my work. That used to make me mad, and still does: "Say what you want," I used to mutter to myself furiously, "but don't touch my picture - that's my job."
Luqman asks Fawz Kabra: "Would you buy it as it is? Or does it need to be bigger to be sold?" "I wouldn't buy it as it is now, no," she says decisively. As a long discussion ensues about whether the painting should have been larger, I saddle up my own personal hobby horse: "Why the obsession with giant canvases?" I ask, perhaps somewhat defensively, as my own work, still to be shown, is a small pen-and-ink drawing. A pre-emptive strike, then, but nevertheless from the heart: I paint both large-scale and smaller works, according to what suits the subject. Unless the artist is charging by weight, like the jewellers of the gold souq, surely the only imperative is to paint at a size that is appropriate to the work.
This is where the distasteful reality of exhibiting starts to impinge itself on our ivory-tower artsiness. We can talk all we want about expressing our emotions through our work, painting for ourselves and no one else, following a compulsion that's within us - those sort of platitudes tend to come very easily to amateur artists, full of their misunderstood genius and as yet undisciplined by cold, hard, commercial reality. "Van Gogh barely sold a painting and died unknown, but is now loved," reasons Waleed al Temimi, the British-Iraqi photographer. We all nod enthusiastically. We can relate. But Luqman has a point: why are we exhibiting if we do not want to sell work? Is it all about satisfaction of the ego? To a point, yes, but no one wants their pieces to be left on the shelf while everyone else's is sold.
This meeting is all about the practical realities of exhibiting in the UAE. "I know the market here," says Luqman, "and you don't. What sells in Europe might be left behind here. In Europe people have art all around them for their whole lives. It's very different here. You have to conform to the market and the buyers here if you want to sell." There is a rebellious murmur but for now we accept the weight of his experience.
The German photographer Sascha Ritter shows us the shots he has decided to use for the exhibition, and a hum of approval goes around the room. But Luqman is not satisfied. "How are you going to print it? What size will it be? How are you framing it?" Ritter looks a little shellshocked and admits he hasn't really thought of that yet. "Well you have to think of it," insists Luqman. "We only have four weeks before the art must be ready to hang; no exceptions. And how long do you think it will take to get framed? Two weeks? OK, that means you must have finished your work in two weeks!"
A nervous silence. Everyone looks worried. Some of us are still in the preliminary stages of our work, and we have to get everything done in two weeks? "And it's not just your work. Have you started with your business cards, your promotional materials? No?" Apparently not. No one is spared this week, it seems. Al Temimi shows us a collage of images that he has created on his computer. Initially it's popular, then someone says they don't like the section showing yellow flowers. It doesn't fit with the rest of the work. "It would be too pretty and symmetrical without it, though," he says in his own defence. "And I don't want it to be too pretty." A debate ensues between al Temimi and everyone else. I watch, and wonder why the comments only relate to technical aspects of the work as we go around the room. When Marian Richardson shows her piece so far, there are fewer comments. It's an impeccably executed floor plan of a generic house patched with colours inspired by the trip, and there is a real concept behind it: an exploration of the homogeny of the world as it is becoming as places like Jazirat al Hamra are built over with Lego-like houses. The work is passed around the table, but there are no arguments - because who could argue with her flawless technique?
Similarly when Shaqra al Hameli takes out a computer and shows her work, a painstakingly designed personal map of the art trip, reconstructed from her hand-drawn notes made during the day, the whole group is delighted, but most of the questions are about the eventual size - of course. The turning point comes when Fatima al Shamsi shows us a seemingly innocuous and rather lovely partial drawing of some brain coral that was in the wall of one of the houses at the village. It looks something like an Aboriginal pattern or a cave painting. We all nod and smile. And then Luqman says, "But Fatima, I thought you were a photographer. What are you going to do with this work?"
"I'm going to print one of the photographs of the coral, then turn it black and paint in all the little lines," she says. Luqman looks shocked. "Paint? With what? Liquid paper?" She nods. "Well tell me, Chicken, what are you? A photographer? A printmaker? A painter? You have to focus your energies. People need to know what you do, and you have to be able to justify why they should pay money for your work. Is it because you do a bit of this and that? No, it's because you are the photographer Fatima al Shamsi. They know what they get from me - digital art - and when I paint I do it for fun only."
I cast back to the beginning of the process, when applying to go on the trip, I was asked to define my art not by its subject, theory or philosophy but by medium. I had submitted a charcoal drawing. I am, therefore, for the purposes of Jalal's Art Trip, a charcoal artist - unfortunate given that my works are in pen and ink and oils. "Afra's very young," I say. "Why should she have to decide now what she wants to work in? She hasn't tried everything out yet." Kudra joins in: "She should work in what she feels is the right medium for the piece, for what she wants to portray," she agrees. As a tide of rebellion hits, Luqman repeats his argument that art-buying in the Emirates is not yet in a position to support too much challenging work. We should become known for our strengths. When we are a Damien Hirst or a Picasso, then we can experiment. "I am now speaking as a gallerist and an art dealer," he says. "It's not nice, but it's the market. We are not ready here: the Emirates are years behind Europe and the US in this."
"Then we should educate," says Kudra. "That's our job as artists." Behind Luqman's ostensibly defeated expression, a half smile plays. We're not educating at all: we're being educated, meeting by meeting, by the wily gallerist. We have just spent 15 minutes arguing passionately about art in the Emirates and about Afra's work without once mentioning canvas size or "happy colours". We're growing up, and like a proud dad he's about to send us off into the big wide art world.