x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A peaceful perspective

Desert Gardens II at DUCTAC in the Mall of the Emirates is colorful and pleasant but is far from spectacular.

The South African artist Thirza Kotzen paints in oils and watercolours.
The South African artist Thirza Kotzen paints in oils and watercolours.

Imaginative is the painter who can find some kind of beauty in a crane-pocked construction site, but that is what the South African painter Jane Lowmass has managed in Desert Gardens II, a sunny new exhibition at Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre's Manu Chhabria Arts Centre. The large, pastel work is simply called Building Site; beside two yellow cranes rise two skyscrapers, softly shaded in blues and purples with a lone green palm tree standing beneath them.

This single piece encapsulates a theme that runs throughout the exhibition - somewhat surprisingly, that of serenity. Here, the artist's paintings of Dubai portray the construction work, the industrial sites, the pylons and the multi-laned highways. In reality, there would be the screech of brakes, horns beeping and the clanking of cranes. But due to the variety of bright, multicoloured mediums, the work on display feels curiously calm.

There are 33 paintings in total, several by Lowmass, and others by a fellow South African artist, Thirza Kotzen. Both artists are now based in the UK, but they have been friends since they met as undergraduates while studying fine art in Johannesburg. For this exhibition, they have pulled together the works they created while visiting Dubai over the past few years. Since it's called Desert Gardens II, it is not surprising to learn that the show is the follow-up exhibition from a 2006 display called Desert Gardens. Both have been curated by Chameleon Art, a Dubai organisation that seeks to unearth fresh new work from around the world for display here.

Kotzen, who also showed work in the original Desert Gardens exhibition, takes the lion's share of the space. Her canvasses are larger than those of Lowmass, painted alternately in oils and watercolours. She is a landscape artist whose work has been exhibited across the world and featured in instruction books on landscape painting. The works on display at Ductac, however, are the first in which she painted more arid, desert landscapes. The results are a mixture of images: wadis, the creek - "I have been inspired by the creek around which Old Dubai has grown with its bustle and beautiful reflective light," she says - markets and road scenes.

A series of three camel paintings in soft watercolour illuminate the juxtaposition of traditional versus modern found in today's Dubai. In one of the trio, six Bedouin sit astride their camels, sauntering solemnly past a backdrop of skyscrapers on the horizon. In another pair of Kotzen's watercolours, Cityscape I and Cityscape II, the canvasses are elongated into long rectangles, the vistas are of rolling desert landscape punctuated by winding roads and industrial buildings. Splashes of green trees are dotted here and there. The light in both, a sort of luminescent pink, suggests evening. It's a dust-blown rosy colour that Kotzen says she uses in all her work here to create a sense of the exotic.

It is a trick that she uses to best effect in a study of the Burj al Arab. In four watercolour paintings, she depicts the Burj from the same angle at different times of day. Consequently, the surrounding light changes, as does the reflection in the glass of the Burj. From deep pinks, oranges and reds to more yellow tones, it is a masterful, modern-day take on Monet and his haystacks. The few works included here by Lowmass are smaller and less compelling, but more detailed. Her paintings, she says, are about exaltation.

"The desert's glowing colours, sweeping rhythms and arid landscapes have been the setting for the impulse to express that mood," she says. In the wryly entitled Desert Thorn, she places a single desert tree in front of a mountainous sand dune. In a watercolour entitled Descent to Hatta, another lone tree stands against a backdrop of rocky hillside. Unlike several of Kotzen's pieces, there is a total absence of human life; in its place is a sense of space and isolation.

Combined with the more city-focused images by Kotzen, they make a medicinal exhibition that comes recommended for a fresh and peaceful perspective on busy Dubai life. Desert Gardens II runs at DUCTAC, Mall of the Emirates until June 18. (www.ductac.org)