Architecture of Loneliness: The photography exhibition showing the UAE in a post-human future
Gulf Photo Plus and Warehouse421 have collaborated on a new exhibit in Abu Dhabi that explores the margins of the Emirates
A giraffe stands along a deserted road, its head framed in the pencil skirts of the Burj Khalifa. A row of dead palm trees stands in the foreground. In another image, the curve of a crouching kangaroo mimics that of two Dubai office buildings, isolated in the frame. They’re from, co-curator Mohamed Somji says, a series by photographer Richard Allenby-Pratt called Abandoned, which imagines a Dubai when all the residents have left and only its animals remain.
Another series in the same exhibition, Architecture of Loneliness shows this as a reality; Lamya Gargash photographed Dubai Zoo after it moved from its Jumeirah location last year to a safari park outside of the city. The images show a ramshackle affair, devoid of the animals that once brought it to life – they’re now only present in reproduction, in faded murals left on the enclosure walls. “Normally we only see the zoo in these glorified, brochure-like images of Dubai,” says Somji, of Gulf Photo Plus, the Dubai photography centre that co-curated the exhibition with Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi.
The images in the Architecture of Loneliness, by contrast, show the UAE of the edges: what has been left behind to make way for the new, or even – as in the case of the giraffe and the kangaroo – what might occur in a post-human future. “The idea for this show started around looking for an abandoned, Wim Wenders-like aesthetic,” he says, referencing the German filmmaker, playwright, author and photographer. “We were really excited to work on it because it is so in line with what we are doing at GPP: trying to move the understanding of photography in the UAE beyond one of just pretty pictures.”
Somji is an acclaimed photographer, both for commercial gigs and the kind of fine-art photography shown by GPP. After initial misgivings, he included his own work in this show: a series of informal diesel stations across the Emirates that he photographed with Serbian artist Sinisa Vlajkovic.
“Sinisa and I were driving to Hatta one night, and we stopped to ask for directions,” he recalls. “It was one in the morning and everything was closed, but you had these guys sitting outside on a sofa talking.” It turned out to be a filling station for trucks, and Vlajkovic and Somji found they existed across the Emirates – usually small plots owned by Emiratis, who dig a pump into the ground themselves. “They’re such a contrast from big gas stations, the Adnocs and the Emarats, which are so brightly lit,” he continues. “And you’d have these Pakistani drivers who would bump into each other and embrace each other because they hadn’t seen each other for so long. There was a social aspect that really made an impression on me.”
In their series, the diesel filling stations are illuminated against the dark sky, with pumps on breezeblocks stands and jerry-rigged lights. None of the stations pictured exist any longer, because the government, which used to tolerate them, cracked down in the past few years.
Vlajkovic, who is based in Dubai, also shows a series of work on vernacular architecture of the Northern Emirates, where life is less flashy than that of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Warehouse421 also commissioned writers such as Meitha Al Mazrooei and Zeina Hashem Beck, UAE residents, to reflect on the infrastructures for art and culture within the city: an examination of architecture from a literary perspective that is published in a catalogue accompanying the show. Warehouse421, which recently turned three years old, is developing its programming for the Mina Zayed site, moving towards in-house curated shows, such as Tarek Al-Ghoussein’s Odysseus project, and collaborations such as this with GPP.
For their part, GPP has carved out a unique role within the Dubai art community: they host exhibitions, sell work, and run lectures, workshops and seminars, in particular in their popular yearly GPP Photo Week, held every January.
Architecture of Loneliness is at Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi until February 17.
Updated: December 16, 2018 10:39 AM