x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Art oases in the desert of summer

The heat I remembered. I'd just forgotten how soggy the atmosphere gets in summer. You step outside and the air bounds up and licks you.

A work by Sameer Reddy at the XVA Gallery's summer collection.
A work by Sameer Reddy at the XVA Gallery's summer collection.

The heat I remembered. I'd just forgotten how soggy the atmosphere gets in summer. You step outside and the air bounds up and licks you. Moisture trickles and pools in crevices you never knew you had. You start seeing tide marks on your clothes. There's an expression, not often heard, that goes: "We are all in the soup together." I think it's supposed to mean something about connectedness of all things, the idea that we are all immersed in a messily complex world. In mid-June in the UAE, you feel like you're in an actual soup, a crouton slowly losing its shape.

Yet as the art critic gets damper, the art dries up. The summer months stretch ahead, a desert in time, the empty quarter of the year. One can already sense that vacant immensity bearing down on us, but we aren't there yet. Here's to squeezing the last drops of life from our cultural scene. The XVA Gallery has its summer exhibition which runs until August and then reopens for the first half of September. It's a multi-artist show and most of the participants are new to me, but if the imperfect medium of e-mailed press shots is to be trusted, they look very intriguing.

Most striking is Sameer Reddy (not to be confused with the beguiling Indian actress Sameera Reddy). He's an American design critic with a sideline in photographic art. In this latter capacity he specialises in Hindu mythological scenes shot in the saturated, high-gloss magazine style of David La Chapelle. In one of these a four-armed figure, presumably intended to recall Shiva the destroyer, hovers in the sky wearing what appear to be gold-painted American football shoulder pads. In another, a guru sits below a bodhi tree in saffron robes and the kind of sunglasses that look like welding goggles. He is surrounded by scattered banknotes. This is a work that seems to invite a bit of decoding, but the verve and playfulness of the style suggest the effort is worth making.

Meanwhile there's Saba Qizilbash, a Pakistani artist whose work is at first glance more concerned with working through design motifs than themes. Her superimpositions of baby photographs and engravings of tentacled jellyfish have some of the same eldritch, hypnotic force as one finds in the work of Philip Taaffe: they seem more like visual incantations than pictures. What happens when several are gathered in one place? It all depends how gibbous the moon is.

And don't miss works by the young Emirati artist Maitha Bin Demaithan, whose full body scans of her relatives impressed at Art Dubai this year. At the Portfolio gallery there's a show that opened last week and isn't going anywhere for a while: Iraq: Transition to Peace, a photo essay by the German photojournalist Tina Hager. She served for four years as the official White House photographer under George W Bush, which supplies a pregnant context for the show itself. Not that the work needs it: it is, in every sense, powerful stuff.

At the Ghaf gallery in Abu Dhabi is another notable hold-over from last week. Fifty-something artists of varying calibres contributed to Express Yourself in 30" X 30", responding to the gallery's challenge to create work within the fixed format of a 30-inch square canvas. Among them are reasonably established names such as Azza al Qubaisi, as well as many talented newcomers. Nivedita Saha, for instance, was my stand-out at last January's Kaleidoscope exhibition, a showcase of work by NRI artists living in the UAE. There's even something by The National's own illustrator, Mathew Kurian, whose work is often to be seen enlivening this very section.

Finally, the Fridge wraps up its latest concert series with a performance from the Dubai-based five-piece Nikotin. The band goes in for a distinctively pre-grunge brand of hard rock, heavily indebted to Guns 'n' Roses - no bad thing - but since this show is an acoustic set, it's hard to predict exactly what it'll be like. Don't be put off, though. After all, what are your alternatives?