x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Artists pay special tribute to the maritime side of the UAE story

Organised by The Dubai Culture and Arts Authority and curated by The Majlis Gallery in Bustakiya Dubai, the 'Maritime UAE' exhibition that will run until Dec 7 pays homage to the maritime story.

Saeed Sumoh, which will be used in the Maritime UAE exhibition. Courtesy Saeed Jumoh
Saeed Sumoh, which will be used in the Maritime UAE exhibition. Courtesy Saeed Jumoh

From the beginning of time, from when life first rose from the sea, man has always gone back into the water out of love and necessity.

And the story of the UAE is closely tied to its waters.

Before the discovery of oil, the country had lived on precious gifts from the sea: on its pearls for trade, on its fish for food, on its seaweed as medicine, and on its stones and corals as building blocks for homes.

Even its empty shells were used, some as decorations or accessors, others like fig shells were used as 'suckling shells' which Emirati mothers used as feeding bottles.

"The sea gave us everything, our livelihood and our pride," said Ahmed Khamis, a 65-year-old retired Emirati sailor.

"But she, the sea, would not give without taking something in return," said Mr Khamis, whose many years out on the sea fishing and transporting cargo has left him with weak eyes and several near death experiences.

"Every Emirati needs to know and understand the sea if he or she is to know the story of their country."

This year, as the UAE celebrates 41 years of unity since its formation, the maritime side of the UAE story is getting a special tribute by artists in the UAE from all walks of life.

Organised by The Dubai Culture and Arts Authority and curated by The Majlis Gallery in Bustakiya Dubai, the 'Maritime UAE' exhibition that will run until Dec 7 pays homage to the maritime story and its influence on art. Featuring the works of 21 artists, half of them Emirati, it features classic and contemporary pieces, sculptures inspired by the sea, drawings of ports and fishermen, as well as life under the sea through underwater photography. The different types of local fish, like the widely eaten Hammour (part of the grouper family) and Badah (long tail silver biddy) also make an appearance as pieces of art.

"The sea is a lady, a very romantic and magical lady," said Mohamed Al Astad, one of the Emirati artists featured in the exhibition.

When he is not working as a government employee, the 44 year old from Abu Dhabi goes out fishing and spends most of his days out in the sea.

He would sketch and draw the port and its many facets, and some of these pieces are now up for sale at the exhibition.

But then he has pieces unlike anyone else at the gallery.

It started two years ago when the graphic design graduate noticed something "beautiful" at the bottom of some old boats.

"Rust actually has different colours. When water plays with metal, it leaves an interesting finger print," he said.

And that was how his very unique "art through beach tombs" was born.

He would bury a canvas with some metal, some in the shape of Arabic letters, others more abstract designs, at the beach and then would dig it out a few weeks later. The final product ends up being an abstract piece of art, full of "surprises."

"You never know what sea will leave you with. For all the elements in mother nature interact on this piece, from its winds, its earth, its water and its heat, nature leave its mark," he said.

"I wanted nature to draw for us, instead of us drawing it. Nature is far more skilled and creative than any of us," he said.

Born to the coastal tribe of Al Hammadi, Mr Al Astad grew up on the sea, and makes it a point of taking his children with him on his "artistic adventure."

"They think I am crazy. But then each one of them sits and analyses the pieces and sees something in it that I miss," said the father of six.

Secrets behind creating his abstract work are well kept, with everything from the distance from the water, how deep the hole and the mixes of substances used, are all important to create his "beach tombs."

"One time a police officer stopped me after he saw me digging away in the sands. He asked me if I was burying a body? I said, yes, an artistic one," he said with a laugh.

Some of the other pieces featured are classic historic images by photographer Ronald Codrai, traveller Sir Wilfred Thesiger, and Patrick Lichfield (Earl of Lichfield). There are several experimental and contemporary pieces such as fish with their skeletons visible by the Emirati artist Maisoon Al Saleh famed for her skeletal depictions in her pieces, Michael Chaikin's kinetic sculptures of floating metallic fish, and then intricate underwater photography by award winning Emirati Ali Khalifa Bin Thalith.

Another kind of tribute will take place on National Day, where "sea lovers" are invited to take part in the 'Maritime Parade' in Sharjah.

"It is open to everyone who loves the sea," said Farah Ahmed, the media officer for the event.

Starting at 2pm, boats and dhows will sail from the Sharjah Maritime Museums' berth, to Al Qasba and then to Khalid Lagoon and finally back to Sharjah Maritime Museums' berth.

The event is organised in cooperation with Sharjah Police.

"It is a chance to sail away and reconnect with the sea and its many treasures," she said.

The event will continue with a special tour and workshops at the Maritime museum.

Besides the official events, many will be spending their National Day celebration driving along the corniche in each of the emirates.

"It is a tradition to be somewhere near the sea whenever we are celebrating a special event. It is our second home," said Ali Ahmed an Emirati in his 30s, who will be driving along Abu Dhabi's corniche with his brothers on National Day.

"It will be hectic but worth every minute. If I had a boat, I would be sailing along the corniche."

rghazal@thenational.ae