x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Drawing by numbers

We speak with the Emirati artist Ebtisam Abdulaziz, whose fixation on numbers has spawned her latest solo show.

An explosion of colour in the work Diary 98. Courtesy Ebtisam Abdul Aziz / Third Line
An explosion of colour in the work Diary 98. Courtesy Ebtisam Abdul Aziz / Third Line

"I used to think that I wasn't a very patient person," says the Emirati artist Ebtisam Abdulaziz, as she surveys 150 meticulously detailed works on graph paper that form part of her latest solo show, Autobiography, at The Third Line. "Then I did this."

Autobiography is Abdulaziz's exploration of her almost obsessive attachment to numbers. She says it comprises very personal work yet, in keeping with the cold abstraction of mathematics that underpins her interests here, it leaves the viewer grasping for some intimate sense of the artist behind them.

Driving daily from Sharjah to Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Umm Al Quwain, she came up with complex equations so as to memorise the number plates of the other drivers jostling for space on the motorway. "I find that I don't see the cars or the people and instead focus only on the plate numbers. I suffer with that, almost," the artist explains. "So I decided to take away some of that suffering by making an art piece out of it."

The result is a series of seemingly simple drawings that turn the accumulated number plates into an impenetrable code of colours and whimsical shapes. The idea culminates in large-scale pieces composed of hundreds of laboriously wrought dominoes, drawn in rigid rows in black ink on white canvas.

We're intentionally left without the means of unpicking the relationship that these colours, sequences and geometric constructions have to Abdulaziz's daily drive. But the inscrutability of these visual renditions of data echoes the artist's somewhat bleak view of how numbers have come to define who we are. "Those number plates are our identity; they say more about us than the colour or shape of a car. This is the life that we're living today," she says.

It's a concern that's appeared in Abdulaziz's work before - notably, a 2007 performance piece also titled Autobiography, in which the artist made a black bodysuit printed with thousands of lime-green lines of numbers from her bank statements, and then filmed herself walking around Sharjah - much to the confusion of onlookers. "In that piece, I was trying to say then that we're not human any more, we're just numbers," she says. "If you have more money in your bank account then you're a somebody, if you don't then you sleep in the grass."

Questioning a world that's been reduced to figures is further explored in a series of found objects that accompany the drawings in Autobiography. Collecting discarded objects found on the side of roads across the UAE, Abdulaziz has repainted them and packed them in sealed glass cylinders. She says she feels sorry for the objects she's found, such as dolls, keys and plastic combs. "At some point, a kid was playing with that doll - it meant something to them," she says. "Putting them in a gallery gives them another life."

By sometimes painting these objects entirely white and sealing them away, Abdulaziz returns to these cast-offs - once very personal to somebody - a certain reverence: "I thought about when we die, and normally we use white colours to cover someone that is dead."

• December 5 to January 16 at The Third Line, Al Quoz, Dubai.