x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Emirati art that makes you do a double take

When the Emirati artist Abdul Rauf Khalfan sells you a painting, you actually walk away with two.

The artist Abdul Rauf Khalfan with one of his modular canvases in an exhibition at the Yas Hotel.
The artist Abdul Rauf Khalfan with one of his modular canvases in an exhibition at the Yas Hotel.

The Emirati artist Abdul Rauf Khalfan has hit upon a simple but clever idea. He’ll sell you one painting, but deliver two.

You see, Khalfan has come up with a style that lets the owner of his diptych-shaped, colour-drenched canvases turn the two panels around and upside-down, creating a whole new centrepiece for your majlis/living room. Each turn causes previously fragmented images to fit together, jigsaw-style, and reveals imagery and icons with a local spin.

A Swiss-run art portal that exhibits in hotels around the country has taken up Khalfan’s idea and included his work in a show titled The Beauty of Heritage at the Yas Hotel. Kurt Blum, the founder and curator of Swiss Art Gate UAE, explains that these rotating canvases are exactly the sort of art they want to have in their shows. “They’re very colourful, very bold in composition and it’s clear what he’s doing. Abdul also speaks from the language and heritage of the Emirates.”

Previous work by the artist, including portraits of Sheikh Zayed and architectural sketches of the Emirati homes that remain in the UAE’s older quarters, feeds into this latest project as he tries to incorporate symbols and signs of the Emirates in simplistic forms.

White birds, grape-green water pots and low-rise stucco bungalows are features that repeat throughout the rotating canvases. There’s also an enigmatic female figure that, Khalfan explains, has been with him for some years, waiting for the right moment to emerge on canvas. “It’s a dream I’m always having about an Arab lady who collects seashells.

“She is someone who respects and knows her own talent, that she can select the best looking seashells to take with her in life. I like to think about it in terms of my own art and it pushes me to love my own talent.”

Khalfan goes on to say that his work is a search for forms that are buried deeper in the culture of the Emirates. “When I paint a white bird, for me these are the carrier pigeons that used to be used here to send messages to people across town. It was a form of communication and I think these symbols in general say something about how people used to communicate here.”

Blum, who taught music in the UAE before setting up Swiss Art Gate UAE, is excited about the potential for the artists he looks after. The Yas show is the company’s third exhibition, and Blum is constantly on the lookout for new Emirati talent. Exhibiting in hotels is good for footfall, he explains.

The organisation’s objective is to foster partnership and understanding between Switzerland and the UAE. Blum has previously organised catwalk shows to expose UAE fashion to a Swiss audience, involving designers such as Mona Al Mansouri, and an early Swiss Art Gate project was the establishing of The Magic Lantern, a film club for children, which is still going strong.

While the idea behind Khalfan’s modular canvases is hardly groundbreaking, the way he expresses himself though them is amiable. His pieces are bright, breezy and easy on the eye, and they have configurations to suit any ­interior.

Dropping by Yas Island anytime soon? Catching new Emirati talent is always worth a spin.

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