x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

If you can't stand the heat...

As we follow the progress of Jalal's Art Trip, Gemma Champ discovers that strong criticism is like a knife to the art.

Nabeel al Mehairbi poses at home with one of his post-Impressionistic works, which were inspired by Jazirat al Hamra.
Nabeel al Mehairbi poses at home with one of his post-Impressionistic works, which were inspired by Jazirat al Hamra.

I am having a problem with inspiration. Just over a week after I and 11 other amateur artists joined the artist and gallerist Jalal Luqman on a journey into a ruined town in Ras al Khaimah and out of our routine existences, we are sitting back in the Ghaf Gallery reflecting on the trip. As I gaze at the proliferation of paintings and sketches presented by the few eager artists that have actually started work, in my mind, I'm staring blankly at the empty easel that awaits me at home in my tiny workspace, in a corner of my room. And I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one.

Hanging on the walls in the Ghaf is Generation Layers, an exhibition that happens to be by two of last year's participants: the textile artist Janine Ibbini and her daughter, the digital artist Julia Ibbini. It's a big, impressive show and, in my current state of uncertainty, somewhat intimidating. All I have to do is produce up to three works for the joint exhibition beginning on April 5, and I'm already panicking: how would I ever create a whole roomful of work worth exhibiting?

Yet this is what Luqman has in mind for all of us: this experience is intended to be a precursor to a potential career. He wants us, in a few months, to feel confident approaching galleries for exhibitions, to know and understand the process from framing to promotion, and to feel that, in time, we too could be hosting a solo exhibition in the UAE or beyond. "I want every artist to work as if this is a solo exhibition," he tells us emphatically. "I want everyone to work on their own promotional materials, their business cards and so on. This is your exhibition. I want you to be able to go to another gallery and have your own exhibition and know everything about how to do it. Because normally artists are the worst people to market themselves."

That's true enough: everyone tonight claims reluctance to be the first to show their work. Most of us, indeed, have turned up empty-handed, in spite of knowing that show-and-tell would be part of the workshop. My own aimless doodlings, scrawled across a pad, are sitting on my sofa at home (where I'd rather be right now), abandoned at midnight in frustration. I couldn't bring myself to reveal these tentative scribbles to the group until they had formed into something more tangible, in my mind at least. Luckily, there are some braver souls.

Rahma al Mehairbi has with her the sketch book she had taken on the trip - she was one of the only artists to attempt any drawings on location. Unfortunately for her, Luqman has a razor-sharp memory. "Rahma, what about the drawings you did while you were there?" he says. She flicks nervously through the pages and shows a scary, darkly shaded, stylised image of a man. It's disturbing, and I, for one, am rather jealous. It might only be a quick sketch but it feels viscerally menacing. Who was it?

"When I got lost in the town, and it was empty, I saw a man there, and I felt scared," she explains simply. "This is my reaction." I make a mental note to carefully file my insipid little drawings in the waste paper bin tonight, as she turns to another page to reveal a rough drawing of a doorway, crumbling around its wooden lintel. Inside the building a number of dark, sinister figures huddle together. Now I'm not just jealous: I'm on the run - I had been planning a similar composition myself. Back to the drawing board. "I don't know which of these pictures to use," she ponders. "Because the first one was a long feeling that I still had when I got home. But this picture of the door, that was just a feeling for a moment, so I don't know."

"But how long does it have to be before it's an inspiration?" asks Luqman. This is where the discussion starts to spring into a different direction. Until now we have talked about promotion, business cards, personal statements - all very valid, as we will discover over the next month, but all entirely useless if we have no work to promote. Now that we're actually thinking about art, everyone starts to look a little bit more engaged.

"If you are walking and you see a cat and you feel something and you draw for that moment," posits Luqman. "And if you experience something painful for a long time and it provoked a thought in you... Is one better than the other? It doesn't make a difference how 'long' the feeling lasts. Did it push you to draw? Khalas, that's your inspiration." Everyone agrees enthusiastically, talking among themselves for a while.

It seems that the room is divided roughly between three types of artist: the emotionally expressive, the intellectually complex and the visually representative. Marian Richardson is strongly in the intellectual camp - perhaps a result of recently finishing a BA Honours in visual arts practice at the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art Design and Technology in Dublin. Today, she admits that she has not yet been inspired to create any work. "I'm trying to consolidate my idea. But when I was at the town, I could see that every house was unique, which is very rare now."

Jalal interrupts: "So is it sadness you feel there?" Marian looks a little baffled. "No, not really. It's just something that's happening: everything is becoming identical here; you know, in Dubai, and in a few years this might not be here." In the emotional corner, the Palestinian Canadian artist Fawz Kabra explains that her works are less about reproducing what she saw on the trip and more driven by her emotional reactions. "I'm not necessarily using the location. You took us to a place, but the place itself brought up a lot of other things that are to do with me, not necessarily with the place."

Luqman approves. He tells us all: "I didn't take you there to have you paint buildings. I wanted you to paint the essence of the place. You know, we saw some toys left on the ground and I was thinking, who had played with those toys? You might feel obligated to make a painting because you were on a trip. That's the wrong way of feeling about it. You should be painting the raw feeling." The next artist to show his work is Nabeel al Mehairbi, the Emirati painter whose inspirations are the post-impressionists Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. A prolific and disciplined painter, he brought three virtually complete canvases of the town: bright, airy, heavily impastoed. He paints from photographs, transforming the images with visible, strongly directed brush and knife strokes.

Unfortunately for al Mehairbi, the rest of us are gaining confidence in our critical responses, shaking off the timidity that has kept us politely nodding and agreeing until now. Kabra is the first to react after al Mehairbi has expressed some thoughts about his work. "You speak about it with emotion," she says, "so maybe you could bring that to your work. You said it was a lonely place, but your pictures don't look lonely. They're very bright and happy. Bring that emotion to your work." Al Mehairbi looks a little shocked, but takes it in good grace. "For sure," he says. Then Luqman joins in. "If you wanted that picture to be sad, you haven't painted that. And those lines are too straight to be a rickety building."

Is he provoking us deliberately? Probably. Part of this whole process is to toughen us up, in the knowledge that, while we think we are our own harshest critics, in reality the most painful criticism can be from other people. Which, after all, is exactly why we demand so much of ourselves that we end up ensuring our work is not seen - thereby protecting us from anyone who might ridicule us. These weeks are going to hurt, and Luqman admits it cheerily. "You're going to hate me by the end of this process," he says. "I won't be holding back."

As the British Bangladeshi artist Panna Taher shows her work, the mood lightens a little. An exquisite little oil painting and a moodboard of sketches and calligraphy charm everyone, though now the floodgates have opened in terms of suggestions. One watercolour sketch incorporates some calligraphy into the crevices of a wall, and the British Iraqi photographer Waleed al Temimi is keen to suggest some alternative words that she could use, while Kabra waxes lyrical about the emotional resonance of the packaging tape that haphazardly holds the sketches to the board.

Al Temimi opens the largest laptop we've ever seen and puts on a slide show of his lovely detailed pictures. What comes through is the presence of so much life in this dead town: lizards scampering across the walls, fields of bright yellow flowers growing over the paving stones, foliage lining the dry roads. As he talks through the images, he explains the optimism that he sees in the works, pointing to a picture of some leaves, vividly green on a coral-stone wall: "It's life and death," he says. No one argues or asks him to express himself more or demands a lonelier image.

It seems that we've learned a lot during these two short hours: we've learned to criticise, to accept criticism and to understand that each of us will respond differently to the project. We may make suggestions, we may be brusque or tactless, we may reject others' views or we may accept their help, but one thing we can't do is impose our own artistic, emotional or intellectual values on others' works. Another life lesson courtesy of Jalal's Art Trip.

gchamp@thenational.ae