x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Joining the forces of photography and art to make a connection

A brilliant show by Gulf Photo Plus and artwork galore by Zayed University students and faculty is an 'interactive' exhibit that stretches the idea of engagement.

Ali Alriffai's photographs pop with colour. His prints are on show at the Gulf Photo Plus gallery in Dubai. Ali Alriffai / Gulf Photo Plus
Ali Alriffai's photographs pop with colour. His prints are on show at the Gulf Photo Plus gallery in Dubai. Ali Alriffai / Gulf Photo Plus

A Most Precarious Relationship

Art that we can confidently call "interactive" demands the presence of a viewer to make it live. Simple as that.

Yet this latest exhibition at the Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah, despite the subheading Artists, Audiences and Interactive Art in the Emirates, veers off from that clear definition.

Take the most vocal piece in here - the artist Ubik's LED ticker-tape reader spouting pop-psychology platitudes. "Do you worry about how much you're earning? Do you worry about how much you're yearning?" it asks, as we sit on a tacky sofa, watching the red letters whizz by.

"It's intellectually interactive," counters Isabella Ellaheh Hughes, the curator behind the exhibition. "Ubik commands you to think."

The idea, Hughes explains, is that art you can touch or somehow influence breaks down the distance, she feels, that exists between viewer and artwork in UAE galleries.

One of the works that at least skirts the notion is a quad-copter built by Ahmed Bouholaigah that hovers in the middle of the space. Wired to the internet, the four rotary blades on the quad-copter respond to "Likes" on a Facebook page that the artist has created. Every "Like" makes the blades turn faster until, eventually, it reaches a height that pulls out the power cord bringing the 'copter crashing, smashing to the ground.

It may be remote interactivity, but it is at least something where the audience is directly involved. This piece, perhaps, is a reflection on the arc of fame.

Elsewhere, the designer and artist Amna Al Zaabi has proposed to stuff empty plastic bottles into plywood frames to create walls for makeshift "shelters". Hughes tells us that Al Zaabi was inspired by the sight of "labourers asleep on the streetsides of Abu Dhabi during lunchtime". The interactivity here is that we're invited to glug away at a bottle of water in the gallery and then deposit it for turning into one of these shelters.

Now, surely there's something a bit untoward about the idea of people laying their heads in a house of trash? The artist may have researched homelessness plights around the world, but the whole notion suggests a horrendous proliferation of water bottle shanty towns. Also, in hot climates, wouldn't a horde of plastic bottles create an oppressive greenhouse-like bunker? This really feels as though we're only making more rubbish for largely unrealisable design projects.

Maitha Al Jassim, in her first public show of work, has created shiny, black, three-dimensional forms that suggest the mountainscape of her native Fujairah. They are modular and can be fitted together by the viewer so as to create different ranges and peaks.

Yet the accompanying video is more interesting. On two channels, Al Jassim shows the distinction between the bright lights and the traffic jams of Dubai with that of the new highway that cuts through Fujairah's Hajar mountains. Between the two screens, the artist has placed one of her three-dimensional shapes, which reflects and melds these images together.

The interactivity (again) might be absent, but there's something to go at here. Al Jassim's video may suggest some anxieties about the changes wrought in otherwise calm and rural Fujairah and the new highway is a symbol of that.

A Most Precarious Relationship is an attempt to initiate some dialogue on how art can extend beyond passive perusal in a gallery. But pushing the participating artists to stick to this - and step out of a comfort zone of the one-dimensional - would have made for a more engaging show.

Maraya Art Centre, Al Qasba, Sharjah, until July 28


GPP Limited: Art For Everyone

There's a misconception that affordable also has to mean generic. In the case of photography, that might mean desktop background stuff, at best.

Not so with Gulf Photo Plus's new exhibition, Art For Everyone, which is part of the GPP Limited platform to push work by both emerging and established photographers.

"We selected the images by thinking: 'What would people want to see when they woke up in the morning?'" says Miranda McKee, the art projects manager at GPP. "We want to present images that are between fine art and something at the other end. The photographs need to accessible, but we don't want to show Ikea art either."

There's work here by Gregory Heisler, one of Time magazine's key snappers, including a shot that he produced during Gulf Photo Plus's annual festival of photography. "We have a 'shoot-out' at GPP in which we fill the auditorium with 200 people and select three of the instructors who have to take a certain kind of picture in 20 minutes in front of the audience.

"This year, they had to do a self-portrait and Greg had a medium-format camera with an accordion-style front to it. He set that up with his hat on top of it. It's made for a really interesting self-portrait."

Another one to keep an eye out for is an image of a jetty, shot from the water with a pair of legs dangling over, about to descend. Shot by Ali Alriffai, the photograph is crisp yet pops off the print with confidence and colour.

Prices for these limited-edition prints range from Dh375 for the smallest (11 inches by 14 inches) through to Dh2,500 for the largest (24 inches by 36 inches).

Gulf Photo Plus, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz, Dubai. From Wednesday until early September


Crossing The Emirates II

This is a link-up exhibition for the Abu Dhabi and Dubai campuses of Zayed University, showcasing work by 21 artists - some still in study, many just graduating and others from the alumni. Alongside this is art by 14 lecturers from ZU that show off the influences they've had on their students' work.

A standout piece here is a sculpture by Nauf Al Sheikh, who majors as an animator but found a more tactile voice under the tutorage of Ayyub Russell Hamilton.

"We talked a lot about her family and the rooms of her family house where she felt some serenity," says Hamilton. The result is a gnarled totemic assemblage made out of branches, with small boxes fastened on and little keepsake jars inside each.

Hamilton's influence is clear, even down to the turmeric dashed across the work's surface that the older artist has also incorporated into his work. "I like to create work that you can taste, as well as touch," he says, referring to the horse-like form he has made out of planks and bits of corrugated iron, pierced with tens of turmeric-tipped arrows, and exhibited alongside.

Elsewhere in the show, the tutor Elizabeth Monoian has taken a couple of seconds of film footage showing the black shapes of three students walking down a sand dune and slowed it right down to a hazy meditative loop.

Shamsa Al Maktoum has talent with watercolours, creating brain-like blooms on paper, while Shamsa Al Omaira has printed handguns and "No. 33" on to three babies' bibs in a grim piece titled Abortion.

The show has been organised, in part, to inaugurate the creation of Zayed University's College of Arts and Creative Enterprises (formally the Department of Art and Design). It also celebrates the college's bid for accreditation by the international body, the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) that is steadily gathering steam.

FN Designs, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, until June 20



1. Maraya Art Centre Al Qasba, Sharjah, 06 556 6555, www.maraya.ae, Saturday-Thursday 10am-10pm, Friday 4pm-10pm

2. Gulf Photo Plus Unit d36, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz, Dubai, 04 380 8565, info@gulfphotoplus.com, www.gulfphotoplus.com, Sunday-Thursday 10am-7pm, Saturday 10am-6pm

3. FN Designs Unit 26, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz, Dubai, 04 379 0490, designstudio.fn@gmail.com, www.fanndesigns.com, Sunday-Thursday 10am-6pm