x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

New curiosity shop

A temporary 'museum' in Dubai exhibits personal items, telling a story of life in the UAE.

The hands of a mannequin on display at Muqtanayati.
The hands of a mannequin on display at Muqtanayati.

Wander into The Jam Jar gallery in Dubai this week and you could be forgiven for thinking that you'd stumbled across a rather low-grade car boot sale. Where there should be artwork there are, elevated on plinths, an enormous cooking pot, a teddy bear, a pot of honey, and a very tired-looking sofa. Not, you might say, the type of stuff one would usually consider selling, least of all exhibiting.

That, though, is precisely the point of Muqtanayati: One Hundred Treasures, a unique kind of exhibition dreamt up by Sonia Brewin, a Dubai-based artist, and Rachael Brown, who manages The Jam Jar gallery.

Following a recent trip to Berlin, where Brewin caught the tail-end of the Biennale, she was struck by the variety of people attending the festival. "It wasn't just people who were interested in the arts," she says. "People felt inspired to go because there is a sort of open-to-all atmosphere."

In Muqtanayati (which means "possessions" in Arabic), Brewin and Brownwill present the first museum in the UAE created both for and by the people. Over the past few weeks, members of the public have been encouraged to contribute items that tell their story, or at least part of it, as a way of creating a collage of life in the UAE from 100 different perspectives.

"When I came back from Berlin," says Brewin, "I was talking to some friends here about this idea of people feeling ownership of cultural institutions and how you grow audiences. Here we will soon have lots of great cultural institutions, but I wonder how the audience is growing, whether it's the same people always turning up at things and whether we, as cultural instigators, are thinking about who's out there and who should be encouraged to come. So it grew out of that - wanting to make a proposition to the community that it's open to everybody. And you don't have to be someone who makes things; but just someone who wants to display an item. It's the idea that the audience also has something to contribute to these institutions, otherwise they die."

In a place such as Dubai where a highly transitional population means people are often looking for ways to get rid of things, it was a risky move. "I expected to get lots of photographs of Sheikh Zayed Road," says Brewin, "and I hoped we wouldn't."

Instead, they received things like the pot of honey, a teddy bear and a pack of bubblegum. All that the organisers required was a short piece of text explaining the items' significance. "The text was really important in order to contextualise the object," says Brewin.

For instance, the half-finished, label-less pot of honey was donated by a woman who had in turn been given it by her regular Pakistani taxi driver following a trip to his native country. Then he disappeared. She subsequently found out that he had had to return home to find his family after the recent floods. "The honey is a micro object," says Brewin, "but the story is macro. And I think it's so poignant. It's one of those things that would never make it into your standard idea of a museum, but in this collection it's of great importance."

The purple crocheted teddy bear was sent in by a university professor, whose friend had made it. "When we first saw it," says Brewin, "we thought, er, she's sent in a teddy bear. But the story is that when she first moved here, she didn't know anyone and this woman who makes these crocheted objects was the first person she befriended. It's a symbol of her first friendship in the UAE."

And the bubblegum - a single pack of Big Babool - was contributed by a young Emirati woman. "Apparently, it was a really popular sweet here 15 to 20 years ago," says Brewin. "The story was that she stuck it in her brother's hair when she was a child and her parents banned them from ever having it again. It's no longer widely available, but every Emirati I've mentioned it to has said: 'Oh my goodness, I remember that! I used to buy that!'"

Brewin admits that the exhibits themselves are less than spectacular. "Of course they are just detritus," she says, "but it's the stories that bring them to life. We're not saying that the the objects are great, but that they're great in the context of that person's life. It's lovely that something as small and seemingly insignificant as the pack of bubblegum can instigate so many memories."

Mostly, though, the themes are universal, such as the piece of coral that was washed up on the beach in Oman after a storm. "A woman brought it back to the UAE and her husband subsequently proposed on the same beach," says Brewin, "so it signifies their love story.

"I love that [it's universal]," she adds. "It wasn't necessarily the idea in the beginning because we didn't know what we were going to get. The idea is that we're weaving people's stories together to make a tapestry, and actually anyone can identify with it."

It is this same sense of universalism that they are hoping will encourage people to engage with museum culture here and redefine the role of such institutions in the community. "One of the things that has been misunderstood," she says, "is the idea of what a museum is. People think that everything in there needs to be super-important and super-old. But it doesn't."

Similarly, by opening up the content of the exhibition to the wider public, Brewin is bringing a sense of combined personal history and perspective to the collection.

"One of the problems with museological dialogue is that a certain truth is posited by a museum. So you say: 'OK, everything here in the African section is African.' And then you leave the museum thinking you've got a handle on what an African relic looks like. But it just so happens that you went to that particular museum and they curated 'Africa' in that particular way. It's that idea that there isn't just one story; there are many stories; and if you want to be part of telling that story, you take part in this project."

Merely getting people who wouldn't normally visit a gallery to either contribute or come to the exhibition would make the project a success, says Brewin. "The Jam Jar has a great history of doing community art events" she says, "and they have their regular attendees. But we've had lots of new people submit objects. And that means they're coming to the gallery space in Al Quoz, where most of the city's galleries are situated, for the first time."

The exhibition's week-long residence at the gallery is intentionally brief: "The idea is that history is changing all the time," says Brewin. "There are 100 objects; catch them while you can. Also, we were trying to get away from this idea of a museum whose contents are forever."

Equally, the sense of heritage traditionally equated with museums is deliberately absent here. "It's not about trying to dig up the past," she says. "For me, it's so exciting that each person has thought properly about what they would like to say about their experience."

As a way of building on the exhibition's universal theme, there are tentative plans to do a capsule collection of the objects which will then travel in between exhibitions (they are hoping to make Muqtanayati an annual event) and even be swapped with that of another city. "Somewhere like Berlin," says Brewin, "which has a huge Turkish population. If you speak to people who work in the arts and culture there, they are trying to get different parts of the community inside their galleries; the same thing we're talking about here. So it would be great to swap something from here and say: 'Look, we're not so different after all.' I think that would make a really lovely conversation."

Muqtanayati: One Hundred Treasures will be at The Jam Jar, Al Quoz, Dubai, until Thursday 21 October. www.thejamjardubai.com.