Roots of the Union is a museum-scale exhibition of Ronald Codrai's photographs, currently on show in the recently erected UAE Pavilion on Saadiyat Island.
Photography exhibit on Saadiyat captures early UAE
In sandy, hot winds and sun, there's little respite for a nasty case of conjunctivitis. But that's what this Bedu has, caught on camera in the early 1950s by Ronald Codrai, a young British oil worker posted to the then Trucial States, in pre-Union UAE.
Being a resourceful sort, the Bedu has made use of a long, rasping snake's cool tail to get a satisfying scratch. He holds the thrashing white head of the snake at arm's length. It's a powerful symbol of just how harsh life was in the days here before the oil boom and the Union was created.
Roots of the Union is a museum-scale exhibition of Codrai's photographs, currently on show in the recently erected UAE Pavilion on Saadiyat Island, which captures the hard dignity of this time. Organised by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach), it is part of The Union Exhibition, which holds artefacts, period cars and news footage synonymous with independence.
The photographer's son Justin has joined Adach as the curator of photographic collections, and set to work on presenting items from his father's own collection that tell a very nuanced story of the country.
"The one thing my father always loved was photographing people's faces," says Justin. "His belief was that the hardship and way of life reflected in people's faces."
Born in the Indian Himalayas in 1924, Codrai served in the British Royal Air Force during the Second World War and was later posted to Cairo in 1946, where he learnt Arabic fluently. The experience influenced his move to the Trucial States to join an oil consortium two years later.
Codrai lived in a small single-storey house just beyond the banks of Dubai Creek between 1948 and 1955. Included in the exhibition is an aerial shot of Dubai from that time - a warren of barasti enclosures, squat houses, scattered palaces and a mosque without a minaret - which really shows how basic settlements were as well as how Codrai was in the thick of it.
From there, he captured the time in both black and white and, at the request of the National Geographic magazine in 1950, gloriously saturated colour images on Kodachrome. Because of the format's hardiness, several of these colour positives have survived and been reproduced for the exhibition. We're so used to seeing this era through a black-and-white lens that the exuberant reds and constant background blue of the sea in these prints really stand out.
There's an image of a pearl diver preparing his breath before diving in. He wears a white muslin bodysuit to protect his skin from jellyfish and a big wooden nose-clip. Another image shows the final moments of a camel race in barasti huts around Shindagha, close to Al Ghubaiba where Dubai's central bus station is today - the white of the coral buildings stark against the solid band of blue on the horizon.
"My father stood out because he was tall, had blond hair, and clearly a European," says Justin. "Also, he'd learnt Arabic in Egypt so had to adjust to the local dialect.
"But the overwhelming hospitality and friendliness of everyone who was here - and that includes the ruling families - captivated him. A harsh lifestyle had made everyone very interdependent with each other."
This impression stands out among these images. Rather than ethnographic, they are lovingly, affectionately shot images of people that Codrai clearly counted among his close friends. That extends to photographs of Sheikh Zayed, of which a large portrait of the founder of the UAE in his 30s dominates one wall, and the intimacy of the image shows how close the photographer was to those who would go on to become rulers of the country post-independence.
"He was immensely impressed by Sheikh Zayed's leadership," says Justin, looking at the black-and-white portrait. "He was particularly impressed by the allegiance that his retainers and tribes people owed to him: it was more than just, 'he's our leader and we'll follow him' - there was a real charisma and magnetism."
Roots of the Union continues at UAE Pavilion, Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi until December 20