x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 25 November 2017

Woven Identities exhibition focuses on diversity 

Ahead of the show's opening at NYUAD, Stephanie Neville and Jeff Scofield talk about tackling transience in the UAE

Jeff Scofield and Stephanie Neville.
Jeff Scofield and Stephanie Neville.

Stephanie Neville and Jeff Scofield are in agreement: the UAE as a diverse nation serves as a launch platform for people of all nationalities and cultures. The Dubai-based artists have brought their own experiences from their adopted city to New York University Abu Dhabi’s latest exhibition, Woven Identities, that opens today.

By offering a stage to non-Emirati artists, the exhibition delves into how population diversity can be enriching instead of polarising. But, as Neville and Scofield’s works demonstrate, forging a community from such disparate parts is a complex process.

Neville creates textiles and embroidered installations. The root of her work stems from an expat life in which she often found herself at home while her partner was away at work.

“My research went into the effect of that on relationships, all interpersonal relationships really,” she explains.The emotional rollercoaster, flux between feeling single and then being married again suddenly, the on-and-off situation.”

Her work expresses layers of coming-and-going to reflect the strain of movement and globalism. “But there is also autonomy,” she says. “You’re in your own space, it becomes a time to remember, so it is also about love and affection,” Neville continues, indicating that crochet or knitting has deeper value than simply a method to pass time, a tone which resonates throughout her works.

“I work from an extremely autobiographical perspective, but I am part of the community.

“People recognise themselves in the work. I know they have the same feelings. People in communities share the same experiences.”

As much a symbol of nostalgia as it is an expression of absence and loss, the act of weaving, whether threads or selfie-images, is a pursuit of a sense of belonging.

Scofield came to the UAE 15 years ago, an American architect “predisposed to transience” working with sustainable design. His art revolves around sustainable themes as part of a “true belief that we should be here doing good things for the environment”, he explains.

While an uphill struggle, Scofield says he has found his subject resonates with the UAE audience. “I’m trying to make interesting installations that spark intrigue, and make people think and react on an emotional level,” he says of his practice, which incorporates natural and up-cycled materials.

“I use paper, glass or light to try to bring out natural materials and express things which are transient,” he explains.

Instead of considering the individual and their ability to adapt, however, Scofield draws inspiration from the multicultural population of the UAE, seen within his large-scale dangling installations featuring book pages and currencies – elements which are united by their material qualities or one (literal) common thread, not their intrinsic values.

“I look at the collective, people from different backgrounds – Indians, Filipinos, Arabs – who all speak different languages and have their own customs and religions,” he says.

Observing from the outside in, Scofield notes that banding together endeavours to create a melting pot, but “people stay within their own cultures”.

However, ultimately, transience, sustainability and materials are merely a supporting role in Scofield’s main goal. “My real purpose is to make art that makes people think and touches their hearts.”

Whether Neville’s abstracted personal outpouring, or Scofield’s visual research, the real, identifiable and contemporary states of being shared and lived by the UAE population are all under investigation at NYUAD’s material-based exhibition.

“The warp and weft of individual threads combine to strengthen and unify,” says Neville. Each textile, paper, photograph or piece of cotton is imbued with sentiment, characterising qualities that reinforce the delicate yet durable nature of each separate thread that contributes to (the UAE’s) larger whole.

Woven Identities runs from today until July 22 at The Project Space, NYUAD