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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Life becomes art for artist in bunny head

An usual performance project has been confounding visitors to this year's Abu Dhabi Art

Emirati artist Jumairy was roving the galleries during the art fair this week. Christopher Pike / The National
Emirati artist Jumairy was roving the galleries during the art fair this week. Christopher Pike / The National

Did this happen to you at Abu Dhabi Art? Two identically clad characters have been approaching unsuspecting visitors.

“Do you mind if we take a minute of your time?” they ask politely, then invite you to hold hands and pray together. Afterwards, to any of your questions, they only answer, “Jumairy.” They hand you a CD and walk away.

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. One of the projects commissioned by the fair is the performance artwork The Mission by the artist Jumairy. You might have seen him, too – the chap walking around with an enormous bunny head? You’re welcome: another mystery solved for you.

Jumairy is the alter-ego character of an Emirati artist from Dubai. “All my life I’ve wanted to be a pop star,” he explains, bunny head off, in a pre-performance interview. “Like Marilyn Manson or the Spice Girls.” But, he says, “I’m actually very introverted. And when you’re around the art scene you are pushed out of your comfort zone to talk to certain people. So I’m putting on this mask of an extrovert”.

The reason for the bunny mask is more gruesome. “Jumairy was born from trauma,” the artist adds. “When I was 7 years old, my parents got these bunnies and we left them outside in this small cage. One day when we got back from school, they were all dead. The cats attacked them at night. It was bloody and gory and disgusting. That’s what started the separation between myself and the artist.”

For the past five years, he has been performing as Jumairy, and has created a whole Jumairy world, with different characters who will be developed through this life-as-art project as it unfolds.

Emirati artist Jumairy doing the rounds at Abu Dhabi Art. Christopher Pike / The National
Emirati artist Jumairy doing the rounds at Abu Dhabi Art. Christopher Pike / The National

At the fair, Jumairy is promoting his album Haemophobia, as well as a line of merchandise that includes caps, jam, potions, fidget spinners, caps, and the blood-red sweatshirts that the Jumeiry performers wore.

“I’m building this persona of a successful pop star and trying to convert the public into becoming Jumairy fans through prayer,” he says. The performers, who travel the fair in Jumairy merchandise, “are so influenced by Jumairy that they started calling themselves Jumairy”.

The work was commissioned as part of the fair’s Beyond: Emerging Artists exhibition, curated by artists Mohammed Kazem and Cristiana de Marchi. The pair worked intensely with three artists – Jumairy, Alaa Edris and Shaikha Al Mazrou – to give them critical support and feedback to produce new projects.

The work also responds to its fair context. The Jumairy performers distil the self-promotion in so many art-fair conversations to the simple repetition of the artist’s name.

“He wanted it to stick in people’s minds,” says Abdul Kareem Kamran, an New York University Abu Dhabo student who performed on Wednesday with Nathanael Yigzaw Bayew, a fellow student. “So we just repeat it after the prayer.”

Another pair of acolytes, performed by NYUAD students Aidana Assylbekova and Alena Mikhalkovich, also roam the galleries.

A man takes a selfie with Emirati artist Jumairy during Abu Dhabi Art. Christopher Pike / The National
A man takes a selfie with Emirati artist Jumairy during Abu Dhabi Art. Christopher Pike / The National

If the goal was self-promotion, the audience’s attention focuses on the prayer that the duos chant.

“Was that hypnosis?” asks Charles Ferrer, an executive concierge from Abu Dhabi. “It gave me goosebumps.”

Three Emirati women, in the food court, gamely listen to the prayer and then try to figure out what is going on.

“What is this?”

“Jumairy.”

“What’s the concept?”

“Jumairy.”

“What are you doing?”

The performers give the women a CD and walk away.

“A prank,” they decide.

Many people who are approached think that the prayer, which begins, “Seven deadly flowers is all you need…” is a spell. However, it is just the acolytes’ incantation of the song titles from Jumairy’s new album.

Most people prove very willing to listen to the performers, accepting strange stunts as part of the art-fair experience.

“I came here to see the unexpected,” says Robin Miller, a no-nonsense sort of man who is visiting the fair with his wife Clare. “I assumed it was performance art.”

Jumairy mingles with the crowds as part of his own self-promotion at Abu Dhabi Art. Christopher Pike / The National
Jumairy mingles with the crowds as part of his own self-promotion at Abu Dhabi Art. Christopher Pike / The National

Performances that disrupt the social norms of art-fair behaviour are indeed a staple of the commissions programmes that fairs often run. They are a way for artists to challenge a situation that many find uncomfortable – in which their work, and they themselves, are brazenly approached as commodities.

At the second Frieze Art Fair in London, for example, in 2004, Slovak artist Roman Ondák employed professional actors to form a queue in front of an empty bench or sculpture, playing off the idea that fair visitors are always curious about whatever it seems that other fair visitors are curious about. For Jumairy, the mask helps him navigate the fair. “Even if something goes badly,” he laughs. “It’s fine. You’re under a mask – no one is going to know.”

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