An alternative map of the UAE
Like the roads that surround it, the city block defined by Airport Road, Muroor, Hamdan and Electra Streets has known many names. First it was called Sector 13 then it became E301 and now, thanks to Abu Dhabi’s new street sign system, it no longer has a name of its own and is simply known as part of the wider neighbourhood of Al Markaziyah.
With its shops selling gold, fabrics and souvenirs, it is a block that is inextricably linked with Abu Dhabi’s South Asian community, many of whom come from all over the island and beyond to gather in its public spaces in the evenings and at weekends. Despite being in the heart of Abu Dhabi’s downtown, the area is largely overlooked – but not by the architect and academic, Yasser Elsheshtawy.
For the past three months Elsheshtawy and a group of his students from UAE University in Al Ain have observed and mapped the street life in the area using motion-capture photography, aerial cameras, and sophisticated computer mapping technology to better understand how pedestrians use these streets.
“We map the occurrence of activities that people are engaged in, anything that takes more than a minute,” Elshshtawy explains. “It might be somebody standing and talking, sitting or buying something from a restaurant to identify the places that attract people and that experience the most activity.”
For Elsheshtawy the point of this mapping is two-fold. It provides empirical evidence that can inform design guidelines for the design of public spaces, but it draws attention to spaces and to people who are often overlooked. In so doing, it provides a more nuanced understanding of the lives of the South Asian workers who are some of the most active users of Abu Dhabi’s downtown streets.
“It helps to raise awareness about that group, that they exist and their place within Abu Dhabi – how they navigate the city and how they contest the city. Whenever you mention migrant workers in the context of Abu Dhabi there is the image of exploited migrant workers in labour camps and it’s not really like that, the picture is more nuanced. These studies show how the city deals with migrant workers and how they deal with the city.”
Although Elsheshtawy’s research is a continuation of work he has already conducted, this latest project was funded and supported by Finding Intersections and Dialogues (Find), a new digital “cultural laboratory” launched by the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute.
Elsheshtawy is one of the first three fellows appointed by Find with the aim of providing what its founder and director, Mo Ogrodnik, describes as “a series of portraits of the UAE’s landscape that move beyond the usual cliches”.
“Some of the stereotypical representations of the UAE do not coincide with our experience of living here,” says Ogrodnik. “The UAE stands at a crossroads in the region and we want to use Find as a Petrie dish to investigate the UAE’s unique transnational culture, heritage and its future.”
Tonight, at Find’s first public event, Elsheshtawy will attempt to do just that in conversation with another of Find’s first generation of fellows, the Dubai photographer and artist Roberto Lopardo who, as part of his fellowship, spent 24 hours walking around Abu Dhabi, making 1,440 videos, one for every minute of the day.
Despite their very different backgrounds and projects, Elshseshtawy sees an important affinity between their work.
“It’s a process of discovery. My methods differ radically from Roberto’s but we share an attempt to discover the city and how its spaces are used. It’s not just about physical structures but about the social use of spaces and about humans and how they encounter the city. It’s an attempt to humanise the city so that it’s not simply a matter of buildings and streets and infrastructure.”
“Through Find, we will represent Abu Dhabi. They have challenged me,” Lopardo says. His intention is to create a film that will help reawaken people to the beauty in the unnoticed things that surround them, to achieve a sense of re-enchantment with the place.
“It’s taken for granted that a man cuts the shawarma in front of you but we forget that there’s a motion to that. We’re not kids any more, we’ve already processed that information once. We’ve collected it, we don’t need to go around all day thinking about it,” Lopardo says. “For me, that’s the point. To reawaken the senses and say, once again, ‘Look around you’.”
Lopardo’s portrait of Abu Dhabi is the 13th in a series he calls Mapping, a project that started with a 24-hour walk through Dubai in 2009.
“Mapping was born out of a collision between wanting to explore the medium of photography in a new way and wanting to explore the city in a new way,” Lopardo says. “I’ve been in Dubai for nine years now and in year number three or four I was sat in my office and I realised that I still didn’t understand the city, a city that was changing so radically.”
The 24-hour portraits of Sharjah, Kuwait, Doha, Jeddah, Bahrain, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Beirut, and Venice have followed. The big difference with Lopardo’s Abu Dhabi project, however, is the switch from still photography to film, made possible thanks to the financial and technical support that came with the award of a fellowship.
“Find said, ‘OK, you’ve been doing this for three years, how does this change? Does it change? Maybe it shouldn’t change? Let’s ask these questions and have you think them over’. My impetus was to see how we could push out a little. I was curious to see how I could use the moving image and how I could map the city from a moving perspective.”
Thanks to the technical support offered by Find, Lopardo is collaborating with technicians in the United States to explore how they can use software to slow his films down to a point where they start to blur the boundary between still photography and moving image.
“We’ll use software to slow the video down so that the motion becomes ever more graceful and subtle so that you have to consider the video, and the city, from a more considered perspective.
“I don’t feel comfortable experimenting with new forms of technology, but Find has given me the courage to say, ‘Try it. Give it a shot’. They have teams of people to help you and to explain how the technology works and by giving you this tool they empower you to do something different. That’s a rare gift.”
Lopardo describes Find as a “professional course for professionals” and an opportunity to “plug back into the academic side of things”. It’s an opportunity he feels is lacking for established, UAE-based creatives who operate outside of the academy.
“In Dubai, there’s always a commercial imperative. I have to ask myself ‘Is this economically feasible? Can I sell this project?’ With Find it was ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing it and can we help you to do it better from a theoretical and conceptual point of view?’ It had nothing to do with the finance and that was really exciting.”
If Roberto Lopardo’s portrait results from a finite period of complete and utter immersion in what many would consider to be the banality of daily existence, Reem Falaknaz’s portrait of the UAE’s natural landscape is the product of gradual and repeated exposure to something that is outside most people’s daily experience.
A 28-year-old photographer, freelance TV producer and director from Dubai, the nature of Falaknaz’s job allows her to travel around the UAE, recording and collecting stories about the lives of its inhabitants.
As one of Find’s first generation of fellows, however, Falaknaz spent three months exploring the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah to produce These Mountains are Retreats to Many, something she describes as a portrait of “small village life and the inner landscapes of the mountains’ inhabitants”.
“In my 28 years here in the Emirates, this was my first visit to the Ras Al Khaimah mountains,” Falaknaz says. “My interest is in documenting the stories of the people who live in the UAE and with the Fellowship, I wanted to do something different from what I normally do, which is very city-based. I wanted to go further out and to find the stories there.”
That expansion in scope was also reflected in a shift in photographic medium.
“On the streets I take my 35mm. It’s quick, it’s easy. You just ‘snap’ and off you go,” Falaknaz explains. “With this project I worked with a medium format camera. The discipline is very different. It takes time to frame the shots, even when I’m shooting somebody. That can involve conversation, their posture changes and I love that interaction.”
As well as the farm workers, many of whom are South Asian, Falaknaz photographed Emiratis who use the mountains as a weekend retreat. Among these, she was surprised to find a group of schoolchildren, aged 12 to 18, who would retreat into the mountains, alone, each weekend. “Rather than going to the mall at the weekend, they choose to go to the mountains, all by themselves.”
As part of her responsibilities as a Find fellow, Falaknaz will give visual storytelling workshops to children in Ras Al Khaimah schools. “There are more and more stories to tell and I hope this project can continue. Three months is not enough.”
Yasser Elsheshtawy and Roberto Lopardo discuss their work at 6.30pm tonight in the InterContinental Hotel in Abu Dhabi.
Updated: January 28, 2014 04:00 AM