x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The art of the city

For its fifth edition, Abu Dhabi Art is branching out beyond Saadiyat Island into the city with a new performance art programme called Durab Al Tawaya. Nick Leech meets the man behind it all.

The Manarat Al Saadiyat on Saadiyat Island, one of the venues for Abu Dhabi Art and its Durub Al Tawaya programme. Sammy Dallal / The National
The Manarat Al Saadiyat on Saadiyat Island, one of the venues for Abu Dhabi Art and its Durub Al Tawaya programme. Sammy Dallal / The National

Tarek Abou El Fetouh seems remarkably calm for a man who is about to use a whole city as his stage. Charming, enthusiastic and given to spontaneous outbursts of laughter, El Fetouh is the curator and aesthetic impresario behind Durub Al Tawaya, the latest and most ambitious addition to the Abu Dhabi Art programme that will start on Wednesday. It’s a performing-arts strand that will run three performances a day at four different venues across the city for the duration of the fair. “We don’t know what will happen,” admits the Egyptian, smiling. “We’re going to leave things open and see.”

El Fetouh’s is a daunting task. Not only is he responsible for developing a dramatic expansion in the scope of Abu Dhabi Art – into the realms of live music, performance, poetry and dance – but his programme is also charged with taking the fair out of the rarefied confines of the gallery and into the buses, streets, beaches, boats and harbours of the wider city beyond.

“Our aim is to expand beyond Saadiyat Island,” explains Tairone Bastien, head of public engagement at the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA). “We’re taking what we do at Abu Dhabi Art and pushing it out there to people who might not have ever been to Abu Dhabi Art or even to Saadiyat Island before. We want to engage very different audiences across the rest of the city. There’s a very different make-up of street life in these places that makes Durub Al Tawaya really exciting.”

Part of that excitement stems from the scale and ambition of Durub Al Tawaya. Not only will public workshops and performances be taking place at Manarat Al Saadiyat, on the Corniche beach, on boat trips around Lulu Island and on floating restaurants in Mina Zayed, but El Fetouh has also worked with Abu Dhabi’s Department of Transport and international conceptual artists such as Cao Fei (the Chinese developer of the virtual RMB City in the online world of Second Life) and the Russian-born Ilya and Emilia Kabakov to create a series of mobile, bus-based installations. They will travel along a temporary bus route, the Durub Al Tawaya line, which will link each of the programme’s four venues. El Fetouh is keen to emphasise that the journeys taken on these buses are just as much a part of the Durub Al Tawaya experience as the events taking place along its route. “The aim is not just to transport the audience from one spot to another,” he explains. “The bus line has been created for buses that are art pieces in their own right.”

Of these mobile installations, the bus customised by the Emirati artist and designer Zeinab Alhashemi is perhaps one of the clearest evocations of the thinking behind the Durub Al Tawaya strand. Wrapped in a specially commissioned graphic and showing a short film, Phantasmagoria I, Alhashemi’s bus holds up a kaleidoscopic mirror to the city, creating an image that blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy in a portrait of the capital that is part Rorschach test, part map.

“We have a lot of projects going on in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and there is continuous change,” Alhashemi explains. “The city is like a kaleidoscope, and there are always new things happening. I’ve taken just one section of the map, but there are endless patterns and everybody will see something different. This will be a successful experiment if it grabs people’s ­attention.

“A lot of the people who will see the bus in the street will not be going to Abu Dhabi Art, but maybe they will see the bus and it will raise questions.”

The role of dreams and fantasy are central to El Fetouh’s concept for Durub Al Tawaya and the curatorial choices that he has made. Many of his artists have produced work that is site-specific, and many of the projects will only exist for the duration of their performance. For El Fetouh, this ephemerality is not only central to Durub Al Tawaya, it’s part of Abu Dhabi’s charm. “The fact that people in Abu Dhabi are dreaming of a future city, that’s something very unique in this region at the moment. Saadiyat Island is a place where people are dreaming and, with the Guggenheim and the Louvre, art is a central part of that dream.”

Despite being based in Brussels and Beirut, this isn’t El Fetouh’s first time in the UAE. In 2009, he co-curated the Sharjah Biennial, Provisions for the Future and Past of the Coming Days. As well as working as an independent curator, El Fetouh is also an architect and director of the Young Arab Theatre Fund and the Meeting Points festival. He welcomes the change in perspective that working in the UAE provides. “When I am in the Emirates, I look at work from a different geographical location and a different perspective. I can see Asia, I can see India, I can see Iran.”

The importance of poetry and storytelling in Emirati culture and Bedouin traditions has also played a key role in helping to define the content of the Durub Al Tawaya strand, including its name.

“When I was asked to do this performing-arts programme, the first thing I thought about was the origins of the performing arts here in the Emirates, about storytelling and poetry,” El Fetouh explains. “Then I started to do more research and I came across this incredible expression: ‘tawaya’. In the local Bedouin dialect, tawaya were underground water wells or springs, but in classical Arabic, tawaya also refers to layers of meaning and to ideas that become clear as they unfold.”

The word “durub” refers to a journey. “In the past, you couldn’t journey in a straight line through the desert, you had to go from one well to another so that you could drink and feed the camels. That’s how I chose Durub Al Tawaya.”

Arabic and Nabati poetry feature throughout the strand. Thanks to the efforts of contemporary UAE-based designers such as Hamdan Al Shamsi and Salem Al Qassimi, as well as the Möbius Design Studio, 20 buses, clad in extracts of poetry, will travel along existing bus routes throughout the city, while the Egyptian artist Wael Shawky has transformed one of the buses on the temporary Durub Al Tawaya line using a video installation about the Bedouin tradition of singing poetry to camels on long journeys through the desert. Visitors to the Corniche beach will also be able to hear evening recitals of classical and Nabati poetry being performed by poets from the UAE Writers Union, such as Mohamed Al Mazroui and Aita Ben Masaaoud.

Storytelling appears in many guises throughout Durub Al Tawaya; however, for anybody interested in the history of the city, the intimate lecture-cum-storytelling sessions hosted by the Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet promise to be a highlight. Tabet, who specialises in uncovering the hidden histories of seemingly abandoned places, will take small groups on boat trips around Lulu Island, during which he will reveal the facts and fictions that he has uncovered during the course of his research. For both Tabet and El Fetouh, Abu Dhabi’s Lulu Island stands not only as a near-perfect illustration of the blending of fantasy and reality that sits at the heart of Durub Al Tawaya, but it also acts as a microcosm for the city and its urban experience as well.

“Lulu Island is a miniature Abu Dhabi. Firstly, on a formal level, it has the same shape,” says Tabet. “If you start from that and say that Lulu Island is a mirror of the city because it has the same shape, then, maybe, it can also be a mirror of the city’s experience. It is a place that finds itself between the reality of its land mass and the fantasy of the many schemes that have been developed for it.”

Durub Al Tawaya not only rests on El Fetouh’s intelligent selection of relevant Emirati contributors, but on an impressive cast of international artists and performers as well. Visitors to Manarat Al Saadiyat will be able to enjoy performances by the Japanese sound artist and choreographer Hiroaki Umeda and the Tunisian dance duo Hafiz Dhaou and Aïcha M’Barek. On the Corniche, hip-hop dance battles will take place between local troupes and the Brussels-based dance outfit Speed Battles.

For El Fetouh, Durub Al Tawaya is the culmination of a year-long process of research, outreach and meetings that have resulted not only in collaborations with local performers and designers, but also with Abu Dhabi-based organisations such as the Department of Transport, the managers of the Corniche beach and the International Marine Sports Club as well.

“It is important to make links with different groups of people, especially if you want to see contemporary art in the context of the daily life of the city,” El Fetouh explains. “I want to make connections with people and things outside of the art world.”

For the TCA’s Bastien, this not only makes Durub Al Tawaya a route through the city, it is also makes the programme an important social and cultural bridge.

“Through what Tarek has created, we begin to engage in a closer way with local organisations and local communities. We build bridges. We are all part of the city and we’re all becoming more interconnected in a way that we couldn’t have been if the strand hadn’t happened. It makes Abu Dhabi Art an integral part of the city.”

Abu Dhabi Art runs from November 20 to 23 at Manarat Al Saadiyat and elsewhere; for a complete list of timings and events, visit www.abudhabiartfair.ae


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