x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Teen life: The idiosyncratic art of the stolen canapé

A trip to the Made in Tashkeel exhibition expands not only art horizons, but also vocabulary and an appetite for bite-sized snacks.

Two years ago, it was with vindictive pleasure that I told my art teacher her subject wasn't one I'd be continuing the next year. Finally, no more trying desperately to discern meaning in sculptures that resembled at best giant dumplings and at worst shapeless blobs. No more rubbing out outlines and re-rubbing the redrawn ones until I'd torn a hole in the paper because I couldn't get the proportions right.

However, I was in for a nasty surprise when I learnt that our artist friend Nivedita "Nivi" Saha was determined to make sure that I didn't forget all the little tips she had given us: she is more than willing - insistent, actually - to be a mentor to all her younger friends who she thinks have potential, and even those, like me, who very clearly don't.

Few teenagers would allow themselves to be presented with well-meaning advice and towed off to art exhibitions by any adult. Nivi, though, has gradually come to be trusted due to an appearance Petunia Dursley would most certainly have disapproved of. After all, throwing extravagant parties with a dress code "à la Lady Gaga" is a sure-fire way of winning the respect of any teenager.

We therefore meekly submitted to being chaperoned to Made in Tashkeel, an event that showcased the works of a select few UAE-based artists. It was to be a buzzing, friendly little get-together of art-lovers housed in a sprawling art facility in the Nad Al Sheba area.

On the way, Jamie kept us all, er, highly entertained by pestering Nivi to tell him about the exhibits of all the artists and what her response to them was, interjecting several times to tell her that he's made something like that at school, only his was probably far better. When the rest of us were woken up as the car pulled into the driveway, we thankfully scrambled out and headed towards the nearest helper sporting a large tray of canapés.

As we got talking to the artists, Tina and I marched up to Debjani Bhardwaj, whose piece, Same Different consisted of a number of pebbles covered in pastel coloured felt, all with different swirling patterns. Debjani smilingly elaborated on what it represented: "It is about people of different cultures and nationalities, people with different personalities and idiosyncrasies, which make them so unique but scratch the surface and dig deeper they are essentially the same." Tina stared. Neither of us was quite sure what "idiosyncrasies" meant. We grinned idiotically back and moved on to the next display, which was Nivi's In the Box.

This was an exquisitely crafted Jack-in-the-box, covered in black-and-white photos from Nivi's past.

"The photos represent the events that have happened to me and the people I've met, and the colour has leeched out of these experiences and filled me with warmth and vibrancy," she explained. "That's why the 'Jack' has all these colourful pieces of fabric around its body. It's a Jack-in-the-box because I get a surprise every time I look at myself and find out who I am gradually becoming." Jamie interrupted with a very unnecessary: "Like the surprise I got when I looked in the mirror after my first shave..." We rolled our eyes and moved away before we got to hear the rest of his no-doubt fascinating description of his facial hair.

This led us to Hamdan Al Shamsi, an Emirati artist who had explored another perspective - that of our identities being sucked out because we try so hard to conform to society's expectation of us. His piece was a large white canvas with a series of identical black faceless busts imposed on it. It was an idea we teenagers can easily relate to: peer pressure dictates everything from what we wear to the absurd diet fads we follow to appease the friends we firmly believe know exactly what they're talking about.

Meanwhile, Jamie was deeply impressed to discover Darwin Guevarra's work-in-progress - a gory series called Time of Humanity, also in the Tashkeel building. It featured giant humans with machinery protruding out through their skin, with real 3D metal cogwheels and other objects stuck on the massive canvases. It was to do, according to Darwin, with the inflated expectations imposed on us, driving us to function almost like machines, losing our individuality in the process. Jamie wasn't listening; he was more interested in a work depicting a crowbar sticking out of a guy's head, tastefully awash in blood, which he regarded with something akin to reverential awe.

All too soon, it was time to go. We sank back contentedly as Jamie filled Nivi in on all he had gleaned about his identity and the secrets hidden in the recesses of his soul (cue Nivi: "You have one?").

Tina chipped in, too, with a meandering discourse on how she now knows that if you want society to conform to your expectations, you've got to get yourself metaphorical black-and-white photos and preferably also jam some screwdrivers down your back, and only then will you discover your idiosyncrasy.

I just concentrated on the excellent canapés I had stuffed into my pocket.

• The writer is a 15-year-old student in Dubai.

• Made in Tashkeel runs until August 31.