Abu Dhabi gallery exhibit features work of expat artists
Across the car park from Al Bateen Mall's majestic retro-future curves, a temporary metal screen, painted in a subdued shade of sunset orange, marks the dividing line between two of the capital's more interesting works in progress. Both, it is hoped, will eventually help shape Abu Dhabi's future, albeit in markedly different ways.
Inside the orange barricade, work is under way on a small section of one of Abu Dhabi's big projects - the multi-billion dirham upgrade of the city's sewerage system - which will, once complete, deliver a state-of-the-art network fit to grace any 21st-century city.
A few metres behind those same screens lies the more refined environment of the recently opened Etihad Antiques Gallery, where work of a no less significant nature is also advancing apace.
The gallery, which has a sister branch opposite Abu Dhabi Mall, is co-owned by Khalid Seddiq Al Mutawa and Mohammed Khalil Ibrahim.
Stepping into the space, one finds oneself surrendering to the charms of this most homely of galleries. There are no tickets on the mainly Orientalist artwork which crowds the walls but enquiries reveal that prices start from around US$5,000 (Dh18,000) and range far into the distance from there. An Otto Pilny painting is on show here as well as a Rudolf Ernst, both fine exponents of Orientalism. One of Pilny's pieces, Evening Prayers (1910) sold for $326,500 at Sotheby's Doha in 2009. An Ernst, entitled A Hard Bargain, was purchased for $542,500 in the same auction.
Seddiq explains that the collection, which also includes examples of Islamic and African art, started as a hobby - "I love to collect and keep buying antiques", he says - before his passion became a business. That same entrepreneurial impulse may soon help the gallery blossom into a more expansive cultural enclave.
If things go well, the antiques gallery will be the cornerstone of a much bigger centre for art. Seddiq and Khalil hope to establish, in relatively short order, a space to display heritage pieces, modern art and local and Islamic art within the neighbourhood. A place to sip a contemplative cup of coffee as well as a souvenir shop might also be integrated into the scheme.
February 23 marks the beginning of the fulfilment of the first part of that expansion plan, with the opening of an exhibition of modern art entitled Etihad Colours. The show, which is being staged in the villa adjoining the antiques gallery, trails the talents of a multinational collective called the Abu Dhabi Art Squad. It will run until March 18. The works on show are available for purchase and start from Dh3,000.
The squad is led by Bruce Hill, an artist, art teacher and expatriate from New Zealand, who talks of the group as being a "node of energy" in the cultural landscape.
Hill established the squad in 1999 with Said Ali Sowafy, a Ugandan expatriate, during the former's first stint in the UAE. At the time, it was the capital's only active art group. Hill would later leave the Emirates in 2002, but return in 2005. Since then, he has endeavoured to organise a group to "fill that space between the grassroots [arts scene] and the big museum projects".
As their name implies and, indeed, reflecting the ever-changing nature of life on these shores, the squad features a rolling ensemble of talent: there are 15 artists from 11 countries listed on the most up-to-date roster Hill shows me.
The squad meets regularly and invites new members to join, screening applicants and judging submissions on a series of criteria, including the quality and body of the artist's work and the likelihood of it attracting a wider, commercial audience.
"We have some very good individuals within the group," Hill says. "Our plan is to get good recognition of their talents."
For his part, Hill uses a thick layering technique (referred to as impasto) to deliver richness and texture to his own semi-abstract work. A handful of his paintings form part of the Etihad Colours exhibit.
Lacking a communal space where the group could meet and work, Hill hopes the squad might one day find a permanent place within Seddiq's art complex, but for now believes the exhibition will showcase the group's vitality, as well as its "hidden talents and diverse styles".
Spread over two floors, it certainly does that: one finds here a series of portraits by Ufuk Kobas from Turkey. Her paintings trail a succession of instantly recognisable, western faces from the modern era: we see the late actress Liz Taylor (she is imagined by Kobas very much in her 1950s pomp), the tormented visage of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse and, finally, the inspirational former Apple chief executive Steve Jobs, who died in October 2011 after a protracted battle against pancreatic cancer.
Elsewhere on the ground floor, Ali Sowafy, who has lived in Abu Dhabi for more than two decades, has five pieces on display. His paintings, which speak directly to his East African roots, are sharp, colourful and Cubist.
The exhibition also showcases the ingenious, whimsical illuminated rice paper sculptures of Soumyajit Choudhury, several pieces of art by long-term squad member Giovanna Magugliani and striking work by Svilen Petrov, a Bulgarian sculptor.
Angelika Dahlhaus features prominently too. A visiting German artist, Dahlhaus's pictures are often influenced by prehistoric rock paintings, but also feature images of Roman galleys and chariots. Upstairs, one finds artworks by Arunima Sanyal, abstracts by Martin Gremse and a series of intriguing pieces by the Scottish artist Kim Robertson.
However, the dominant theme in this section of the gallery is regional.
Five pieces, including three sculptures, by Natiq Al Alousi, who moved here from Iraq in 2006, occupy much of one room. Visitors will also find eight works by Nasir Nasrallah close by, although he is not an Art Squad member. Nasrallah, whose work will feature in next month's Sharjah Biennial 11, has several large-format, single-colour pieces on display in Abu Dhabi.
Speaking in Arabic, Al Alousi says his sculptures reveal a "particular philosophy". They connect directly with "feelings that come from within" and offer "reactions to what is going on in the world".
Al Alousi, who was once head of the sculpting department at Baghdad's Public Heritage College, has had to make an unusual accommodation in his work since he left Iraq.
There is no bronze foundry in this country, he says, so he uses fibreglass as his base material before coating his creations with bronze. Just as there are construction barriers outside the gallery's perimeter wall, so too there are obstacles in art. Al Alousi hopes to eventually find a facility in the UAE where he can properly cast in his preferred alloy.
Reflecting the multi-voiced, international and occasionally unconventional spirit of the Art Squad, Al Alousi says that he prepared for this show by picking a handful of pieces he had in his Mussafah workshop and hoping they would "fit together" once installed in the space. He needn't have been concerned - they fit perfectly.
Ÿ Etihad Colours: An Exhibition of Contemporary Modern Art is on show at the Etihad Antiques Gallery, close to Al Bateen Mall, from February 23 until March 18.
Nick March is editor of The Review.