x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Art competition adds colour to lives of labour camp residents

Six labourers at the Saadiyat Construction Village participated in the second annual art competition.

Mohammed Ali, the winner of the TDIC’s art competition for workers in Saadiyat Construction Village, stands next to his work.
Mohammed Ali, the winner of the TDIC’s art competition for workers in Saadiyat Construction Village, stands next to his work.

ABU DHABI // The azure water laps on to the white sand, steps away from a deserted, thatched-roof hut on a peaceful beach.

A distant construction site rises on the far end of the crescent-shaped beach, its cranes visible across the cloudless sky.

The scene is an Abu Dhabi-inspired painting from Mohammed Ali of Pakistan.

The artist, who discovered his passion for painting nearly two decades ago, shows off another of his creations: a desert landscape featuring a caravan of frumpy tourists riding on camels.

"When people come here to the UAE they are interested in the history and culture of the place, and that's also what mesmerises me," says Mr Ali. "And what mesmerises me, I paint."

He earned his living at home painting banners at a sign shop. Now, he lives at the Saadiyat Construction Village labour camp on Saadiyat Island and works as an office assistant.

His passion has paid off: he won first place for his beach scene in the camp's annual art competition. "Whenever I get the chance to, I love to show off my talents," says Mr Ali, who won second place last year.

Sponsored by the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), the master developer of Saadiyat Island, the art contest attracted 12 submissions from six artists.

The contest represents a reversal of gaze. While painters such as Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Diego Rivera have often depicted labouring classes, those classes have rarely been the source rather than the subject of art.

All of the pieces in the TDIC contest were inspired by nature and were judged based on creativity, originality and talent.

Baljinder Singh, 24, a scaffolder from India, recreated a farming scene from his Punjabi village.

"It's good to draw some Punjabi culture because it's not something that is already available in the UAE," says Mr Singh, who won fourth place.

"It's good to be representing where I come from and my culture for others living here in the Construction Village."

The 40-hectare Construction Village houses more than 10,000 labourers who work for dozens of contractors.

Saadiyat Island is one of TDIC's flagship developments and will be the future home of the Abu Dhabi branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums.

The art competition is one in a series of events, including writing workshops and sports competitions, aimed at "enriching the lives of the construction workers living on the island".

"The competition gives workers the opportunity to experience different fields and skills outside their normal working day, which is very important given that they play such an important role in the development of Saadiyat Island and the cultural district," says Sheikha Mahra Al Qassimi, the deputy director of corporate communications at TDIC.

There were no prizes, but all six contest entrants received laptops for participating, enabling them to communicate with people at home or improve their computer skills, Sheikha Mahra says.

Nizar Hikkam, the third-place winner, used the island he works on as inspiration for his piece, a depiction of a red wooden bridge spanning a creek.

A small yellow cottage is set against a backdrop of huge sand dunes rising up from the water.

"It's Saadiyat Island but it's modified," says Mr Hikkam, a safety officer from India. "I looked for something very beautiful and this is what I found."

The winning paintings will be displayed in an art gallery at the Construction Village. All three workers say they were happy to be part of a programme that allowed them to express themselves.

"I have very good memories of home and sometimes I am homesick," Mr Singh says. "I'm very glad for the chance to display whatever is in my heart."

But he has grander plans: "I want to be first next year."

jthomas@thenational.ae