x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Tell Papa Smurf, the '80s are back

A new exhibition celebrates the 1980s as an eventful decade in the UAE, with the country opening up to music, art, TV shows and a host of other foreign cultural influences.

The Emirati artist Reem Abdalla with some of her works at the Dar Ibn Haytham Art Gallery.
The Emirati artist Reem Abdalla with some of her works at the Dar Ibn Haytham Art Gallery.

DUBAI //Nutella sandwiches, the Smurfs in Arabic and family days out at Hili Fun City in Al Ain: these were the essence of a UAE childhood in the 1980s.

Now a group of artists is distilling those memories into Archive80, which will eventually form an online archive of works inspired by the decade's pop stars, television shows, foods, fashion, advertising and stories.

The first stage of the project is an exhibition currently showing at the Dar Ibn Haytham gallery in Bastakiyah. After that closes on Friday, the curator Alia al Shamsi will set about turning it into an online archive of material related to the decade, known in Arabic as thamaneenat.

Recalling her own early years in Dubai, Ms al Shamsi, a professional photographer, said: "I grew up on a healthy snack diet based on Nutella sandwiches.

"Growing up as a half-Emirati, half-Italian kid in the 1980s meant I got to watch my favourite cartoons in three languages - the Smurfs still rocked best in Arabic.

"I also grew up admiring my older cousins who spent hours getting made up - lipstick, kohl and lots of hairspray.

"On weekends we went to Safa Park for the slides or Jumeirah Beach with my grandmother to gather seashells. Special trips were to Jebel Ali, Hili Fun City and Sindbad's Wonderland at the Al Ghurair Mall in Deira."

The project started when Ms al Shamsi began to assemble an archive of pictures taken in the 1980s. She was thinking of ways of developing this further when an opportunity to stage a show at the gallery came along.

"I thought, 'why don't I get artists to interpret their memories through artworks?' A few artists came on board, then all of a sudden there was all this artistic interpretation of the archive. So that's how it developed into this exhibition."

She makes no attempt to conceal her fondness for the period, a time when children here had more access than ever before to music, art, TV shows and other cultural influences from abroad.

"I love the '80s, I grew up in the '80s and we always sit and reminisce about it," she said. "Globalisation never has very positive connotations, but in this case it was positive for us growing up with cartoons from Japan, from the States, the TV shows, we had things coming in from England - so we were exposed to a lot of different cultures through TV.

"All of a sudden we connected with a lot of childhoods in other countries, especially through music. We had Madonna and Michael Jackson, but we also had Arabic music. This was the beauty of the '80s, it got us all together."

Most of the artists are from the Emirates, although a few are from elsewhere in the region. All but two are women.

Rooda al Neama, who grew up in Qatar and now lives in Dubai, has contributed a work inspired by the computer games of the period, such as Super Mario.

She said life then followed a similar pattern across the Gulf. "What's so special about the '80s is that, no matter who you talk to, we all experienced the same things. Once you start talking about the 80s a lot of people join in because they remember the same things, they experienced the same things.

"It was a much simpler time here and most of the families and households experienced the same shows, the same foods, the same patterns and dresses and furniture and designs."

Maya al Smadi, a Syrian who grew up in the UAE and Saudi Arabia and now lives in Dubai, is a partner in the Chickpeas Vintage online clothes store. She helped to produce a display featuring original 1980s clothes and images of stars such as Cyndi Lauper, Whitney Houston and Debbie Harry.

"This generation, we're '80s kids, so we remember the '80s, we love them, we wish we'd actually lived through them as grown-ups," she said.

With the exhibition open, Ms al Shamsi's thoughts are turning to the online work ahead. "It's a project that will develop in different ways, but always with the theme of the 1980s," she said. "We have in mind for this to grow and the whole idea is for us to connect with other cultures, other countries."

csimpson@thenational.ae