x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

When deserts and daggers cease to define, what's left?

What defines life in the Emirates? The icons of yesterday no longer suffice to define to diversity of today.

What is an Emirati expression? How can we define an expression as Emirati? These are the questions that are explored at the Emirati Expressions exhibition at Manarat Al Saadiyat, which runs until January 28.

The exploration of identity is not a new concept for artists regionally and internationally. But the challenge of defining an "Emirati expression" is magnified here, where national identity is still evolving. With so many different cultures living in the UAE, defining what it means to be from the Emirates is constantly changing.

Defining this "imagined" identity, as political scientist Benedict Anderson puts it, is an important part of the nation-state building process. Certain symbols and images have been used to define who we are and where we came from. From falcons to camels, deserts to pearls, over time these have come to be associated and seen as authentically and inherently Emirati.

Those symbols of identity conjure up memories from the region and, to a certain extent, celebrate the past and glorify bygone days.

But today the people of the UAE are at a crossroads, trying to define themselves by not forgetting their past or losing their identity while at the same time being defined by images that no longer express who they are. Is there a way to balance past with present?

This is the challenge that the 10 artists in Emirati Expressions have tried to address. How can an artist avoid producing the images expected of them? How can an Emirati artist define their identity without falling into the trap of cliche?

Some of the young Emirati artists on display attempted to answer these questions with their cameras, using photography to document life by exploring private and public spaces. Fatima Al Yousef and Mira Al Qaseer explored the private aspects of local life, while Ammar Al Attar, Alia Al Shamsi and Hadeyeh Badri took their cameras to the streets.

Those artists that choose to explore public spaces are to a certain extent making an anthropological statement about life in the Emirates for Emiratis. Ammar Al Attar's works, titled My Visual Diaries Series, are printed on paper and not framed, to give the appearance they are spreads from a diary or a book. Attar's photographs are a visual blog of scenes from different parts of the Emirates. His photographs look at a variety of scenes: a Pakistani worker carrying a block of wood; houses with peeling paint; clothes hanging on a clothesline; satellite dishes on top of every home. There are also boys playing football wearing no shoes in a sandy neighbourhood.

These images contrast greatly with the tourism industry's images of the Emirates as only high-end and luxurious. There is, as Attar shows us, another side to the Emirates.

Similarly, Hadeyeh Badri has chosen to document life on the streets, visiting Satwa, Souk Nayef and low-income neighbourhoods in Dubai. Her photographs capture patterns and rhythms that otherwise go unnoticed.

Finally there is Alia Al Shamsi, who captured scenes most of us walk by every day without taking a second look. In Reflections of society there are classified ads for studio and room availability, advertisements posted on phone booths, and a sign posted at a beauty salon warning "Men Not Allowed".

A poster with an image of Charlie Chaplin at the entrance to a sports store offers the curious observation, "Global Media Culture".

The works produced by those three artists share a common theme: that the UAE is not all about the luxurious or glamorous. Each artist has chosen to explore elements within the UAE that are, by many, ignored and certainly not praised.

What this says about Emirati life is an open question. Are these Emirati photographers offering expressions of their own experiences, or simply pointing out that there is more to the Emirates than is often acknowledged publicly?

I do question what these diaries are meant to depict: the life of the artist or the life of their subjects. Or maybe these artists are seeking to replace oriental images - daggers and deserts - with new imagery that ensures the continuation of the mysterious and "exotic" East? Capturing reality is never objective but is rather a process that reflects the complexity of the world.

I say we should continue to question what we see.


Hissa Al Dhaheri is an Emirati social commentator