Saturday, February 18, 2012

Review of Emirates Fine Arts Society Annual Exhibition

Review of The 30th Annual Exhibition of the Emirates Fine Arts Society

            The 30th Annual Exhibition of the Emirates Fine Arts Society, currently showing at the Sharjah Art Museum, in Sharjah, U.A.E. is underwhelming at best.  The museum sits across a quiet cobbled road from the Emirates Fine Arts Society, a historic, traditional style Arabic villa, with open blue skies above and soft, romantic shadows and narrow passageways.  Upon entering the museum, it is not obvious that the biggest and most highly acclaimed exhibition of the year is taking place.  Walking into the entry way, one will see a few young beautiful women, dressed in traditional black abayas covering their bodies and hair, with exotic makeup painted on their faces making the ladies appear to be from a royal family.  Here you can find some assortment of maps about the arts district in Sharjah and some small flyer about the exhibition.  Luckily I had local artist and curator Mohammed Kazem with me as a guide, or I would not have necessarily realized the exhibition begins up on the second level. 
            The show begins with a floor installation outside of the main entrance to the galleries.  In the slaughterhouse of love, 2011 by Patricia Millns is spread out on the floor, different artifacts of gestures of love or domestic keepsakes, all in the color red, covered by what appear to be glass cake covers organized in a circle.  It is clear the purpose is to demonstrate an idea about lost love, mistrust and holding onto what was one passionate and fiery, but ends up communicating something cliché and tired. 
            Without knowing anything about the artists shown in this exhibition it is difficult to understand why certain works were selected.  There was no apparent theme and it seems to be open to any artist who is making work in the U.A.E.  Upon reading the curator’s statement in the catalogue, that appears to be the case.  The show was intended to be an overview of the various types of works being made in current day Middle East.  In this case, it is questionable if a curator is really necessary at all.  
            As I moved from one room to the next, in a long hall of evenly sized gallery spaces divided by walls, like cells, it is clear that the understanding of contemporary art is still developing in the U.A.E.  The walls are all painted a sort of light yellow-cream color, and the lighting seemed somewhat dim.  A room of three large impressionistic style paintings may be followed by a video piece, which is next followed by a large aluminum sculpture criticizing the misuse of Arabic language.  In general the show as a whole reminded me more of an end-of-term undergraduate class at a university than a collection of the best of the best artists from one of most rapidly developing and exotic places in the world.
            One of the first rooms with perhaps the most compelling work, had the art of Mohammed Ahmad Ibrahim.  Mohammed’s works Models is a series of mixed media sculpture, made with plastic water bottles with lids, and colorful paper maché.  It is a quietly strong selection of three pieces, all representing large pots which could be used to transport water or grains, but within each ‘pot’ are empty plastic water bottles, posing many questions to the viewer about the history and future of water.   The material was familiar to me, as it is the exact same material I began working with last year to build a sculpture of a memory of a motorbike from India.  The playful colors used by Mohammed resemble childlike toys such as Play Dough, making the work all the more compelling when considering the concept behind it.

Models, Mohammed Ahmad Ibrahim, 2011
Mixed Media
Different sizes

            During the hour I spent in the museum viewing the works one at a time, there were no other visitors or guards present.  It was a bit of a shock to me, as I had heard about this museum over the past year, and knew of classmates coming to attend a highly acclaimed exhibition in which they all participated and showed their art works. 
            As the art scene in the Middle East finds its voice, it appears there is much room for criticism and participation.  The artists I have met thus far are warm and open to conversation and excited to have new voices within the movement.  As I continue my work, questioning the objects and things we are a species give value to, I find Dubai to be rich with clues and insight into my research.  This is a blended and new culture, with a population of around 5 million, with only less than 1 million native Emirate people.  The commonality between those who choose to live here is obviously wealth and the idea of living a luxurious lifestyle.  As artists who work to create objects for a variety of reasons and different motivations, it is easy to see how artists may be led down a path of making artwork purely as decorative objects in the hopes of selling their works for obscene amounts of money. 
            Important contemporary artist and critique in the Middle East, Hassan Sharif states in his contributing essay in the exhibition catalogue: “Images of this age (are) able to take over our emotions and consciousness to a point where our cultures have turned into consumer cultures.  Just like we import various commercial products, we also import different hybrid cultures and in turn different superimposed images that have become an imitation of the present age.” (Sharif, 33)  In this statement he is referring to Jean Baudrillard’s observations about having emotional reaction to repeated and artificial imagery such a having opinions about the aesthetic of a city one has never visited, but seen images of on the internet.  This dangerous trend has already greatly impacted us as a species, and will continue to shape the way the artist and viewer communicate ideas.  No matter what, the UAE is a large player in the world of art, and as a young artist and student, there is much to see and learn from a country that is only 40 years old, and still working to determine its place in the history of art.  

Movement by Layla Juma

Forest Bird by Abdulrahman Al Ma'aini