What can art say about the history, identity and culture of the place we live in? We put this question to three Abu Dhabi artists…
A picture says a thousand words, so goes the old quote. And while that may be cliché, it doesn’t make it any less true.
With that in mind, we talk to three artists in the capital who live and breathe creativity through their existence.
From ancient traditions to modern pop culture, vibrant colours and the absence thereof, we find out how these creatives form part of Abu Dhabi’s thriving artistic canvas.
On the bright side
“I remember experiencing life in colours from a very young age,” begins Finnish-Pakistani artist Zari Jafri. “Different experiences would make me yearn for the surroundings to change into a certain colour completely. My favourite colours would all be hues of yellows or blues depending on the momentary experience of life at that particular time.”
It’s this early connection with vibrant hues, of rich golds, burnt oranges and scarlet reds, that defines Zari’s work. From sunsets made resplendent in warm shades to animal studies and human figures, there is nothing subtle about her canvases.
“Whenever I look at any of my pieces, there is a conversation of memories which is easily translated via colours onto canvas,” she says. “I also find the present trend of monotones and matted subdued colours to be dreadfully lifeless at times; I personally find there is no conversation between the art and the viewer.
“I simply love bold, deep colours and textures to momentarily captivate the audience. My goal is to hold their imagination and give the viewer a chance to experience a heart connection with a piece of art.”
Stylistically, Zari says she’d define her work as abstract realism, but notes that it falls far short of the feeling behind her pieces.
“My mind is so full of ideas, messages of existence, spirituality and universal thoughts, that it would be impossible to merely talk about them,” she muses. “Who would listen to such cacophony, of so many words? It is much more simple to express oneself on a piece of canvas, to have a conversation with the viewer or set the tempo for silence which is created with emotions connected with the visual aspect of connecting with art.”
Rashed Al Mansoori’s work teeters on controversial, and that’s exactly how he likes it. Fusing Khaleeji traditions with pop culture and religious iconography, his paintings are at once both a comment on the world he grew up surrounded by and a subversion of the conventions that define some of our most classic works of art.
“Take this one,” he says, pointing out a pastel pink canvas filled with pop icons including Madonna, Lady Diana and David Bowie, as well as figures of the Arab world including 40s Egyptian movie star Asmahan.
“This is based on ‘The Last Supper’ by Leonardo da Vinci; I wanted to build my own version. These people are the apostles of my generation, the figures that have influenced me since childhood.”
It’s the central figure, where Jesus sat in da Vinci’s original, that is perhaps the most contentious. Blond-haired, clutching a cigarette and wearing an expression of apathy, Kurt Cobain’s representation in the piece for many could be considered something akin to sacrilege. But that’s not the intention, says Rashed.
“These people were controversial,” he emphasises. “They defined the status quo in a way, and except for Madonna, I don’t think any of them intended to provoke controversy.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to push people’s boundaries,” he smiles. “I wanted to show that this generation has the stereotype as being the worst generation ever, but these are the icons that influenced us. They may not have been perfect, but they changed the world.”
The theme follows through the rest of his art. A stylistic magpie, he has picked his favourite elements from some of the Renaissance greats, using their motifs and styles to make his own.
Whether you like it or hate it, it doesn’t matter to Rashed; all he asks for is a reaction.
“When I was in ninth grade, I started to develop this need to provoke people through visual imagery,” he recalls. “With my work, I want a reaction – disgust or happiness, whatever. Any reaction is satisfactory.
“I don’t think all my paintings are beautiful to look at, but they give you something to think about,” he pauses. “That’s enough for me.”
Real and surreal
Alaa Edris likes to make people feel uncomfortable: “I try to make [my pieces] aesthetically pleasing, but you might not quite be sure what you’re looking at,” she tells us. “There’s a sense of familiarity, but at the same time, you can’t place it.”
From abandoned urban landscapes reimagined into futuristic developments to tradition made contemporary, Alaa works with photography and video to create experiential art and works that consider identity, heritage and the juxtaposition of tradition and progress.
“I try to create a world that sucks the viewer in,” she notes. “Driving around and visiting places, you see all these different layers of tradition and modernity, the changing landscape and effect of fast-paced lives. I like to create imaginary or surreal worlds for people to explore.”
One of the ways that Alaa does this is with her photography series ‘States’ and ‘Reem Dream’. Composed of ordinary landscapes made extraordinary, it’s Alaa’s perspective of the UAE’s continual urbanisation.
“By adding the elements we have from this culture, I create a sense of familiarity – it’s connected, but it’s disconnected at the same time,” she relates. “I feel like it is really difficult for people to pause for a minute and let all these changes sink in. What does it mean to have all these high-rises and be part of this race to be the first, the biggest, the best?”
But it’s not just the future that Alaa is drawn to in her work; her photo series ‘The Seven Jinnat of the Trucial States’ delves deep into Bedouin folklore to bring to life old cautionary tales passed down from family matriarchs.
“It’s all based on oral history, stories that transfer from grandmothers to mothers, to children,” she says. “These demons – or jinni – had a huge influence on us growing up. For instance, Umm Al Duwais: She had cat eyes and would lure men to her lair to kill them.
“Things now are really very different here – with the internet and social media, you don’t see the same impact and they’re not even told these days,” Alaa reflects. “It’s one way of keeping this part of the culture alive. It’s about bringing together the past and the present to create a future.”
WORDS Camille Hogg