A rotund man in a dishdash is seen floating through a labour camp. ‘The photo is showing the contrast between environments and people in Dubai. That person does not belong there,’ says Michelle Peric, the photographer and manipulator behind the image. The man’s feet are dainty in the air, as if he’s hovering just above the concrete floor. Despite his size and bemused expression, he looks almost angelic.
‘I’ve never been in a country for more than four years,’ Peric continues. ‘I don’t feel like I really belong anywhere. But I particularly feel that in Dubai, nobody belongs here.’ Peric is part of the Basically Human collective of photographers, a group bringing together students and alumni from the American University in Dubai (AUD), which has recently returned from a group show at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York. Titled Conditional Identities/Conditional Spaces, the exhibition has seen Basically Human’s ranks swell with a number of emergent SVA photographers. This week, that same show comes to Dubai.
The convictions behind Peric’s images, which also include an Emirati woman in an abaya floating next to a pool surrounded by half-dressed expats, sits well in the larger vein of the show. Roberto Lopardo, the AUD professor who gives a weighty curatorial thrust to Basically Human, tells us that this exhibition builds on the collective’s first show. ‘That exhibition was about the two-pronged approach that the media takes to humanity,’ he explains. ‘The suggestion that the West is one way and the East, or the Middle East specifically, is different.
So it was all about finding similarities, common ground.’ This latest exhibition comes three years after that and invites discussion about differences. ‘It’s looking at how identity might be constructed by a space. Whether a physical space changes the way somebody is raised; a morality, a set of values, beliefs and so on.’
From Dubai, Peric is joined by the likes of Cima Azzam, Altamash Urooj, Raji Al-Sharif, Hazem Mahdi, Nadia Hamidi and others who will be familiar to anyone witness to recent AUD graduate and end of year shows. A number of these, disappointingly, are still touting works that they exhibited for their grad show earlier this year, but those who took a risk on showing new pieces have benefited from the pressure. Notably Cima Azzam – after the collaborative installation piece Honey that she was involved with at thejamjar during the summer – has taken the idea of tethering objects in a space into new, interesting dimensions.
Here, she’s infiltrated abandoned villas and apartments around Jumeirah, assembling and photographing tense installations using tires, discarded shoes, books and dilapidated chairs. The objects float (with the help of ropes) in an unnerving way, particularly a chair that hangs precariously off the stoop of a desolate house. It’s as if Azzam is suggesting that the house as much as the furniture is tethered to these spaces, as if it would fall down were that vital space-defining object suddenly removed.
The New York artists provide a much-needed collision point here. The images are far more affronting than their Dubai counterparts – Christopher Grodzki invites us into the hospital ward where his grandmother lies, mouth open and staring at the camera. German-American Nicola Kast casts her eye over the collective guilt for the tragedies of the 20th century felt by Germans, dressing up to appear like a bourgeois hausfrau, a girl caked in brown mud (think brown shirt) and, rather perochially, as Adolf Hitler.
Scottish artist Scott Houston’s photojournalism explores the post-industrial decline of East Liverpool, Ohio, while Jing Quek organises Singapore’s labour forces, including construction workers and stylised exterminators, into absurd moments of freeze frame as though they’ve been stopped mid-scene in a musical.
While Basically Human’s curatorial direction is airtight, there’s another, perhaps less intentional dimension to the collection. Lopardo talks about the works as explorations of spatial identity, how the physical makeup of a place might actually constitute the formation of our identity. While this infiltrates the concept behind a lot of the works here, it also underlies a comparison between the two groups. It’s hard to overlook the softness in what many of Dubai’s emerging artists are doing right now.
It’s in Hazem Mahdi’s hackneyed self portrait, him screaming against a black background. It’s in Sami Al-Turki’s inexplicably intrusive scenes from construction workers’ accommodation in Al Quoz. It’s in Marina Lukiyanchuk’s black and white shots of her college buddies, posing semi-clad. Dubai’s artists are in need of a more vigorous visual language and a tightly honed sense of how to give their work a more pointed relevance. Nowhere has this been more evident than in this show.
Basically Human: Conditional Identities/Conditional Spaces is at The Empty Quarter until October 3.