Making a mark

Expat artist Nelda Gilliam tells Chris Lord about pirouetting away from the barrenness of the desert


‘I believe that no matter where you are, you have your home with you, always,’ says Nelda Gilliam in her soft, Texan drawl. ‘Location has nothing to do with it – we always have our soul, our home, within us.’
The artist has been here, art-wise at least, since the early days. Having arrived in Dubai 11 years ago, Gilliam was the artist that Bastakiya’s XVA Gallery chose for its debut show.

She has spent the greater part of the last two decades in the Middle East and, in that time, has managed to carve out a very distinctive mode of expression. The home and her belief in its mobility, represented
by a pentagonal symbol that features in both the mixed-media works Gilliam has in the XVA at the moment and the excellent installations she brought to Bastakiya Art Fair, goes hand in hand with her time-honoured expat status.

The collection currently dominating the Bastakiya space features largely mixed-media works exploring a silence that, Gilliam explains, spills over from a childhood where she was told to be quiet into a spiritually ‘repressed’ adulthood. Across three rooms of the gallery, Gilliam begins with a grim and imposing installation, where we see the word ‘Language’ cut out, dashed with paint and floating before rows of her house-shaped symbols on the floor. On the far wall, ‘Words Have Power’ appears embossed on a hazy grey canvas.

From there, Gilliam presents a selection of paint-heavy canvases with slices of text inserted among a tumult of dark colours. Occasionally, we see the pentagonal house symbol bound up in chicken wire and stuck to a canvas; in others it floats amid a ghostly swathe of grey. In the final rooms, we see her style more elegantly obliterated: a single blast of colour is surrounded by carefully composed, yet seemingly random marks. We ask about the grave-like rows of houses in the opening installation. ‘They’re wooden houses that I used in a previous installation, where the house represented the soul.

I actually burned them for this.’ The charred remains of these houses have had several bursts of paint splashed across them, giving the scene a blasted, decimated feel. ‘This exhibition has two themes: unspoken words and unspoken marks,’ she continues. ‘ The house shape is used in the context of how I believe that sometimes we use words that destroy each other, and at other times to heal. The house here is the soul that has been wounded or bound because of lack of nurturing.’

The phrase ‘words have the power to destroy or heal’ appears a lot in this show. It’s a hidden scrawl among the ripped-up magazines and eerie house symbols. But there’s one tiny tear-out from a notebook that caught our eye. In thin pencil, Gilliam has written: ‘What do you do when you are alone? Sometimes I stand on my balcony and look out over Deira. Then I turn and do a painting.’

‘It’s actually from something that I wrote years ago when I lived in Saudi Arabia. I used to stand on my balcony a lot, looking at the desert and the sand, the lack of vegetation. I would come inside and then turn and pirouette. It was actually moving away from the barrenness that I felt. I’d go inside and begin to paint.’ Gilliam made her life for four years in Saudi, holding women-only exhibitions in her own home and, we suspect, exploring the silent world of that society. ‘When I first went there I was very naïve about living in the Middle East, but it was a good experience. I grew a lot, in my knowledge of the world.’

Gilliam tells us that this image, of turning her back on the desert with a pirouette and returning to painting, makes her feel good and we see some of that spirit in the later works in this show. In the whiter, simpler canvases, Gilliam faces the barrenness with a sense of spontaneity and we can see that atmosphere of freedom that she mentions. The thousands of tiny marks build into a very peaceful, yet kinetic composition. It’s as if she’s moving away from the oppressively heavy mixed-media style we see in the earlier rooms as she progresses with her work. In that final room, we also see one of Gilliam’s earliest works: a heavy white and red composition.

We ask how she sees her art as having moved on since then. ‘I’ve had a chance and the time to work regularly and develop more mature work, and I am freer as a person and as an artist. ‘I have more confidence in what I’m doing. I am free spiritually, inside,’ she continues. ‘It’s been a lot of work on my inner being and it’s this that has caused me to become more confident in what I’m doing and in myself, and making marks.’

Unspoken Words, Unspoken Marks is at XVA until October 22

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