Saadiyat Island art show

The debut show on Saadiyat Island, exploring Arab unity and conflict through architecture, has Time Out excited


In November 2002, artist Ali Jabri was found dead in his Amman apartment. Why Jabri was killed, and by whom, remains unknown. But in the context of Disorientation II, the first exhibition to inaugurate the as-yet unbuilt cultural district on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, the circumstances of Jabri’s death are irrelevant. What stands like a shadow over the show, instead, is the grim hope-to-despair-to-annihilation story that Jabri’s life represents.

The exhibition, curated by Sharjah Biennial’s Jack Persekian, is subtitled The Rise and Fall of Arab Cities, and finds some reflection in Jabri’s story. The famously flamboyant artist, born in Jerusalem in the ’40s, arrived in Cairo on a sojourn in the ’70s. Sketches from that period, presented here as the opening images in Disorientation II, tap into the spirit of optimism of that time. The heaving city – depicted as an intoxicating collision of faces and skyline – hints at and embodies some of the Pan-Arab unity ideas that were still buzzing around the region in the wake of president Jamal Abdel Nasser’s vision for a new, colonial-free Middle East.

But with the wars of the ’80s (Iran-Iraq, the ’82 invasion of Lebanon by Israel) and the realisation that corruption had permeated the higher echelons of many countries in the region, Jabri’s work changed. He seemed to shed his optimism like an obsolete skin. In the collages of the ’80s, set here alongside the sketchbooks, Jabri depicts a now-disjointed urban landscape awash with hypocrisies and sinister, unspoken contradictions.

Disorientation II, at its heart, explores the rise and fall of Nasser’s visions of unity and growth for a united Arab region – nationalism or, perhaps more accurately, Arabism that pushed for independence from the West, self-government of resources and assertion in the face of Israel. This trajectory is explored through the medium of the city. A group of 14 artists, connected by an architectural sensibility, question the very nature of the city and how, as it develops, it may become an organic, almost insidious, vehicle for ideology.

‘We lived in the streets. We slept, we ate, we fought in those streets,’ says a man in a vest who stands in a dimly lit and sickly green-hued room. His face is obscured off camera, but we can tell he wants to sit down. Between pacing and smoking, his vigorous gesticulations draw him back to his feet. This anonymous figure was a part of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia group who entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps for displaced Palestinians in the ’82 Lebanon war and gunned down hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians. He’s talking to Monika Borgmann, a German artist who captures the recollected dreams, fears and experiences of the months leading up to the attack from six men who were part of the militia group.

‘Massaker’ is a work projected on a back wall in the space and, despite being scant on visuals, the powerful subject matter forces you to watch these tormented monologues through clasped fingers. It provides something of a counterpoint (being on the far side of the gallery) to the optimism of Jabri’s sketches and Hala Elkoussy’s ‘On Red Nails, Palm Trees And Other Icons’, a photo-filled, kitsch-driven self-contained room (imagine a shrine to those heady days in the ’60s) positioned alongside the entrance to the space.

Borgmann’s six men, in their devastating testimonies, remind viewers that the Middle Eastern cityscape had become, by the latter half of the 20th century, the battlefield. Though we’re told their narratives only in rambling and disjointed recollection, we can imagine the scenes being beamed via the world’s media – a battered maze of single-storey buildings with windows missing, while figures drape the streets. Yet this show, at its heart, examines the way in which the city has become an ideological battlefield, how it has been used to announce the intentions of a country and, at other points, to erase elements that the superstructure wants to forget.

Yto Barrada presents an automated Scalextric-esque model of a run-down Moroccan town. Three black diplomat cars chug along the track. Palm trees rise out of the scrubby ground as they pass by; dirty buildings spin into pristine, freshly painted shopfronts; dormant street lights flicker into life. And, as the visiting heads of state in their Cadillacs roll out of town, everything returns to its former dilapidation.

Like the 19th century village of Potemkin, built of hollow façades to impress the Empress Catherine II of Russia on a tour of the Crimea, Barrada’s town reflects on the irony that architecture is used to delude the very people who could enact change on a poverty-stricken area.

The artists in this show suggest that as conflict has become more internalised – via racial and religious tensions, border disputes, and violence arising through poverty – architecture is being used to fight these wars silently. Through city planning and development, these internalised wars can be fought, won and, at times, mitigated, often to the benefit of those with the power and money to enact change on the city.

Nowhere is this more prevalent in the show than in the Palestinian works. Wafa Hourani’s sculpture of cut-up photographs, twisted pipe cleaners and toy cars recreates a Palestinian camp just outside the checkpoint of Ramallah. From within this cluster of tiny, flimsy looking buildings, we can hear the sound of competing radios, but over the roofs we see a mirror stuck on to the imposing concrete wall at the edge of the town. The illusion of space is created around this cramped, ramshackle area.

But it is in the videos of Ayreen Anastas and René Gabri, a selection of films made during a 16-day journey around Palestine, that we glimpse the power that architecture holds in the occupied territories. The two artists met architects, activists and families on their trip around the country. ‘Everywhere that Arabs live is a village,’ says Jeff Halper, a member of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. He’s referring to the dominant viewpoint of the Israeli government, which supposes that all settlement is more about assimilation than destruction of these so-called villages. Meanwhile, Buthaira Dabit, an architect, talks about the ‘Judaisation’ of the territories since 1948. ‘The Arab character of these cities is being erased,’ he explains.

Between the dominating sculptures and installations of this exceptional show, we witness the evolution of the cityscape into a battlefield for internalised ideological disputes. But it’s hard not to think of Saadiyat Island itself here. Beyond the Louvre, the Guggenheim and the promises for the future, architecture is being used to announce and activate certain intentions. The formation of a cultural hub in a fanfare of starchitects and branded institutions is one great statement of the country’s plan to put itself on the international cultural map. And while this is a whole different spectrum of connecting architecture to ideology, it is no less astute in reminding us the critical place that the cityscape, and its development, plays in the continuing formation of the region.

Disorientation II continues at Manarat Al Saadiyat on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, until February 20

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