Last year, Dubai-based Green Art Gallery made history after being accepted into Art Basel, the art world’s most notoriously selective contemporary fair. It is only the second gallery from the Gulf to have been accepted in the fair’s 43-year history. And it was the work of 36-year-old Palestinian artist Shadi Habib Allah that put the gallery in the limelight.
The New York-based artist’s first solo exhibition, entitled ‘Evacuated Containers’, features drawings, sculptures and one video installation. ‘The concept behind the work came from a personal experience I had at Tel Aviv airport in 2009,’ says Shadi. ‘I was taking a sculpture of a cast leg back to New York, but I was stopped by airport security. While I was being questioned, the sculpture was destroyed without my knowledge,’
he says. A ten-minute video featured in the exhibition depicts what happened and why.
So why was he travelling with a cast leg? ‘I met a guy in the States who was a veteran of the Vietnam War. We had several conversations and he told me he wanted me to give him an artwork as a gift. I forgot about the whole thing, then in the summer of 2009 I thought I’d make him a leg because he’d lost his during the war,’ says Shadi.
But the exchange with his new friend was not to be. What Shadi instead drew from the experience was a way to influence his art. ‘My work emerges from personal anecdotes and experiences – that’s always the starting point,’ he says. And so began his exploration and interest in the history, representation and circulation of objects. ‘Objects can keep being reinvented within different contexts. They can be used to highlight something else,’ he says. ‘The context in which you bring an object can also completely change its meaning. The history of its ownership or the space in which it exists affects its meaning and vice versa.’
The large-scale drawing (pictured) relates directly to the incident at Tel Aviv airport. ‘I used a process of alternative mnemonic representation to create images of the room where the destruction of the sculpture occurred – a place that I had never actually witnessed,’ he says. ‘The creation of the drawings relied on a different circulation of memory – a security guard working at the airport who I asked to gain entry to the restricted room where the destruction occurred,’ he says. ‘After a number of months the guard was able to slip into the space and gave a description to a police sketch artist, who then made detailed views of the restricted space based on the oral testimony,’ he says.
But his favourite work in the show is a sculpture he says began as a bag, but which has morphed into a ribcage. ‘Just like the title of the show, bags are used to contain things within themselves, but they also inevitably take the form of what’s inside of them,’ he says.
With these profound thoughts, it’s no surprise that the artist gets his best ideas at night. ‘I work best between 2am and 4am because I live underneath the subway, so it keeps me awake,’ he says. At least it gives him time to properly reflect on his journey to Art Basel as one of his greatest achievements. ‘Because Basel is such a strong platform, it means my work was viewed by important institutions and curators,’ he says. ‘Great things have happened since then.’
Exhibition: ‘Evacuated Containers’ until May 5 at Green Art Gallery, Alserkal Avenue (04 346 9305).
Artist: Shadi Habib Allah.
Price range of works: Dhs18,365 to Dhs73,450.