Titanic of the Middle East

Emirati artist Maisoon Al Saleh on her shipwreck-inspired art

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Emirati artist Maisoon Al Saleh dived a shipwreck to relive childhood stories about the Dara passenger liner that sank in the Gulf in the ’60s.

On April 8 1961, the MV Dara passenger liner sank off the coast of Dubai en route to India as the result of an explosion, believed to have been the work of a rebel group. Emirati artist Maisoon Al Saleh’s grandfather is a survivor of the tragedy, which killed 228 people. As a result, the 24-year-old decided to get her PADI scuba licence to dive the MV Dara shipwreck, enabling her to relive the stories told to her by her grandfather. Her exhibition explores these and other documented accounts of the explosion, starting with a brief video showing film footage she shot while diving at the MV Dara site.

Yet her interest in the event was so deep that she risked her life to pursue it. ‘Once when I was diving, water burst into my goggles and filled my nose and mouth. I wasn’t able to breathe: I pushed myself upwards towards the surface, which could have resulted in my lungs exploding. I was lucky that my dive partner grabbed my fin and slowed me down.’

Using mixed-media artworks including X-rays, digital paintings and vintage suitcases, her work juxtaposes the different viewpoints of investigators, survivors and relatives of those who died, shining a light on this prominent event in Emirati history. The exhibition, entitled ‘The Dara Chronicles’, continues at The Ara Gallery until Friday May 31.

By coincidence, Al Saleh says that while researching the project she discovered she was connected to the tragedy in more ways than one. ‘My grandfather told me when the explosion happened, he saw a lady carrying a child in her arms,’ she says. ‘I found out it was a relative of a man I met on Instagram – he’d posted a photo of his relatives who had passed away in the incident. After getting in contact with him, the story felt complete.’ Sadly, his story didn’t have the same happy ending. ‘He was the son of Mohammed Sharaf, CEO of DP World Global, a survivor of the tragedy who lost his mum, brother, and sister on the ship,’ she explains.

Beginning with three trunk-style suitcases (below), Al Saleh highlights the different nationalities on board the vessel – mainly British, Indian and GCC nationals. ‘The stories were like part of a chain. I kept researching, and everything started to link together,’ she says. She has gained plenty of personal satisfaction from the project. ‘On the day of the exhibition opening, I felt I’d played a part in bringing up a story sunk beneath the surface, bringing together the survivors of Dara once again.’

The Lowdown
Exhibition: ‘The Dara Chronicles’ until May 31 at The Ara Gallery (04 454 2784).
Artist: Maisoon Al Saleh.
Price range of works: Dhs2,500 to Dhs18,000.

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