A mariner’s tale

Inspired by a 1961 shipwreck British photographer Olivia Arthur takes a new look at Dubai

‘Work in progress’
‘Work in progress’

Inspired by the narrative of a shipwreck from 1961, British photographer Olivia Arthur takes a new look at Dubai.

British photographer Olivia Arthur knows a thing or two about telling a story. But it might come as a bit of a surprise that, having captured life through a lens in Delhi, Italy, Iran and Saudi Arabia, she’s chosen a fictional character to tell a tale at her new exhibition here in Dubai.

Her work on show in the lobby of Fairmont the Palm is themed around a fictitious immigrant man who survives a real-life tragic shipping accident off the coast of the UAE. The Dubai-based passenger liner the MV Dara was second only to the Titanic as the planet’s worst recorded maritime disaster when it sank in 1961. Hundreds of Indian and Pakistani passengers perished on their way to the Gulf in search of a new life.

Arthur’s imaginary character, though, lives to tell the tale but ends up on a desert island. He eventually returns to modern-day Dubai, which is where her character’s story is picked up. By viewing the city from this unique perspective, Arthur hopes to discard her Western preconceptions and approach Dubai from a more open-minded angle – from a position of wonderment, fear, confusion and curiosity.

Londoner Arthur is a Magnum documentary photographer. She’s part of this cooperative founded in 1947 by five photographers, which is owned and administered entirely by its members and is one of the most famous photography agencies in the world. She also released her first book Jeddah Diary, about young women in Saudi Arabia, in 2012.

But surprisingly for someone who’s travelled as extensively, this is her first trip to the city. ‘I’m mixed about it,’ she says of Dubai. ‘I think it’s quite isolating and think that’s represented in the pictures. I think the character in this story would have the feeling of being isolated. But I also think it’s a city that makes people work for them. I also think, which I don’t think many people do, that all the people and their stories are all actually quite similar – they come here to make something and they do send the money back home. Everyone’s making some kind of sacrifice in this city for that and I think some people are making more sacrifice than others. I started to see the similarity between these people more than the difference.’

When this is considered, especially in the context of her exhibition’s constructed narrative, her work takes on a more considerable pertinence. The work is haphazard and features a variety of styles, shapes and subjects, from a talent contest where immigrant labourers are waving Western Union inflatables (the international money transfer company) from the crowd of a talent contest, the footprints of a bird on a freshly raked spot of sand to architectural quirks and more documentary-style street photographs.

When the work focuses on people, it’s predominantly men who feature. ‘It’s quite a masculine city and I think I always saw it that way,’ she adds. ‘I didn’t want to focus exclusively on men but the character is a man and it’s a city with men who live away from their families and that is a really important part of the city.’

Every week Arthur alters the arrangement of the exhibition and replaces certain aspects, ensuring that the exhibits reflects the nature of her fictitious character’s irregular journey and offering frequent observers to understand and gain an insight into what she’s experiencing.

But she adds she is aware of still being very much an outsider and that she needs to ‘get inside more’ and meet people to provide a more complete rendition of life here.

The photographer has just completed her PADI diving course and intends to dive the very wreck her character endured and photograph the site. The idea is her character will find peace and complete his journey.

The Lowdown

Exhibition: Olivia Arthur’s exhibition is in the downstairs lobby of Fairmont The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (04 800 7256) until December 15. Her final exhibition at the Cuadro Gallery and book will be released in 2014. Arthur is hosting an open studio at the Fairmont every Thursday at midday-6pm until December 12.
Artist: Olivia Arthur
Price of works: On request

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