Shadow play

Bassam Al Selawi and Maysoon Masalha's shadowy art arrives in Abu Dhabi

Light playing tricks: See these fascinating works of art
Light playing tricks: See these fascinating works of art

Passages from the Qur’an are illustrated in shadows, in a new exhibition by an Abu Dhabi-based couple, Bassam Al Selawi and Maysoon Masalha. Caroline McEneaney finds out more.

Two sculptors in Abu Dhabi are making artwork with a hidden meaning, but you don’t have to be an art expert to figure it out. In fact, all you need is a light. If this is sounding metaphorical and spacey, fear not. It’s all explained in an exhibition at Rosewood Abu Dhabi this month.

There are 11 sculptures in Rosewood’s lobby and its Majlis Lobby Lounge. They are mounted on white framed surfaces, each with a single light shining either above it or below it. The sculptures themselves are reliefs that depict either Arabic passages from the Qur’an or English writing – usually with a sentimental meaning. The most impressive aspect of the sculpture, however, is only visible once a light is shined on it. Pointed at an angle, the light against the sculptures creates a completely new image in the form of a shadow – often one that illustrates the text of the sculpture itself.

Most of the sculptures reference Arabic life or traditions such as praying, camel riding and playing musical instruments – one casts the shadow of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque over an Arabic inscription from the Qur’an.

Bassam Al Selawi and Maysoon Masalha have been making shadow sculptures for two years now. Quiet, happy artists, they stand cheerfully next to their work, happy to explain their ideas and artistic process. Bassam remembers, ‘I had been using Arabic writing in my work for a long time and had seen the work of several artists who used shadows as part or all of their pieces. I wanted to find a way to combine the two.’

Standing next to Maysoon, who stays quiet, insecure with her command of English though clearly understanding the conversation and passionate about her and her husband’s work, Bassam talks about how he played with several ideas before landing on the process that he uses today. He explains that they are the only two artists who make sculptures like this that are recognisable as art with and without the shadow element.

Although the mounted sculptures look like they are carved from wood, Bassam reveals that they are actually cast out of resin, remarking with a chuckle, ‘If they were carved from wood, it would take us a month to finish one piece.’ The process, Bassam continues to explain, starts with making the sculpture out of clay. They sketch the shadow that they want and create the clay sculpture accordingly. Then, they create a rubber mould around the clay using a special mould material. When the mould is dry, they can begin to cast the resin sculptures from it.

Resin casting is a common sculpture technique where a liquid, glue-like material is poured into a mould. The resin hardens to a dense solid and then the mould is simply pulled off. Bassam says, ‘After we do the casting, it’s never done. The pieces come out of the mould slightly duller than the original clay sculpture had been and they need to be touched up so that they cast a perfect, recognisable shadow.’

From start to finish, Bassam says the process takes about a week, but when they are casting from the mould, it can be done in one to two days. Although many of their sculptures are limited editions, they have also been accepting commissions. Bassam smiles, ‘We have been very busy lately,’ while Maysoon nods, her eyes widening in agreement.
From Dhs500. On display from now until August 2. Rosewood Abu Dhabi, Al Maryah Island (02 518 7124).

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