It’s not often we see a collection of solely Emirati artists in Dubai’s galleries. But to give Elementa its dues, it is one of the few galleries in the city that has really pushed local contemporary artists.
Late last year, the gallery hosted Beyond Conventions, a collection of emerging and student artists working in the UAE. Now, under the guest curatorial thrust of local art collective The Flying House’s Mohammed Kazem, Elementa is displaying works by 10 local artists, many of whom are still in university.
Talking to Kazem about his vision for the show, Re-Source, he’s forthright about the lack of exposure for the UAE’s young artists: ‘Most of the galleries in Dubai are focusing on commercial works and they’re just not showing Emiratis.’ He talks about the mentorship that came from the ‘first generation’ of artists (who emerged around the time of the advent of the UAE, 37 years ago) to his own ‘second generation’ in the 80s, and explains that it’s now their role to provide guidance for emerging talent. ‘We have to teach them, advise them where they should go. This new generation is only focusing on making art, but understanding the policies around art is a very significant part. We can help them with that. As an artist now you have to know where the curators are and how to work with them.’
Kazem puts a great deal of weight on the importance of this relationship between curators and artists. He’s also keen to stress how this interaction has been overlooked in priming the new generation of Emirati talent. Long involved with the Sharjah Biennial, he explains that the event (once the sole major platform for Emiratis to display their work) took 10 years to develop into its modern incarnation. Major changes in how curators related to the show were a vital development, he says, and is something that Kazem feels should be heeded more by the UAE’s art contingent.
He mentions a current show of Emirati artists in Abu Dhabi to illustrate his point: ‘The curator did not visit any artists to select the art, they sent an email invitation for everyone to send their works. An exhibition is not just about showing works, artists may have a good idea and a good concept, but they need to meet with curators and develop. It’s the same mistakes that the Sharjah Biennial made.’
Re-Source features works by, among others, Lateefa bint Maktoum, Maitha Huraiz (who curated Elementa’s previous Emirati show), Kholoud Sharafi and a complex, seemingly Cubist-inspired piece by Abdul-Rahman Al Ma’aini. Kazem explains that Al Ma’aini, a Flying House artist and originally from Khasab in the Musandam, had no idea about Cubism when he painted this work. ‘He lives in a place where there is no colour, and yet he creates works like these. If you go to that area you will see this style of painting on the doors of the houses there, it’s tied up with local mythologies.’
Kazem says that the workshops and meetings with the artists around this exhibition had to consist purely of guidance and not be aimed at affecting the artists’ works directly. A clear balance must be struck, says Kazem, in curator-artist relationships, to avoid too heavy-handed an influence: ‘We have to be very careful, it’s too dangerous to start affecting an artist’s work. You should just show them a direction. They each have their own way of thinking.’
As we stroll through the exhibition, Kazem points out works by Layla Juma, who has assembled a range of photographs taken of ‘sculptures’ that the artist has created by chewing pieces of gum. These works, initially repulsive, begin to morph the longer we stare. Juma has used varying tones as a backdrop for each of the shots and the material begins to look like smooth, sculpted marble in front of these colours. Human forms emerge: look closely and a figure can be seen collapsing to its knees with arms dropping in half-despair.
Where Kazem’s curatorial expertise can be praised is in his ability to find a number of artists that contain a strong conceptualism in their work. It can be seen in Juma’s chewing gum, the photomanipulations of Lateefa bint Maktoum and the stacked, haphazardly painted TVs of Hind bin Demaithan – artists who are thinking conceptually about their medium. Kazem seems to suggest that this for him is a mark of contemporary practice.
But the show does still feel like a disparate collection of artists. From what he has said, Kazem seems to understand the importance of curatorial influence in developing both artists and exhibitions, but he doesn’t really seem to have brought that to bear here. What we need to see now is Emirati artists curated with a direction that goes beyond simply offering them exposure.
Thanks to the work done by the likes of Elementa, The Flying House and the Sharjah Biennial we’re well aware that Emirati artists are out there, what we need now is to see them in a show that tackles their collective ideas. It’s good to see how the ‘third’ generation are thinking, but the time for mere exposure has passed. We now need to glimpse an exchange of ideas that only comes with a clear curatorial direction that this show, for all its merits, is unfortunately missing.
Elementa (04 299 0064), Dubai Airport Free Zone. Until March 5.