Past Forward: Contemporary Art from the United Arab Emirates is a national traveling show of multimedia works that makes its North Texas stop at Artspace 111. The exhibit is immediately notable for what it lacks — any obvious references to the Muslim faith encoded as a state religion in the United Arab Emirates’ law books. The UAE is a Persian Gulf nation that earned official independence from Britain in 1971. Seven emirates, or principalities, make up the UAE, including Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah. Co-presented by the emirates’ embassy in the United States, Past Forward is designed to highlight both the UAE’s thriving economy and its diverse visual arts scene. As a result, the overarching themes on display — consumerism, national identity, the clash between tradition and modernity — are mostly secular rather than religious. These wonderful works could be seen as part of a charm offensive to the United States, highlighting the complex contemporary reality of the UAE while skirting the human-rights issues related to the country’s treatment of women and gay people.
Illustrator Salama Nasib’s black-and-white print “Bu Daryah” is among the most immediately striking works: a stylized four-panel depiction of a fishing boat set spectacularly aflame by a jinni, a powerful and mercurial spirit said in local mythology to haunt the Persian Gulf and bedevil fishermen trying to make their living. With precise and vivid lines, the jinni –– a buff, bearded giant with menacingly empty eyes –– rises out of the sea with terrifying confidence. The picture makes you hope someone gives this dude his own graphic novel, either here in the West or in the UAE.
The show’s large silver centipede-like sculpture also quickly grabs your attention. Part of Mohammed Al Qassab’s Aluminum Life series, this creepy insectoid, made of the metal that is a big industry in the UAE, crouches low to the ground with antennae curled up inquisitively over its head and many narrow, spiked legs gripping the floor. Al Qassab made the creature from discarded aluminum objects, partly to remind people of the historical preciousness of the material to the traditional livelihoods of many UAE citizens.
The digitally manipulated photographs by Ammar Al Attar are dynamic, especially his colorful, kinetic “Fish Market.” Fresh fish for sale lie strewn in rows on the concrete floor, with wheelbarrows and other items positioned nearby. The buyers and sellers, though, are rendered as ghostly blurs of motion conducting their business around the commercial wares. People come and go in a frenzy of daily activity, but food remains a constant in Dubai, Al Attar seems to be saying.
Performance artist Ebitsam AbdulAziz is featured in her own five-minute video loop Autobiography, which manages to be both funny and unnerving. The artist dressed herself in a head-to-foot black body stocking covered with bright green numerals culled directly from her own bank statements. She is filmed milling around casually in public –– shopping for produce, watching a video monitor at the airport, strolling through public squares, standing on street corners. Her fellow citizens of the Sharjah emirate stare uncomprehendingly at her, trying but failing to ignore her. AbdulAziz’ statement, of course, is that we are all merely the sum of our digital consumer information. The explosion in the UAE of trade technology and urban real estate in just the last couple of decades renders AbdulAziz’ cheeky stunt as a particularly dire warning.
Whether you know anything about the UAE in particular or Persian Gulf culture in general, Past Forward offers a visually arresting feast of shapes and ideas that ultimately transcend borders. But since this touring show is an explicit diplomatic gesture to the West, similarly political responses would seem reasonable — should any viewers wish to take the Emirati ambassador to task for his country’s human-rights abuses as related to the jailings and other punishments of women and gay folks for essentially being who they are.
Past Forward: Contemporary Art from the United Arab Emirates
Thru Nov 29 at Artspace 111, 111 Hampton St, FW. Free.