Migration, Propaganda and Consciousness at Al Serkal

Upon a recent visit to Dubai’s Al Serkal Avenue for the opening of Bahraini artist Rashid Al Khalifa’s solo exhibition, one of a number of openings commencing the region’s art season, I wandered around the district and found myself drawn to quite a few of the exhibitions that were presented. Collectively, the galleries at Al Serkal have long had a reputation of showcasing the most innovative and unconventional shows in the UAE. Founded in 2007, the district adopted the warehouse conversion trend: galleries began leasing spaces in the industrial area of Al Quoz. Globally, this trend was spearheaded decades ago, by the artist’s need to occupy affordable studio space, a movement away from the commercial and unaffordable spaces in and around city centres. By Yasmin Sharabi

As artists developed these places, practising and thinking grounds appealing to a younger generation of trendsetters and innovators, this ensued in what we now identify as hipster hangouts and gentrified neighbourhoods. Oddly, but not unsurprisingly for Dubai, Al Serkal worked in reverse, immediately attracting the development of cutting-edge galleries, followed by vegan cafes, quirky design shops and most recently, an artist residency program. In many ways, this is indicative of the influence of the gallery world in Dubai, one that plays a crucial role in shaping a relatively young art scene and market in general. In this context, it is interesting to consider commonalities in concepts arising from a few of these leading spaces.

Hybrids, Rashid Al Khalifa’s first exhibition with Al Ayyam Gallery, presents a selection of work created between 2010 to 2017. Defined as ‘hybrids of painting and sculpture’, Ayyam’s selection aims to illustrate the progression of the circle in Rashid’s work, a form that served as a starting point for the artist but evolved to become a circular hole in the convex aluminium surface, in turn adding another spatial dimension. Beginning his career in 1960, Rashid is recognized as a pioneer of Bahrain’s art scene. A reputable artist, patron of the arts and avid collector, Rashid was the first president and currently honorary president of the Bahrain Art Society, one of the first art societies to establish itself in the GCC. He has long been an advocate for the support of the arts for the benefit of society in
general.

There is no doubt that a man of this stature would attract a crowd and visitors steadily strolled in, with hopes of capturing a moment with the artist. Through the buzz of whispers and chatter, I managed to grasp snippets from statements contemplating the show, ruminating over the space itself and whether or not the display was apt for such work: did the magnitude of the surrounding walls overwhelm the stature of these pieces? I have seen these works before, iconic and robust, somehow slighter within this immense and vast warehouse. And yet, their presence remained the same. In fact, the space that surrounded them allowed for an even deeper sense of contemplation. ‘That reminds me of a game I used to play as a child’, I overheard someone utter about a work from Rashid’s ‘Shape of Time’ series, a piece adorned with a pattern of coloured circular forms partially excised through the foreground. Although I hadn’t considered the playfulness of these images at all, but such is the beauty of Rashid’s work. Ambiguous and inherent of a deep sense of mystery, I always imagined them to be varying states of consciousness, meditations of an artist in his movement towards minimalism. Face to face with a particular work from his ‘Into a Different Dimension’ series, one could attempt to analyze the surface, searching for matter-out-of-place on the smooth immaculate facade, but to no avail. A circular hole perfectly centres the stoic grey exterior and floats above the backing, creating an elliptical shadow on the white space below. Cosmic in form but also, in essence, one could describe this piece as the way one imagines space would sound: pure and unadulterated. And it is through his exploration of physical space that Rashid imparts his quest towards his truth, uninfluenced by trends or art-world expectations.

 

Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde’s (Un)conscious: A Series of Small Serendipities, showcases five artists, Abdelkader Benchamma (Mazamet/ Paris), Vikram Dicheva ( Beirut / Mumbai), Mohammed Kazem (Dubai), Ahmad Amin Nazar (Iran) and Hassan Sharif (1951-2016) as they ‘apprehend the irreconcilable dichotomy of existence encompassing the separation between the spirit and the body, essence and appearance’. We are told that they also developed a ‘third’ reality that ‘challenges the common idea of mutual exclusiveness of chance and determinism’. To put it simply, these artists visually explore the ‘space’ of the unconscious mind.
Abdelkader Benchamma’s cave drawings consider the archetypal image of a cave as a representation of a mystical world of ‘ideas and forms’. Benchamma is typically inspired by visual scenarios and often considers the limits of space, shifting realities and zones of contact with mental space. In this particular exhibition, Benchamma’s drawings depict the sense of time and space as lost. The forms in his images echo an ambiguity in terms of perception- are these enlarged images of details of tiny objects- like matter amplified through a lens? Or are they vast rocky landscapes from a time unknown? Rather they exist as one and the same, dissolving the line between the infinite and finite, demonstrating that our awareness of space and time is formed by manmade limitations and measurements.

Abdelkader Benchamma’s Cave- Unreachable (2017), Ink on Paper, 57 x 77 cm

Hassan Sharif’s
Copper No 32 (2015), Copper wire, 315 x 75 x 70 cm

Hasan Sharif’s drawings with ‘Rope’ are often the result of two hands- one being the alter ego of the female artist, resulting in nest-like weavings, cocoons of form and protective shells appearing to envelop a form within. In Vikram Dicheva’s work, lines are delicately sliced through paper, allowing the work to warp and form, letting matter express itself. What one can see throughout this exhibition is these artist’s desire to depict repetition of the unconscious mind through gesture, form, technique and materials. They neither resist nor fully command the outcome but rather revert to a primitive, elemental state of mind.

 

The text for Green Art Gallery’s ‘Instrumentalized’, the second solo show of Venezuelan-Italian-Lebanese-artist Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck, is an apt companion to the exhibition, candidly stating that it functions as a means to ‘create value to the works on display’. The language helps the viewer ‘unlock’ the artworks meaning, whether when viewing Chronoscope 1952-3 (2017) which consists of edited broadcast footage from CBS’s Longines-sponsored public affairs show from the early years of television, or upon observation of the works on display around the gallery. In a sense, the text acts as a mediator, a piece of artwork in itself.

Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck’s
Chronoscope 1952 Or 1953, 11pm

Despite being aware of the US’s longstanding strategy of propagandizing foreign policy, sitting on a lone couch in the middle of an empty space, listening to the topics discussed on Chronoscope whilst observing the black and white footage, is indeed somewhat compelling, the curiosity of the macabre, a guilty pleasure. The rhetoric hasn’t changed, the terminology the same and listening to a former British Minister of State, Selwyn Lloyd interviewed by an American CBS presenter as they churn out their reiterated ‘concerns’ with the ‘Arab world’, is like revisiting a nightmarish dream, the kind you wake up from but then realize is real. In a separate room, paired with this broken record pomposity, are used clothes, displayed to behave like paintings and sculptures. The somber atmosphere that their collective presents, begs us to consider the questions that surround them. After viewing Chronoscope, why do these pieces automatically call to mind loss, hardship or the aftermath of destruction? Perhaps what the exhibition tells us is how our judgment develops based on preconceived notions- our minds can never be free of influence and our understanding develops depending on our experiences. It is only when we come to this realization that we begin to truly raise our consciousness toward collective evolution.

 

Lawrie Shabibi’s ‘Gallery Takeover’ by Gallery 1957 from Accra Ghana, is the first of its kind in the Middle East, whereby it invited a younger gallery to develop its program internationally through the pooling of resources. Presenting artist Serge Attukwei Clottey, the exhibition featured pastel drawings on paper- inspired by African tribal sculpture, which greatly inspired the Cubist movement. Wall-based sculptures that resembled weavings made from yellow gallon containers represent Clottey’s coining of the term ‘Afrogallonism’ a concept that challenges the question of material culture through the employment of these containers. A video installation entitled ‘The Displaced’ represents the trade and migration story of the Clottey family. “Sharing our space with another gallery for a period of time is experimental. It’s exciting for us and the local audience who will be presented with something fresh”, says Asmaa Al Shabibi, co-director of Lawrie Shabibi. “Next year we aim to expand this into the whole Dubai gallery community, inviting other international galleries into local spaces.”

Serge Attukwei Clottey’s
Social Experiment (2017)