Budding Scholars

Budding Scholars

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In a speech delivered to workers in Wisconsin last year,  US President Barack Obama kindled a controversial debate on the value of an art history degree, and the liberal arts in general, when he “promise[d]… folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” I am studying art history and literature at NYUAD, but until the journalistic fallout from this comment, I had never thought about what statistical analyses predict I will earn after college: comparing my future salary to that of a trade worker was an especially novel and shocking exercise.

That is not to say my peers studying finance or engineering do not use my majors as the set-up for punch lines about living in my parents’ basement or serving veggie burgers. But, naive as it sounds, I had never seriously considered college as a place to do anything other than study what I love so that, eventually, I could do what I love.

The keyword in my last sentence is “eventually.” I think a liberal arts education — and the humanities in particular — provides the opportunity for students to discover what they want to spend most of their life thinking about. We stand to gain many tools from this model: critical thinking, accountability, quality, confidence, and professional connections, to name a few. But learning to think theoretically does not necessarily prepare students for job interviews or on-the-job requirements, a model that of course is not accidental. My theory is that the hope of NYUAD curriculum designers, including faculty and administration, is that students will turn into professional people, rather than people trained to work in particular professions.

Core curricula exemplify the attempts that liberal arts institutions make to balance or round out students’ educations, even as students feel increasing pressure to specialize in fields that will land them high-paying jobs. At NYU Abu Dhabi, the Core Curriculum is a selection of eight required courses that, as its website claims, helps students “probe basic questions about the meaning of life and our place in the world.” Students have restricted choice about which Core courses to take and typically only enroll because they need to tick off those requirements in order to graduate.

I wonder if students do not want to take Core classes because they are required (you say I have to, so I don’t want to) or if they are required because no students would take them otherwise. It strikes me that the courses that the university mandates for all students are the least practical: they are not introductory classes for specific disciplines, but are abstract by design. Students often express regret that their curricula are far removed from the everyday realities they expect in their futures. “I’m never going to have to do this in real life,” I’ve heard my friends say about dreaded “group project” assignments — despite their professors’ warnings that “the real world” is full of group work. Regardless of what our teachers say, this complaint nevertheless illustrates the relationship between the liberal arts university and its student bodies: students often want to go and do, and universities want them to sit and think.

Young adulthood might be the best place to start thinking about my place in the world. But as a young adult, I am also energetic; I want to go make my place in the world, not just think about it. Maybe an overly keen focus on doing what I love is why, as a third-year student, I sometimes feel restless in a classroom or dorm room, “ready” to enter the world and begin what I subconsciously see as my real life.

I wonder if it is a shortcoming of the liberal arts education that I am not particularly prepared to go do the things I love in a professional setting. Some of my peers bemoan the gap in academic and professional success they have experienced or anticipate, but I am tempted to think of my college education as a cultivation of malleability. An art history degree does not guarantee a high-paying job or even job security, with an unemployment rate for recent arts graduates well above the national average, but because it is translatable. After graduation, I can turn my art history or literature degree into a law degree or a job at a start-up bringing my big picture critical thinking skills to bear on specific situations. But those with skill-based backgrounds know their specialty very well may have difficulty applying that knowledge to other fields.

appiah-nyu-philThe liberal arts degree thus becomes an object circulating in a “rooted cosmopolitanism,” to use Kwame Anthony Appiah’s term. That is to say, while my education is rooted in the field of my major, I can use it to navigate the world and its possibilities; I am not less prepared to try my hand at various professional opportunities because I planted myself in the art historical or literary discipline. Rather, my rootedness in one area of specialty, combined with a desire to explore, provides the tools I need to relate to and communicate with the world.

My peers, parents, and President Obama may continue to worry for my future annual salary and employability; I worry for that, too. But I value my degree as a form of intellectual currency rather than a guarantor of any real form of currency. Studying to enter careers with a more reliable annual income, whether as a doctor or electrician, is comparable to receiving a cow instead of a license or diploma. You know that cow has a relatively stable value; you can trade that cow in for a predictable amount of money, maybe more if the conditions are right. But I feel like I will graduate with magic beans in my pocket, a risky but thrilling move. Who knows what fruit they will bear. I’m a believer in NYUAD’s cultivation of a rooted cosmopolitanism, and I trust that even if my beans are not magical, they will sprout.

Veronica Houk is a third-year student at NYU Abu Dhabi, majoring in literature and art history. She is currently studying at NYU Shanghai.

Next in our Roundtable: John Coughlin, a professor of law and religious studies at NYUAD, reflects on multidisciplinarity and global liberal arts education.

[Images: Barack Obama from politic365.com; Kwame Anthony Appiah from NYU Philosophy.]

Night Light

Night Light

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All photography by Jack Dickson.

When I walked into the NYUAD Project Space to meet Julie Stopper for a tour of her exhibition Night Light, I saw a group of students sprawled on the floor, huddled around a computer, giggling at the screen. Stopper was sitting pretzel-legged amongst them. “We’re watching Harry Potter fan fiction,” one of them explained, inviting me into their circle.

“I strive to contradict gallery etiquette,” Stopper, a self-proclaimed “millennial interdisciplinary installation artist,” told me on a walk-through of the exhibition.

What is gallery etiquette? I pondered as I walked throughout the space. After the walk-through, I was shocked to learn that a Google search of “gallery etiquette” yields 12,500,000 results. I had assumed that “gallery etiquette” described a mystical, unsaid set of expectations that circulated amongst art professionals and art-loving socialites, not a set of rules written for the whole world to see. One website lists “Behavioral Blunders for Artists” and “Behavioral Blunders for Everyone,” like talking to the artist for too long, wearing a backpack, or touching the art. Seeing individuals canonize what is not welcome at art events made me realize just how unfriendly “art” and art spaces can be for the public.

Night Light‘s installation rejects the white cube as a sterile template for art exhibition. The space felt immediately comfortable and inviting. Warmly lit by lamps resting directly on the floor, their bases wrapped with floral-patterned clothing, what is usually functional in exhibitions became sculptural forms with personality. “I hope for my work to be intriguing and accessible to a wide audience,” Stopper said to me, her voice conveying absolute sincerity.

 

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Night Light was inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote about creating dynamic characters, “Ah, to be both light and dark. There was something to be done,” which Stopper cites in her artist statement for the show. Beyond her exploration of literal light and dark space in the gallery, Stopper also writes that “what is truly beneath the skin of the exhibition is the exploration of a light and dark mental state.” Her interpretation of the show as an inner-body experience that sinks beyond the skin is intriguing: her works attempt to lure audience members’ focus away from surface level fixations and into another state or place. The vernacular of the exhibition– a mattress, torn bed sheets, a bed frame, women’s clothing– indicate the topics of sexuality and femininity, in a narrative not immediately obvious but necessitating a careful look.

Stopper walks me to an ironing board in the corner of the room and introduces “the wall text.” In reality, this is a cloth with the names of all of her collaborators — among sound artist João Menezes, contemporary dancer Nella Turkki, lighting designer Brooks Fowler, and curatorial director Cleo Smits, Stopper continues to list anyone “who had a hand in the installation process,” from the video technician to the poet-in-residence — handwritten in black ink. Stopper cites Pablo Neruda’s quote from his essay Poets of the People to explain her embrace of every collaborator as an artist: “I have always preferred a poetry where the fingerprints show.” (Stopper is a walking repository of artists’ quotes, and she peppered our conversation with inspiring words from visual artists, authors, and rappers with equal ease and conviction.) “What would happen to the art world if every single person involved in every exhibition got their name up on the wall?” she asked me. She did not wait for my answer, but her question was not rhetorical.

With this exhibition, Stopper addresses a simultaneous “claim and reclaim.” What is generally a universal commonplace material — the bedsheet — she claims as a material language in order to speak about issues of sexual violence and processes of trauma recovery. Along with this gesture of bringing this conversation into the commonplace, Stopper reclaims this material not as a language of “stain” in relation to “victims,” but rather a language of beauty and strength in relation to survivors.

Reminiscent of a domestic setting, the exhibition is broken up into three implied rooms. We moved from the ironing board to an upright bed frame, part of a piece entitled “a bedsheet used as a rag displayed as a work of art.” Stripped of its accouterments which make it immediately recognizable, this bed frame is also flipped from a passive, horizontal position to an active, upright stance. A twine web is woven into its ribs, its shadow looming clearly behind the standing frame. At the heart of the web’s shadow is a black blotch, seemingly the victim of a hungry spider. Looking at the sculptural form, I see that this dark patch is actually a white cloth, which dangles in front of the web rather freely. Torn from a bed sheet, the cloth is smudged with pink-red stains that recall blood. Stopper explains that this piece is where the material transformation of the bed sheet begins. It is the moment of trauma or “stain.” I immediately see references to Desdemona’s white handkerchief, spotted with red strawberries: a piece of cloth whose symbolic weight is constantly transformed by individuals’ imaginations.

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a bedsheet used as a rag displayed as a work of art

Next to the bedframe are pink-red sheets hanging from a pipe in the ceiling. These cloths are reminiscent both of ballerinas and aerial silk dancers, but more ominously, as hanged figures. Stopper pointed out that, in pop culture, ripped up bed sheets provide an escape for little girls who use their domestic tools to climb out of their windows. Walking through these cloths is like “escaping from the constricting cage of one’s past, to shed a layer of skin like a snake is to leave this superficial ‘stain’ of trauma behind.”

The space after this permeable wall represents Purgatory, Stopper says, “a room of healing.” Two spider sculptures, wrapped with bed sheets, sprawl their bandaged legs out. I was struck not only by their remedial appearance but also by their vulnerability and fragility. While their shadows, cast on the wall, appear ominous, seeing their actual sculpture evokes feelings of empathy. I can literally stand inside these spiders; somehow, I felt protected inside their gentleness. Their ability to show vulnerability was strengthening. Stopper explains that the stain we see on the rag in the first work is only surface level; in this space, we are invited “to recognize the ‘stain’ as a result of a wound, which when cared for properly will transform into a scar — a sign of survival, power, pride.”

These spiders are clear homages to Louise Bourgeois’ spiders, symbols of motherhood as well as protectors against evil in her oeuvre. Rather than bronze, Stopper’s sculptures are made of wire, wood, her own floral dresses, and wrapped in Stopper’s transformative vocabulary of the bed sheet. The motif of the spider, Stopper is discovering, is prevalent throughout cultures and times. Sheikha Al Mayassa Bint Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani points out in her foreword of Louise Bourgeois’ retrospective Conscious and Unconscious “In the Muslim world, you cannot look at the spider without thinking about the story of the spider in the Holy Qur’an and how it protected the Prophet Mohammed.” I suggest the spider as a nurturing, wise character in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, a cultural reference that saturates childhood in the United States. Using the spider is not a project in redefining the emblem as much as unearthing its history.

The last implied space is the biggest and most comfortable. One piece is entitled “a bedsheet used as ribbon displayed as work of art.” Stopper explains that the ribbon is a symbol of beauty, referring to her background of working in clay and her fascination with the Japanese ritual of repairing pottery with gold lacquer in order to emphasize the cracks and celebrate the piece for having been broken and put back together. For Stopper, a scar is a “beauty mark.”

 

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a bedsheet used as ribbon displayed as work of art

One of the most striking pieces in the show is also in this space: a mattress on the ground, white bed sheets thrown atop, and a tubular stitched duvet that looks like a shed snake skin to me but which Stopper explains is a siren, referring both to the mythological reference and to the literal meaning of an “alarm”. One of Stopper’s favorite moments from her show’s opening night was the execution of a performance piece by one of her collaborators who sat on the mattress and curled up with the siren, using it as a comforter. Not only does Stopper embrace this defiance of “proper,” timid gallery interaction, but she also felt this interaction further transformed the bed from a place of fear to a place of protection.

 

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As I traveled through the space, I realized that Stopper is ingeniously expanding the vocabulary of the mattress: by deconstructing its parts and focusing on each individually, using the bed frame, sheets, and pillowcases. The mattress piece immediately brings to mind Young British Artist Tracey Emin’s My Bed and Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz’s Carry That Weight senior thesis project and national campaign against sexual assault. Given NYU Abu Dhabi’s participation in the Carry That Weight campaign in October, in which students carried a mattress together across the High Line and around campus, the reference to Sulkowicz is well-known in our community. But this exhibition is part of a global conversation, Stopper says, and she has been working directly with the theme of empowerment through vulnerability and the conquering of fear since she began collaborating with Sofia Mish, contemporary poet, eleven months ago, well before she arrived as a Visual Arts Fellow on campus.

The grand goal of Stopper’s Night Light is to become exactly that — a night light. To illuminate the darkness with a glimmer of hope. To abolish the fear of the ominous monsters in our bedrooms. She hopes to fulfill Mary Karr’s notion of bringing the viewer or reader “into a community of like sufferers” through art. “There’s healing in that,” writes Karr, which gives the community “the conviction to live” their lives. The exhibition touches upon sexuality and trauma, but so much more than that: individual empowerment to live the lives we intend to lead. “Art is always about a community experience,” Stopper says, “and this shared experience is an empowering experience.” This statement applies to every aspect of the show: each collaborator joins a recognized artistic community, and the viewers enter a community dialogue about what, at its essence, is the human condition, for isn’t sleeping in a bed at night a universal human experience?

Night Light has also acted as a tool for her to meet new individuals in the community. “Art, for me, is abstract oxygen. Everyone breathes it whether they realize it or not. The art experience then becomes a meeting place, like the eye of the storm, a safe space for everyone to go,” Stopper says. For instance, through her exhibition, she entered conversations with the students planning Headspace: A Reading, a community-based performance about gender issues, sexuality, and women’s health in the NYUAD community that will be held on December 13.

If there’s one thing Stopper wants viewers to take away from the exhibition, she says, it is Mish’s poetry, which is literally available to take in a basket on the way out of the gallery. Small squares of paper say:

my beautiful little darlings,

Fear is an immobilizer.
We must not stand still.

bear hugs & butterfly kisses,
sofia

Taking one last look around the exhibition before I leave, I noticed how prevalent the motifs of bed sheets and spiders are to Stopper’s work. Stopper claims what some interpret as symbols of fear or nightmare and reasserts them as emancipating icons. What strikes me is how much Stopper herself embodies the wise, maternal spider. She creates a homely, safe space in an otherwise unwelcoming or intimidating white cube; she weaves a story and spins a web that connects her to students on campus, in New York, artists passed away, and new collaborators, like Sofia Mish.

 

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Night Light: an exploration of light and dark
NYUAD Project Gallery
November 20-December 2

December 1 Hours: 10am-3pm, 5pm-6pm
December 2 Hours: 10am-4pm

 

Eid Postcard Contest Winners

Eid Postcard Contest Winners

We asked community members who had traveled during the 2014 Eid al-Adha holiday to submit photos from their trips that would make good postcards. Here are our top submissions. Scroll down to find our winning three postcards:

 

Copy of AK1

Aiman Khurram, Those Who Don’t Jump.

“Those who don’t jump will never fly.”- Leena Ahmad Almashat

Arabian Adventures- Overnight Safari.

Eid ’14

 

 

Copy of FL1

Feline Paula Lange, Not the Occidental Way or The Three Graces. Saadiyat Public Beach, Abu Dhabi.

 

 

Copy of JD1

Jack Dickson, A Secret Retreat.

A secret retreat behind the concrete facade. Sofia, Bulgaria.

 

Copy of KT2

Khadija Toor, Bastakiya, Dubai.

 

Copy of SR2

Sam Ridgeway, Ocean View from the Corniche.

It’s funny, there’s a part of me that wishes I wasn’t here right now looking at this view, that I could be thousands of miles away next to you. Yet I also imagine you being here to see for yourself what I can only now capture with a broken iPhone.

The sun is setting over the Corniche and I’m knee deep in water. If you get low enough, the orange glow flows from the horizon and appears to kiss the crests of water. The sea is so calm; the only noise is of the water washing around my feet and children calling to their parents for attention. The sun seems to refuse to set and my mind wonders about how you are.

I wish you could see this right now.

 

The Winners

Congratulations to Feline Lange, Harshini Karunaratne, and Sam Ridgeway for submitting the top three postcard photos and messages, below, which will appear in the January print issue of Electra Street.

Moon Landing, Abu Dhabi Desert

Feline Paula Lange, Moon Landing. Abu Dhabi Desert.

 

Oryxes seen in Ras al Khaima

Harshini Karunaratne, Oryxes Seen in Ras al Khaima.

 

NYUAD Campus Interior

Sam Ridgeway, NYUAD Saadiyat Campus.

Dear Saadiyat,

It’s been difficult getting to know you. I know you have everything I need but I still hope for something more. You don’t feel like home for me yet and I think you’re a bit ugly on the outside. Yet, through my friends I see the beauty in you, Saadiyat. Whether it’s the peace one can find sitting at the amphitheater or the reflections from the glass creating a grandeur that I did not notice before.

Hopefully I will get to know you better and appreciate you fully.

— Sam

 

What Do Our Artists Say About Us?

What Do Our Artists Say About Us?

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Last summer, while interning at a contemporary art gallery in Manhattan, my boss assigned me the prestigious task of purchasing a jeroboam (a three liter bottle) of champagne for her friend’s birthday. When I called a local liquor store, they offered me not only a Jeff Koons edition of champagne for double the price, but also gift wrap printed with Koons’s “Balloon Dog,” which they generously provided free of charge. My coworkers were ecstatic at my find—this was the “perfect” gift from the gallery. It was expensive-looking, associated with class, and plastered in vogue artistic images. In short, it represented art.

Maneuvering throughout New York City last summer, monuments to one artist, Koons, were impossible to avoid. Window displays featured reproductions of his balloon animals, from tiny children’s toys to fine china sets with gold prints. The Whitney Museum curated Jeff Koons: A Retrospective (on view until October 19), for which queues of anxious museum-attendees wrapped around the block. Taking up all the museum’s exhibition spaces except for the fifth floor, a total of 27,000 square feet, the Koons exhibit is the biggest show the Whitney has ever devoted to a single artist. Advertisements plastered on bus stops and subway featured his name, two floating basketballs from his Equilibrium series forming the Os, and the motto, “a retrospective as extraordinary as his art.” Each morning, while waiting for the 7 train,  I wondered what that slogan said about this retrospective specifically. How can an exhibition be any less than the sum of its parts—and, if it can be, is that the bar to which we are holding our curators now?

The most public and publicized Koons display was at H&M on Fifth Avenue. The shop’s windows were plastered with two huge images of his Balloon Dog in celebration of the launch party for the limited edition handbags—“real leather”, bragged the labels— that featured a gold print of Koons’s iconic Balloon Dog. The original work, sold for $58.4 million, makes the handbags seem an incredible bargain at just under $50. At the “opening,” huge screens flashed the phrase “Fashion Loves Art” while Koons signed autographs from the second-floor balcony.

Like the recipient of the champagne birthday gift, today’s average arts and culture consumer is drunk on the day’s mandated hot artist. Receiving a jeroboam in the mail is an invitation to feel elite, socialize, and indulge. So is the opening of a huge Koons retrospective, or the ability to purchase an artist’s name via an affordable fashion brand: society is invited to experience artwork that is sold in the millions, for free or close to it. These moments provide portals into enriching cultures that might seem alien to us, but they should not be confused for culture themselves. Excess is not interchangeable for class or worth, humor for thoughtfulness, or pleasure for impulsiveness.

While I support the movement of arts into the lives of the average citizen, not just those working in the arts field, a monopolized imposition of one artist into every fact of our lives promotes a brand, not cultural integration. That any one artist could dominate the New York City artistic and commercial scene so comprehensively is troubling. In the city over the past several years, particularly over this summer, Koons has become a synecdoche for the contemporary art field. While he is notorious for serving the art market, arguably at the risk of intellectually challenging work, his quality of work is not under the microscope here: our reaction to the commercialization and advertisement of one monolithic art star is. The masses might not have made Koons’ career—gallerists, curators, and other art world magnates did—but we accept his mega-stardom, his eclipse of other artists, at the expense of a fertile, diversified artistic scene.
Society is smart enough to know the name of more than one artist. Koons may be “trending” now, but that is not a good enough reason for us to turn our gaze away from other emerging and established artists. If someone soars to hotness at a gallop, it is not unlikely that the quality of his or her work will not stand the test of time. Part of judging the quality of a piece of work is asking what its legacy will be—will this art be relevant in 100 years? If so, for which qualities will be it remembered—market performance or innovation, style, and content?

Blasé terms such as “extraordinary,” “interesting,” “avant-garde,” or the art world’s favorite, “record price,” do not enhance but rather provide crutches for more challenging critical thinking about works. If you are so inclined, go see the Koons retrospective at the Whitney, but take the time to also see the other exhibitions. Like the Koons show, Edward Hopper and Photography and Collecting Calder are on view until October 19 (if you have an NYU ID, you have free admission). My favorite game to play in galleries and museums is choosing which piece I would steal if I could (the owner could give it to you, but where’s the fun in that), regardless of financial value. Such an exercise forces you to engage in the works, think about living with a piece, and defending its worth to you to others.

To become responsible consumers of the arts, we need to improve our artistic tolerance. Connoisseurship does not need to be time intensive, only conscious. We do not need to travel to France to learn to drink champagne, but we will learn to better enjoy and talk about its sensual experience if we sample different brands in diverse company.

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The author (far right) and her coworkers at the Whitney.

Art in Review: XVA Gallery’s I Hate My Friends

Art in Review: XVA Gallery’s I Hate My Friends

XVA Gallery’s I Hate My Friends, an exhibition featuring works by five NYUAD students and curated by fourth-year student Grace Hauser, showed technical mastery, consistency in themes, and offered challenging explorations of what it means to live in the UAE

The show’s title “I Hate My Friends” sarcastically comments on the strong bonds between the curator and artists. Hauser says the title represents “the antithesis of the emotions surrounding the show.” She and five of her classmates — Shakhbout Al Kaabi, Nino Cricco, Charlotte de Bekker, Nikolai Kozak, and Agustina Zegers  — conceptualized the show last April and used Hauser’s mother gallery for their exhibit space.

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A student contemplating Nikolai Kozak’s series “Memory”

Much of the work centered around themes of memory and identity. These two subjects seem to intersect in the issue of place, a concern that seems connected to the fact that all the artists live in the UAE. For instance, in his artist’s statement, Nikolai Kozak writes that his work responds to his family’s migration from one ocean to another. In his photographs, a girl (his sister) is bound floral sheets in variously contorted poses. Given the shrouded location of the photo-shoot, which creates the possibility that she could be anywhere, the image suggests that Kozak appears to have separated himself from his family’s shared “mnemos.” Following his peripatetic ancestors, he himself has traveled overseas to the UAE, bringing evidence of his heritage but not much else.

Charlotte de Bekker’s multimedia work in “I See, I See What You Can’t” looks at the expatriate landscape of the country more explicitly. Having grown up in Ras al Khaimah, de Bekker counts herself among the 80% of the UAE’s population that are “visitors” to the country. Her photographs and photo-based collages, mounted as open magazines and photo books, confront the tensions she perceives between “Muslim modesty” and foreigners’ cultural tastes. In some works, for instance, the bodies of men and women on beaches are crossed out in permanent marker. In her artist’s statement, de Bekker writes that “I have only recently become sensitive to things like black marks in magazines — but this work is not a commentary on censorship.” Her work focuses on the consumption of media and popular culture by visitors or expatriates. As I study her photographs, media images themselves, they force me to confront my own role in cultural consumption and propagation as a guest in this country.

For anyone who has spent time in Abu Dhabi — even those of us who are visitors to the country ourselves — the subjects in Nino Cricco’s video installation are easily recognizable. “Walk Through” features the city’s expatriates who work in the construction and hospitality industries. Cricco’s wall-sized video projection features pedestrians walking in an underpass—because the footage takes place underground in tawny artificial light, it is difficult to know what time it is, or where we are, specifically. That these workers move underground, shadowy and almost phantasmic in their constant motion, allows viewers to draw their own conclusions about the nature of the commentary made by Cricco’s piece.

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Artist Nino Cricco with his video installation “Walk Through” at the I Hate My Friends opening

Agustina Zegers’ photographs provide perhaps the least conventional connection to the UAE as a site of identity in the exhibition. She photographed objects belonging to her father, who passed away two years ago, so the photos are as much as portraits as they are still-lifes. Because the objects are visibly worn, they tell a story about a life of their use.

“It is strange to have my first show in Dubai,” Zegers says. “The topic is so close to home and so personal, but I had to deal with a lot of my grief in the Emirates. For the last year of my life I’ve been physically very far from that [grief] but I’ve had to deal with it very often. It’s something that doesn’t leave your side.”

Zegers’ father was a painter. She owns only one of his paintings: a vertical canvas featuring one of his knives, which she has hung in her room in her home in Chile. “The photographs look so clean and professional, but in reality, I shot them in my bedroom,” she said in an interview. “My father’s painting of the knife was hanging right behind the knife, even in the same position, while I was photographing it.” It is perhaps an eerie coincidence, but more likely a testament to the emotion imbued in the print, that the first of Zegers’ photographs that sold was a portrait she photographed of this same knife.

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Agustina Zeger’s “Knife” still-life from her series “Firma del Padre”

 

Zegers attributes much of her artistic production to NYUAD. Both she and Shakhbout al Kaabi cite class with professor and professional photographer Tarek Al-Ghoussein as motivators and inspirations for their own work. “Tarek was the main reason I got into photography,” al Kaabi acknowledged in a conversation about his work.

In fact, Al-Ghoussein encouraged al Kaabi to participate in the Abu Dhabi Arts Festival competition in 2013, which he eventually won for his “An Overthrown Throne” photograph, included in I Hate My Friends. In addition to winning a cash prize, al Kaabi exhibited the image at Emirates Palace and gave a speech at the opening ceremony.  “An Overthrown Throne” makes no overt commentary, but Al Kaabi commented that this photograph references the political vacancies following the Arab Spring. “The people are fighting for the chair, for the power, but no one is sitting in it ultimately,” he says. An Emirati from the village of Muzera in the Dubai area, al Kaabi will join the military after graduation, but he says photography and art will always be his passion.

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Shakhbout al Kaabi’s “An Overthrown Throne”

 

Though al Kaabi’s success as a photographer is directly correlated to his classmates and professors at NYUAD, the shifting artistic landscape of the UAE also may have contributed to his interest in the arts. “The government is showing real interest in encouraging Emirati artists to show their work. They even give them financial support, and many sheikhs collect art,” al Kaabi says. Still, most of his family and friends outside of NYUAD are not engaging in the arts scene. “Most of the Emiratis I know are in the military or studying economics or science in other universities. …  But I know a few Emiratis, all females, who are studying visual art in university.” Mona Hauser, Grace’s mother and the founder of XVA, testifies to the rapid growth the UAE arts scene has experienced. She opened XVA in 2003, pioneering the role of the private gallery in the country. “You can’t say there was an art market at that time,” she states, “but now [the market] is completely international.”

It is clear that XVA contributes to the strength of the arts market in the UAE as much as the arts market has influenced the gallery. Mrs. Hauser suggests that XVA will open a second location in Abu Dhabi once they locate an appropriate gallery space. “XVA has evolved organically over the years,” she says, and she hopes that the concept will continue to grow to include more exhibition space and hotel rooms, art supplies, framing services, and an expansion of its existing artist-in-residency program.

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The artists and curator pose together at the opening. From left to right: Nino Cricco, Charlotte de Bekker, Grace Hauser,
Nikolai Kozak, Shakhbout al Kaabi, and Agustina Zegers.

 

Though people sometimes use the term “student show” derogatorily, the strength of the work in I Hate My Friends attests to the talent of the individual artists as well as the growing attention people are paying to the visual arts in the UAE. Whereas there were hardly any galleries in Dubai eleven years ago when XVA opened, today the UAE is not only attracting nascent artists, but inspiring and informing their works as well.

 

I Hate My Friends
Art by Shakhbout Al Kaabi, Nino Cricco, Charlotte de Bekker, Nikolai Kozak, and Agustina Zegers. Curated by Grace Hauser.
XVA Gallery
Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood
Dubai, UAE
Through October 9, 2014

[Photo credits: Jack Dickson]

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