My friend looked on, aghast, as oil spilled down my shirt.
One second earlier, I had bitten down into, quite simply, the greasiest sandwich I have ever eaten, purchased for the equivalent of 12 US dollars from an operation calling itself The Cheese Truck. The oil poured from a molten block of English cheddar the size of a day planner, mingled with butter from the griddle. And then there was the truffle oil, literal puddles of it, which I had ordered on a whim for an additional ten dirhams. I was eating a fat sandwich, fried in fat, with more fat injected into its belly. But I once heard truffle oil is actually a “good fat,” and anyway, you can’t not order the truffle oil when you’re at the Love Food Festival.
Described on its website as “a celebration of extraordinary food,” the Love Food Festival could be construed as a more refined and self-conscious version of a county fair. Over the course of a mid-February weekend, a plot of turf in pristine Mushrif Park is filled with tents, kiosks, bandstands, demo stages, and “15 of the best street food traders from the streets of London,” trucks and all.
Yes, they literally transported 15 food trucks from London to the UAE. It’s fun to imagine that the trucks drove here through the Balkans, or that they floated lazily through the Suez Canal. Perhaps they went around the Cape of Good Hope. But why would you ship 15 food trucks 3500 miles in order to park them, immobile, in an open field?
The festival is put on by a company that has organized similar events across the UK since 2008, though the Abu Dhabi arm is in its second year. 38,000 people visited the inaugural round of UAE festivals and, if I were to guess, I would say there were 38,000 people there the day I visited this year. I was excited to check it out – in my 18th month of living in Abu Dhabi, I was in a bit of a food rut. I had recently (re)discovered a love for cooking and eating, a realization quite in opposition to my growing feeling that all food in Abu Dhabi tasted the same. The prospect of food trucks (“From London! They have a real food scene there!”) appealed to the vaguely elitist, bougie, West-Coast-USA part of me that was succumbing to food ennui. I chose to see this festival not as a one-off “cultural event,” the type of which come and go in Abu Dhabi all the time, but rather as a harbinger of good things to come. An indication that the people of Abu Dhabi – all 38,000 of them – were hungry for an enjoyable eating experience, an innovative culinary scene, and more creative, varied options for reasonably priced food.
The Fruit and Vegetable Souk at Mina Port (photograph by the author)
In some ways, the restaurant options in Abu Dhabi run parallel to the city’s demographics. There is no lack of good food here, of course. And most of it you can purchase for less than 20 dirhams. South Asian, Levant, Khaleeji, and East African food is plentiful and almost universally delicious – or, at least, well worth the very modest price. Swing the pendulum to the other extreme, and you get the bedazzled and boozy “fine dining” establishments in the beach resorts and high-rise hotels frequented by wealthy tourists. Almost none of these spectacles can offer particularly great food or ambiance (minimalism is not a strong suit in Abu Dhabi restaurant design), and even those that do serve skillful haute cuisine are not worth the money (the exception being Zuma, which is the best restaurant in the city). Of course, most cities have their fair share of not-worth-the-money fancy restaurants – these suspicions are occasionally, gloriously confirmed by scathing NYT reviews such as the recent Per Se debacle – but their foodie reputations don’t rest on tasting menus and wine pairings. Cities stretch their culinary legs smack in the middle of the $-$$ section of Yelp, Zomato, and Tripadvisor.
As I wander around the food festival, peanut oil mist beginning to hang in the air like airport-closing fog, I reflect on the many personal biases that play into my attitude about food in this city. I have tastes that are totally dictated by my background, my hometown, even my parents (who basically thought meat was frivolous, a deprivation that I have been making up for with a lot of steak every since I moved out of the house). I have some small amount of disposable income that I can devote to eating for pleasure and intellectual curiosity, rather than just needing to fill my stomach. And when I talk about food, about cuisine, I’m thinking on a more conceptual or categorical level than just “things we eat.” I’ve never been an artist, but food is like art for me. I can look at and swish around and prod at and slurp on a plate of food the way that some people interact with a painting or a performance. And I suppose cuisine, in the way I’m envisioning it, is a performance. Someone creates something new, exciting, and thought-provoking…and then it’s gone, and won’t happen quite the same way again. But whoever saw it happen might be inspired by it, try to replicate it, and make something new themselves.
Some things are constant, comforting. I go to a place like Foodlands because it offers stability – the man at the counter will reliably give you a couple falafel while you wait, and your shawarma will be spicy and creamy every time. I don’t expect them to do a “deconstructed shawarma with uni and gold leaf,” and I don’t want that – that sounds lame. But for a person who thinks about food as a stimulating, literally and metaphorically nourishing part of life, even shawarma stops being inspiring if you eat it every day. It’s a sad place to be in your life when you start to get sick of shawarma, but I’m only human. And the so-called “fine dining” in Abu Dhabi simply doesn’t offer a better alternative.
Abu Dhabi is putting a lot of effort into defining itself as a cultural hub, a place where the local and global interact to produce expressive, international, boundary-blurring innovation. Whether or not that is happening is food for another essay. But to me, it seems that developing “food culture” should be an obvious part of this type of “development” and “redefining” and “global positioning.” To say Abu Dhabi has no food culture is, of course, absurd. Tell that to the naan guy with the tandoor behind the dry cleaners! So how do I define the gap I’m identifying without using my Western upbringing as the backbone of my argument? What does it mean that I saw a glimmer of hope in a festival modeled on others from Britain, of all places? The best I can say is that Abu Dhabi has a lot of room for thoughtful, intentional, accessible, reasonably-priced food. And, judging by this year’s Love Food Festival, there is a lot of demand.
And, judging by this year’s Love Food Festival, it seems to be a rule that food trucks must incorporate wordplay into their names. Bangwok. Crabbie Shack. Hip Pops. I suppose they are trying to lure us to the window, where the man in the cycling cap will be reliably sardonic and grumpily flirtatious. The “funny names” trend sets a very grim tone, however, when you have purchased a sad and overpriced meal that has been cooked in a bright yellow motor vehicle emblazoned with the words Fried Egg, I’m in Love. (I only use this food truck as an example because of the striking ridiculousness of their pun – this Portland staple actually has excellent food and I endorse them wholeheartedly).
Questionable marketing practices aside, as you walk around the festival grounds you see people truly enjoying themselves. For every British hipster food truck, there’s a local restaurant getting in on the fun. The whole enclosure is filled with a muffled buzz of “ooh”s, “oh!”s, and near-explicit “unngggh”s. Emiratis, expats, tourists, pre-teens, and families line up for Moti Roti. A pair of local mothers, their children playing with the nanny, watch intently as a Food Network Arabia star shows them how to use up their wilting spinach in a coconut noodle sauce. And the food is pretty good! A sushi burrito, a bagel burger, a bread bowl of biryani. Amongst the overwhelming crowds, between the hastily-erected pavilions, under the piles of soiled paper plates, through the muffled dubstep emanating from the halfhearted DJ’s laptop, I see the hint of an emerging culture of food that values unique, whole, thoughtful, reasonably priced foods of all kinds.
So, I get on board and buy the grilled cheese sandwich. The oil drips onto my shirt. Yes, it’s indulgent in a particularly Abu Dhabi way. But it’s playful. It’s make-able at home, though maybe a bit better for being slung from a truck by a man with full sleeve tattoos.
Of course, there are a lot of lingering questions. How does this type of food become a more reliable part of Abu Dhabi’s urban fabric? Is it so easy for a city to simply change its thinking around cooking and eating? Is there a way to do that responsibly? Moreover, who am I to impose my values on this adopted city of mine? How are we defining “creativity” and “good cuisine”? Is this simply a matter of adding more food trucks, or is there something deeper at play? Is this even important? Who would actually benefit from all this?
I don’t know the answers. The more I think about it, the more questions I have. And yet, I see Abu Dhabi (whatever and whoever that means – and probably only some of it, the part that I can see) becoming more interested in the things that create a culture of culinary experimentation. Perhaps people are thinking less about consuming, and more about producing, embracing, savoring, innovating, and making food local. And we are creating spaces for eating that are built around community, inquiry, and pride in the people who love their food and the flavors they bring to the table. And, because it’s Abu Dhabi, we pay 40AED just to get in the door of the food festival. If there is a shift in the food scene, and it’s not just my imagination, that will come with all the pitfalls and tensions of any other scene that purports to refine and enhance a place’s culture. But, judging from the Love Food Festival, it’s happening — and it’s oily, and messy, and delicious.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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,
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.
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
Approximately one year ago, at the beginning of my freshman year at college, I was required to attend an NYUAD Institute talk about coral reefs made out of crochet. In all honesty, I wasn’t entirely keen – I felt typical teenage angst at “being forced to attend an event by an authority figure” and I complained about my forced attendance throughout the bus ride to the Intercontinental Hotel auditorium. Much to my surprise, all of my complaining was ultimately overpowered. The flawless combination of mathematical and artistic calculations that Margaret Wertheim, one of the two sister artists, presented in a slideshow captivated me. I had never encountered such an elegant and creative approach to cold, raw science.
The Crochet Coral Reef project started nine years ago, when the Wertheim sisters were watching television and experimenting with various forms of crochet. Margaret claims that her sister Christin said, “we could crochet a whole coral reef.” The rest is, as they say, history. This community project, guided by the Wertheim’s Los Angeles-based Institute for Figuring, has spread to over thirty cities in attempts to create consciousness about what’s happening to coral reefs. Global warming, pollution, and general neglect has created an environmental tragedy that puts the fragile ecosystems of coral reefs all over the world under increasing strain. Over seven thousand people have crocheted their own coral reefs to support the project. Many of these individuals may have been intimidated by the scientific goals of the project, but the creative nature of the Crochet Coral Reef project has involved people from all walks of life.
For the past year, the NYUAD Institute, guided by Pamela Mandich, coordinated crochet workshops that taught people from NYUAD and elsewhere about hyperbolic geometry (an alternative to the more standard Euclidian geometry taught in schools), crochet, and coral reefs, under the tutelage of Margaret and her sister. Once individuals learned the basic crochet stitch, their imaginations were the only limit.
An entire year of crocheting and imagining has culminated in the grand opening of the exhibition in the university’s new Saadiyat island campus. The Satellite Reef features a beautiful and intricate system of seven standalone islands created by members of the wider Abu Dhabi community, complemented in the exhibition by some of the Wertheim sisters’ own work. This satellite coral reef is the first in the Gulf region and it uniquely assimilates and reflects its host country’s culture. For one, the seven islands each represent a separate emirate, and Emiratis, expats, adults, children, residents and visitors alike have collaborated to create them. Curiously, the process to create our satellite reef has been similar to the biological phenomenon that forms natural coral reefs. Most significantly, each island’s understructure is made out of traditional hand-crafted Emirati fishing pots. Amongst turtles, corals and starfish, the NYU Abu Dhabi satellite reef boasts the region-specific gleam– glistening threads in flashy metallic tones, lively color choices and knitted wildlife join together to form a surprising, and beautiful, piece of art.
During the grand opening of the exhibition, Abu Dhabi’s dynamic and diverse community joined together to celebrate their communal accomplishment. Faculty, staff and students of the university and members of the wider Abu Dhabi community mingled amongst coral-themed accessory choices – crochet coral pins and crochet head-dresses, amongst others – and admired the community’s work. Both Christine and Margaret were present at the opening, chatting with the various contributors to the project and talking about their own pieces at the exhibition.
Finally being able to see the product of what started off as a course-mandatory institute event, I was thrilled to see not only the art itself, but also the mixture of people who were part of the process. The halls of the university’s Arts and Humanities building were buzzing with life during the event, as contributors from all sections of Abu Dhabi gleamed at the outcome of their work. One reef at a time, we begin to stitch together a community in our new and permanent home.
The exhibition will continue through December in New York University Abu Dhabi’s Arts and Humanities building and is free for anyone to visit.
For more information about the project, you can access the University’s page on the satellite reef here and the Wertheim sisters’ Crochet Coral Reef project here.
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.
The author (far right) and her coworkers at the Whitney.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood
Through October 9, 2014
[Photo credits: Jack Dickson]
The Qasr al Hosn Festival was a ten-day community exhibition organized by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority and held at the site of fort Qasr al Hosn, the city’s oldest building. Celebrating the history of the fort—which was built in 1761 and later became the ancestral home of the ruling Al Nahyan family—and the heritage of the Emirates following from this iconic structure, the festival boasts many pieces of material culture: traditional objects, structures, foods, and animals.
Perhaps the most prevalent, and the most puzzling, however, were the scores of people who have been appointed to work as the festival’s “cast.” While groups of festivalgoers wandered the old-timey souks, traced circles in the sand atop well-groomed horses and camels, and queued up for theatrical presentations, the cast of Qasr al Hosn performed. Some seemed in another world, focused solely on their handicrafts—among others, two men build a large dhow ship with resinous nails while a third carves palm wood into pieces for a smaller fishing boat; women in leather burkhas wove baskets and carpets with their skillful, henna-blackened fingers; and a group of fisherman sat in a circle, singing old Arabic sea shanties around a pile of wicker fishing nets. Not far away was a full bridal house, complete with a traditional Emirati “bride” and a gaggle of young bridesmaids, dancers with colorful dresses and hair that reached to the center of their backs. Young Emirati men, decked out in old policemen’s uniforms with heavy fake rifles and dusty brown keffiyeh, strolled the festival grounds. These cast members were consciously assembled, like objects in a museum, to both create and communicate a sense of Abu Dhabi’s material cultural heritage, grown from the white washed walls of the old stone fort.
Part of this distinction between person and object—even human “objects”—has to do with the other roles that people fulfill at the festival. Not everyone became an object. Each participant wore an identification tag with one of three distinctions—“Volunteer,” “Event Staff,” or “Cast.” While the cast was responsible for representing traditions of Emirati culture through certain kinds of performance (weaving, singing, crafting, storytelling, simply looking traditional), it was the staff and volunteers who interacted with the festival’s ticketholders. As I entered the festival, I was soon greeted by a young Emirati teen with a red and green armband from Takatof, a volunteer organization in the UAE. This young man, and later a group of knowledgeable high school–age Emirati girls, showed me around the various stalls, booths, and craft areas, explaining each tableau we approached—who the people inside were, what they were doing or making, and how the objects around them functioned.
Contributing to the need for mediation was the language barrier; if I spoke Arabic, I would have been able to understand the stories of the old marine storyteller. But as festival photographers snapped shots of men playing the rababa or building a dhow ship, it was easy to see that these performers were aware of their role as a spectacle of national tradition. Emphasizing this fact were the QR codes placed next to each “scene,” giving smart phone users easy access to these explanations without human contact—in most cases, one was not even required to step inside a building, much less speak to the people inside the tableaux. It was as if observers were expected to treat the cast merely as pieces in a museum, and each exhibit was carefully crafted to put us in the position of passive observers.
Some cast members were hired because of the skills they have—skills that were once an integral part of Emirati life and are now regarded as “artifacts.” The elderly fishermen, for example, weaving fishnets and drying fish in the marine area of the festival, once fed the Emirati community, and now they are “objects” used to demonstrate a historic method of subsistence. As we passed through the souk area, I saw plastic packets of dried fish at one booth, sold by a fresh-faced young Emirati man in national dress. The dried fish was once a staple of the Emirati diet, the souk vendor told me, explaining the various types of fish and their prices. As such, the fishermen would have been active participants in the economy of everyday food production. Now these men only represent daily life; they illustrate elements of Emirati culture that the Emirati girls who showed me around have never experienced. At another booth, vendors sold brightly colored woven cell phone covers. These, I saw later, were also created at the festival, this time by women weaving on a traditional loom. The fishermen and weavers were carefully chosen aspects of the past that my Emirati guides don’t actually remember—their daily lives are presumably not “traditional” enough to be displayed at the festival. So these products, the dried fish and iPhone accouterments, are tools used to remember the past while also repackaging it—literally—to serve the interests of the present.
The traditional Emirati policeman was another kind of human object. Unlike most of the other cast members, these men were mobile, found not only near the model of the police station, but also wandering the festival areas, fake rifles slung across their khaki-clad shoulders. Their minty green and dark maroon Land Rovers were interspersed throughout the heritage site in every area but the marine section, reminding us that the Qasr al Hosn was initially a watchtower and a fortress. The old-style policemen were not too far removed from today’s policemen, and while I don’t think these actors were cast to actually police the festival, they function as crowd control simply by playing the part. By patrolling the festival like policemen would have done, and by placing their trucks in the midst of the crowds, these “police” became objects that both represented order and created order. Just the presence of these men as objects was enough to create a sense of culture that not only represents what is historical, but reinforces present structures.
Using these people—the cast—as objects of material culture helps to serve the interests of the present but may also distort the image of a not so distant past. Actors in other historical reenactments—like Fort Ticonderoga, Jamestown, or Gettysburg, in the United States—are employed to make history come alive for a population that has no first-hand memory or experience of it. Visitors are led among historic rooms containing historic chairs upholstered with historic fabrics, encouraged to try their hand at historic techniques like churning butter, and entertained by performances of historic practices or events. It’s fun to plunge into the past, drawing parallels and comparisons between your life and the ones enacted by the cast with the knowledge that, unlike the American settlers, you can drive home in an air-conditioned car. In contrast, objects at the Qasr al Hosn festival were presented as “historic,” but the history in this case is so recent that it has living subjects—some of the festival’s fishermen are actually fishermen, rababa players actually play the rababa, and traditional coffee is still drunk from traditional coffee pots. This presentation of history, still remembered by some, is different than a 2013 reenactment of the American Revolution because here in Abu Dhabi, we are not looking at the past from a vantage point 250 years in the future. The people and practices showcased at the festival are part of the Emirati heritage, and part of a culture that can not and should not yet be relegated to a dusty box in the attic, or the quaint observations of the historically minded tourist. The Qasr festival put people on display to offer snapshots of a not-too-distant history and remind us of the need to remember the roots of a culture. In doing so, however, it raises the question: do these human “heritage objects” bring the past closer to us, or push it further away?