The cartoonised face of Ahmed Mater’s Yellow Cow smiled down upon audiences at this year’s Abu Dhabi Art as part of one of the curated exhibitions inside the fair. Curated by Athr Gallery as a response to the bestseller Letters To A Young Muslim, the exhibition brought together works by Emirati and Saudi artists addressing questions of identity, language and belonging in a cultural landscape at once singularly Khaleeji and at the same time operating under deep-seated Western influences.
Yellow Cow is an ongoing project that places one of the stories at the heart of the Quran (the yellow cow) into contemporary consumer society. The project has been realised as a film, a shop installation, a brand and a series of products all working on the basis that the modern-day viewer has an innate reaction to the language of branding and advertising, no matter what their cultural background. Mater was one of 31 artists selected for the exhibition, each offering some kind of response to the book written by HE Omar Saif Ghobash, the UAE’s Ambassador to France, as a series of letters to his young son.
Mater’s is a pertinent work because it fuses East and West in a way that is almost indivisible, which is the reality for many young people growing up in the Muslim world. This is quite literally captured in Nasser Al Salem’s neon light installation that spells out the words Arabi and Gharbi (Arabic and Western). The two words are almost exactly the same in the Arabic language, with just one small dot of punctuation making the difference and Salem cleverly riffs off this similarity to make a timeless work.
The book and the exhibition delve into the sometimes confusing experience of being a Muslim in a globalised world and uses the visual language of contemporary art to embody these ideas in an impressive and thoughtful way. Mohammed Kazem’s Measuring (2015), a cube of painted stainless steel criss-crossed with diagonal lines all representing different directions seems to capture this confusion succinctly and powerfully.
In another work, Ebtisam Abdulaziz has used her systematic approach to communicate information not otherwise legible. Words In Art is a series of pairs consisting of a geometric drawing coupled with a graph that explains the coded language that she had formulated to express some of her innermost thoughts.
It seems pertinent to use artworks that incorporate script in an exhibition inspired by a book but the wide range of subjects and artists cover much more than simply that. Take Lamya Gargash’s now well-known photographic series Through the Looking Glass, which exaggerates the perceived imperfections of her subjects and the thorny issue of accepted norms surrounding beauty and appearance emphasises by the prevalence of social media in today’s world is unavoidable. There are also many more pieces that address the almost dual identity that many young people feel the need to occupy. Commenting on the exhibition,
Dyala Nusseibeh, Abu Dhabi Art’s director said that the exhibition “promotes openness to other nations, tolerance and cultural dialogue” and engages the public in constructive discourse. It certainly gave us pause for thought.
The show runs from the 14th of November 2018 until 26th of January 2019 at Abu Dhabi Art and is Curated by ARTH.