An adventure into art in a digital time going online has been a trend for some time now, but it has never been as relevant and important as it has become during the covid-19 pandemic. Simply put, it has developed into a tool to connect the world virtually in order to continue business, with the aim of replacing the physical presence. In the art world, however, it has left many people perplexed as to how to continue having a ‘normal’ relationship with others through a screen. The challenge becomes even greater when it comes to experiencing artworks, particularly those that were not originally conceived to be experienced digitally. Can the representation of an image ever recreate or reflect the experience that would usually take place in a physical encounter? SELECTIONS set off on a quest to find out. We invited 10 guests to describe one artwork of their choice, first in an objective way, but then more subjectively and contextually. The results are as unique as our participants and form this issue’s experimental catalogue.
Maya El Khalil describes
Afra Al Suwaidi
Unsheltered 04, 2020
Collage, mixed media
53 x 40 cm (h x w)
May El Khalil: Can we reverse the process? Instead of me describing the work, I would rather ask you the question: what do you see? feel?
Anastasia Nysten: Okay. Overall, I would say we are looking at an urban landscape. The first thing that draws my attention is something that resembles the sole of a shoe. It is composed of elements that I suppose are found or collected. I can see everyday materials, the visible sole of the shoe, perhaps belonging to a man, some fabric, some black paint, gold leaf, images of elements of architecture or at least mock-ups, thread, mainly elements that I feel that we can easily find and that you can gather. I can just imagine the studio of the artist, packed with all these collected materials. I think I have already been influenced because I know that it’s a woman’s work, but I think that the artist is telling her story through this work, maybe some personal story that has been disturbing her while growing up. She has been wanting to express herself and she found this medium that allowed her to do so through materiality. She hasn’t chosen to use paint; she’s chosen to collect things and I think these elements are each packed with a story. I would say there are three points where my gaze stops: I see a triangle, and the very tip of it is not central, it’s leaning a bit towards the left side, but at the same time this triangle is kind of leaving the artwork. I feel it is an artwork that I would like to look at closer.
In terms of size, the impression I get is something around 40 x 70 cm, an intimate size. There are many layers to the artwork, so you keep on seeing new things all the time and you feel like it is something that needs to be
deciphered, maybe something that is related to the story of the artist. I also see some sand, and illustrations within the artwork or collage of paper that constructs the buildings of this urban landscape.
MEK: As I’ve worked closely with the artist while she was developing this series of work, my approach to describing this particular artwork will be different than someone seeing it for the first time. I am more biased and more emotionally involved. In many of the works in the series, you sense pain; it is felt more or less intensely from one collage to another, reinforced or muted through the process of overlaying bits and pieces of all kinds of objects, material, paint, etc. Sometimes it is a bit more structured or more to the point. With this one I feel there are stronger tones: you have the white and the black and the red, so these are quite overpowering in terms of extremes. The shoe sole is definitely a powerful, it is a focal point: it protrudes out of the frame. She also uses this mesh material, it is all about the idea of what you see beyond. So, it is an overlaying of elements. You also have this impulse, with several windows and arches that are more in the background, to peek through. Now on the extreme top left is an opening that is cemented.
I am so happy that the viewer can experience the work within the context of a physical exhibition and not only online because so much more meaning is drawn by peeking through the installation, experiencing the intimate scale of each work, the layering of collages and the juxtaposition of media. For instance, looking again at this particular work, windows are quite important, she uses them in several other works; here you see that the view is blocked with a material that is quite strong and heavy [concrete]. Then you go down and you feel this flapping thread that is as if you’re mending things that were not done properly and in a hurry. There is an urgency here. Then you move to the other anchor, which for me is this white fabric interwoven with pieces of ripped black cloths… This is taken from a garment, and being in the Gulf you know that the white fabric is the outfit worn by the males in the family.
Afra is using many references to architectural elements. You’re right when you say that it is a landscape, and you are right when you say that there are a lot of contextual elements there because architecture for her is quite important. This is an artist that is gathering stories of what’s happening behind closed doors, what’s not revealed and what should be urgently attended to. She’s somebody who’s reaching out to the community around her, trying to encourage addressing these untold stories. A lot of these stories occurred in places of shelter, so she called the series ’Un-sheltered’. This is why you have these elements of architecture because usually a home is a place where you’re sheltered and protected but sometimes these buildings that protect the inside can be the same buildings that actually imprison. So here the overlaying of architectural elements is a tension between what becomes oppressive and what needs to be opened up. You see on the bottom right, in all her work the body is present. There are always pieces of flesh that you see. Here, she’s overlaying the body, which is always the canvas of her work, so the stories are taking place on it. Afra is trying to make sense of these stories whether through her own narrative or that of people around her, revisiting what happened in the past and suddenly what happened in the past does not stay in the past.
As the curator of Abu Dhabi Art’s ‘Beyond: Emerging Artists’, I had to go through a large number of files online to select only three. It is difficult to assess the work of artists only through their portfolio, particularly when their career is still young. As I am based in the UK, and due to Covid, the whole process has to be online Dyala Nusseibeh was of great help. I finally narrowed it down and went with three artists, of which Afra was one. We had many conversations. Afra is working primarily on sculpture during her current residency at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation. She was already addressing themes of abuse within society. Afra said she was very interested in getting together with members of the community who experienced abuse and encourage discussions about it. As Afra said, although these things are happening in every society, in our society it’s very difficult to really talk about these issues. She wanted to provide that safe place where people can get together and discuss openly. Then we discussed collage, with the idea of collage being a process of overlaying, while going back into memory can be perceived as unveiling layers. So, she’s overlaying stories. It’s like opening drawers, and when you open drawers it is not one narrative but you’re superposing several narratives. Afra felt that collage would be the perfect medium to use. When she started, it was so interesting to see the development because at the beginning there was a shyness around what to put there and then we decided not to think about the exhibition or what’s going to be shown and do it more as an outpouring exercise; we just put everything in there. So, this is an artist that has been impacted by things that are happening around her, by the stories she heard, and it led to an outpouring of feelings and emotions, of materiality, of objects that would serve remind, glimpses of memory brought to the fore through, a scent, a piece of music, an architectural component, a piece of fabric or a toy.. At the beginning, the result was very careful, then you see the development and I am sure that this is a project Afra will keep on developing. I am sure that it will change, evolve and mature.
It is extremely interesting to work with emerging artists as you never know what the outcome will be and, somehow, I am not always interested in the outcome; I am more interested in the process. This is why when we talked about this exhibition, we decided that the opening is only to launch the idea of what each artist will be working on and then to make process of developing the work transparent. The exhibition will last for a month and a half during which each artist will continue to develop their work – so it is an exhibition in the making which is quite interesting. There’s always this idea that we want to present the best of ourselves. I think the pressure is so big nowadays to present that perfect self and throughout this pandemic we realised how vulnerable we all are, not only individually but as communities. So, I think it is quite important to show that vulnerability and to invite people to work, to access. Today we’re moving away from the mega and star artist; the creative process is happening increasingly in groups, interdisciplinary groups. Art involves so many people other than the artist.
Born in Beirut, Maya El Khalil is an independent curator and art advisor, based between Saudi Arabia and the UK. As founding director of Athr Gallery in Jeddah from 2009–2016, she pioneered exhibition approaches and cultural exchange in the absence of local public art institutions, making significant contributions to the establishment and development of a contemporary art scene in Saudi Arabia. For the last decade, she has continued to work locally, regionally and internationally with artists, collectors and institutions to develop the identity and ideas that have defined an art scene, building bridges between the Arabian Gulf and the world. El Khalil is currently collaborating with international institutions with a specialism in progressive socially engaged exhibitions, developing multidisciplinary exhibitions that address the environmental and climate emergency, including forthcoming digital platform Take Me to the River, in collaboration with Goethe Institute and Prince Claus Fund. Other recent curatorial projects include The Clocks Are Striking Thirteen at Athr Gallery, Jeddah (2018); Amma Baad, Nasser Al Salem’s first international solo show at the Delfina Foundation, London (2019) and Casa Arabe, Madrid (2019). In 2020, she was appointed curator of the 7th edition of 21,39 Jeddah Arts under the title I Love You, Urgently, exploring urgent responses to the climate emergency. El Khalil holds a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and an MBA from the American University of Beirut. She is enrolled in MA Art and Politics at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #54