Guest artists Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian join Amna Al Dabbagh, Cheb Moha, Chndy, Dina Khorchid, Farah Al Qasimi, Flounder Lee, Nasir Nasrallah, Saba Qizilbash, Salem Al Mansoori and Shaikha Al Ketbi, in Ishara: Signs, Symbols and Shared Languages. The title translates as “sign,” and the exhibition is grounded by linguistic gestures, shared signals and the idea of lingua franca. “Ishara is essentially about communication, how the circumstance of geography throws people together, and how they overcome the challenge to be understood, to live, to survive,” says Shobha Pia Shamdsani, Executive Director of UAE Unlimited and Art Advisor to His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, founder of UAE Unlimited. “That through the lingua franca, or the pastiche of languages that we create in mixed languages, signs, and symbols.”
Exhibition view of Flounder Lee's installation and Salem El Mansoori's sculptures. Photo credits to Musthafa Aboobacker, courtesy UAE Unlimited and Alserkal Programming
Invited curator Karim Sultan shares that the inspiration came through observation and experience with the local contexts of Emirati port cities. “My own interest in language as a medium of developing identity as well as a dynamic, inventive tool informed the exhibition’s concept,” he says, sharing that for some time the exhibition’s working title was Lingua Franca. “The idea of a vehicular language that allows for communication between disparate groups who do not share a common tongue is an important aspect of living in a port city, particularly one in between a number of major world regions and global interests. The idea was not to focus on language in a limited way, but look at how it could be both a unifying factor as well as a divisive one, to look at how language is constructed in an almost material way, and the spaces in between languages.”
Amna Al Dabbagh next to her installation
Using the Emirates as a case study as much as a relevant platform for this discourse, it proved an appropriate vehicle given the nation’s diversity. “The three major port cities of Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi employ a wide variety of languages that come together in different ways. Each of these cities is home to diverse and overlapping networks of peoples from around the world,” explains Sultan, noting the different varieties of English (American, British, Indian) and Arabic (Emirati, Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese) that co-exist or are spoken in isolation. Sultan also references Malayalam, Hindi, Urdu, Tagalog, Pashto and Farsi, which can be heard on a daily basis, “usually in some combination.”
Dubai’s environment has evolved such that one can get by speaking one or another, “but an awareness of these languages allows us to begin to understand and experience the complex and distinct nature of this place,” asserts Sultan. “By placing focus on language as a part of the terrain, the environment in which we all live, work, and create, my aim was for the artists to create work that engaged with this local phenomena, a distinct sort of social-historical-environmental condition that we often take for granted, are isolated from, or attempt to simplify.” While there is a degree of local specificity, the theme intentionally equally resonates globally and historically—Sultan aimed for a broad framework that would allow the artists maximum engagement and freedom. “Rather than look narrowly at either an externally-derived understanding of what the UAE is, or adopt a heritage-based perspective, a truly contemporary approach is one that looks at the particularities of what makes the experience of creating work in the UAE a distinct one, but also allows for the potential of wider interpretation,” he says.
Shaikha Al Ketbi Ath'thaniyah video installation, part of Ishara exhibition. Image credit to Musthafa Aboobacker, Courtesy UAE Unlimited and Alserkal Programming 1
10 UAE-based artists were commissioned to create works under Sultan’s theme, with diverse creations spanning video, drawing, textile and 3-D printing. There was also the mentorship from Iranian artist collective of the Haerizadeh brothers and Rahmanian. “I invited Rokni Haerizadeh, Ramin Haerizadeh and Hessam Rahmanian to be our guest artists,” says Shamdsani. “It has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the artists to visit the trio’s studio for regular reading groups, where they were mesmerised and visually motivated by the collective’s amazing talent, immersed in their wide library of philosophy, psychology, literature and poetry.” The trio opened their home and studio to regular artist-curator meetings, and reading and discussion sessions, and shared texts and advice on how to develop their works.
But they also participated as artists. “They contributed an installation to the exhibition which consists of artworks and objects from their private collection, which often related to the relationship between language and art,” reveals Sultan. “During our meetings we found that their home would transform week to week, and found that the selection of works that surrounded our meeting table – a painted table that exists between an artwork by the trio and a functional object – reflected the themes of our conversation.”
A photo of one of the exhibiting artists Nasir Nasrallah
Noting the relationships between their collection and works and those of the 10 artists, Sultan explains that each artwork offers unique nuances in relation to the theme. “Some works are quite playful – albeit in a rather complex way – such as Farah Al Qasimi’s Everyone was Invited to a Party, whereas others such as Shaikha Al Ketbi’s Ath’thaniyah has an almost devotional quality and approaches the language of dreams,” says Sultan. “Both are video installations, but function entirely differently and lend the viewer wholly different experiences.” Whether large-scale immersive works or more intimate pieces, the common thread is the building of structures from their component parts. “I would like viewers to engage with these attempts at creating and communicating meaning, drawing on an array of source material from the experiences and surroundings of each individual artist,” says Sultan, “whether they source the history of a language, their own biography, natural phenomena, the subconscious, or the inclusivity or exclusivity that language creates.”
Ishara runs through 1 April at Concrete, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai. Alserkalavenue.ae