we hve destroyed the wal...l s..

We have destroyed all the walls,” beams the curator, “to build this abstract place. You can see the mirror at the back, and we are in an infinity of feelings, of something beginning and never ending.”_________________________________________

One might demur from the more subjective aspects of this description, but there’s no denying that Gallery One at the Emirates Palace has been transformed. The genteel sequence of exhibition rooms in enfilade that hosted Picasso Abu Dhabi and before that the Arts of Islam show, has vanished. The partitions are down, the walls are the colour of coal. Inky carpeting covers the floor and the end of this corridor of darkness is covered in tar-pool mirrors. Welcome to the black box.___________________________ We shall see wont we.

Anne Baldassari, the director of Musée Picasso, Paris, has returned to Abu Dhabi following the success of her Picasso exhibition last year in order to curate Emirati Expressions, a vast overview of Emirati contemporary art. Hundreds of artists applied to take part; 64 were chosen. These range from the grand old men of the region’s art scene – Abdul Qader al Rais has several pieces in the show – to young unknowns. The exhibition, which opens today, will run for three months, during which time several artistic experiments are planned, including development programmes with the Louvre and Guggenheim. There’s an education centre to help groom the next crop of UAE talent, and short films of participating artists discussing their inspirations and goals run continuously in a recessed screening area.

Along with the physical exhibition, there’s an online gallery of additional artworks. In the words of Rita Aoun-Abdo, the art and cultural adviser for the Tourism Development and Investment Company: “It’s not just an exhibition, it’s a laboratory of experience.” _______________ the idea of labratory Cage. Deleuze.

I meet Baldassari as the finishing touches are being put on the show. The otherworldly atmosphere of the main exhibition area is relieved slightly by the smell of paint, the distant sound of hammering and muttered imprecations. (When I asked the museologist Colin Morris what the hardest thing had been about implementing the curator’s design, he said: “Making it black. It’s rather like trying to make something very pure and white – but the opposite.”) Even so, the place is startling enough. I ask Baldassari to explain the extraordinary format.

Untitled (2008) by Abdul Rahmin Salim Courtesy TDIC

“The black box is an icon,” she says, “of what is happening today here in this part of the world, in the frontier between the worlds, East and West.” The concept is taken from the field of systems analysis, she explains. For certain analytic purposes, one can adequately specify a component in a system just by stating its inputs and outputs. One doesn’t peer into its inner workings, but treats it as though it were opaque: blacked out. This, Baldassari believes, is the situation the UAE finds itself in. The world observes its inputs and outputs but doesn’t see inside. Emirati Expressions takes the viewer inside the box.

Aoun-Abdo takes up the theme: “You have an artistic expression happening within this place that is really different from what you have as an impression of the Emirati world.” The pair make an entertaining team. Baldassari, it would be fair to say, comes across as a charming eccentric. She laughs easily, talks in dizzying, free-associated paragraphs and breaks off for frequent guffawing conferences in French with the Lebanese Aoun-Abdo, with whom she appears to get on famously. As Baldassari peers through small round glasses, her silver hair worn hippyishly loose, she radiates mischief. It takes a bit of mental readjustment to see her as a French government minister in charge of promoting the arts, as she was in the mid-1980s. Before that, she was a research assistant for the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, of Anti-Oedipus fame (“I was very young,” she says. “I was 19, and we started a big project on innovation... to change the world.” She sighs.- with bourgeois nostalgia? No doubt: “That was a project.”) Taken as a whole, it’s a fascinating CV, especially since the Deleuzo-Guattarian interest in systems and in Freudian psychoanalysis bears directly on her present work.-_ it does it? how odd working as she is for the rich dudes in the emirate. yeah the richOcapitalists. O so guattariandeleuzian?

“I agreed to be a curator if it’s possible to curate the unconscious part of the society, the artist as the brain of the society,” she says. “My point of view is that artists invent the society and not the contrary, and I am sure we’re living in the world created by Picasso, and by the Surrealists, and by the avant-garde. And we have to be proud and aware because we are in debt to the artist.”

To size up that debt, we take a tour of the main space. One’s first impression is of the sheer diversity of means and themes: painting, sculpture, video art – even performance work from a cat-suited Ebtisam Abdul Aziz, who will be making regular appearances. But within this profusion, a pattern emerges.

“Some of the artists are working with calligraphy, in the traditional approach, and cross it with graphic advertising,” says Baldassari, standing by one of Abeer A Tahlak’s immense pieces of magazine-style design. Arabic characters fall like tumbling dice; the English words “complete” and “control” cross the canvas. As Baldassari says: “It’s a game, it’s a dissertation on the sign: the sign as pure significance.”

Reflection (2008) by Lateefa bint Maktoum Courtesy TDIC

Yet the show as a whole, she continues, is “a two-polarity artistic proposal”. “On the other side you have artists working with photography, this cold, frozen media, with stenography, staging or reality, object construction, manipulation. And they are the other side of the story.”

There is indeed a good deal of intriguing photo art: from Lateefa bint Maktoum’s weirdly Pre-Raphaelite scene of a river running through Dubai, with a cowled figure gazing on, to Latifa Saeed al Falasi’s dream image of a flying bike. But there’s still another interesting story to be told here, one about the predominance of women artists. Baldassari estimates: “In proportion we have maybe 60 per cent young women artists. We have some men, too,” she concedes, “and they are creating this new world, and when we follow them in this black box, we can discover something new. I think in this show we can follow the line of the future in progress.”

From the perspective of the artists, the future is starting just in time. When I ask the young painter Wasel Safwan, who practises a style of vibrant abstraction he calls UAEism, what significance the show has, he gives a short laugh. “Identity. One word... Because it’s only for Emiratis, it’s like having seven Emirates under one roof.” Safwan is no xenophobe: he has previously explained his style to me like this: “UAEism is from the atmosphere we live in in the UAE. See in here you have more than 250 nationalities. Different colours, different cultures, different backgrounds. Even your neighbours – maybe from the same family – have different cultures too. And that’s amazing, I love it.” For him, it is a source of pride to have a spotlight shone on his own culture.

Jalal Luqman, the proprietor of the Ghaf Gallery, says of the exhibition: “It is a historical landmark, that finally there has been an exhibition that puts the Emirati artist on the map.” Several pieces of Luqman’s bleakly allegorical digital art are included in the show, a vindication of sorts for nearly two decades of struggle. “Imagine being an artist here in the UAE 18 years ago,” he once told me in harrowed tones. “And throw into the equation being a digital artist 18 years ago. Art in itself was not entirely accepted or even given attention at all... And to be a digital artist at the time just added insult to injury.” For Luqman, Emirati Expressions confirms a sea change in the status of creativity in the UAE.

The jeweller Azza al Qubaisi is exhibiting her laser-cut iron sculptures of pyramids and calligraphic swirls at the show. If nothing else, she’s glad for the opportunity to air a lesser-known side to her art. More welcome still is the chance to encounter her creative peers. “Basically, this is the first exhibition for us to meet each other as local artists,” she says. “Unfortunately, we’re talking about cultural exchange abroad and yet we don’t know each other.”

For her, this consolidation of the arts scene in Abu Dhabi has been long-awaited. But then, “this is what Abu Dhabi usually does: wait, wait, wait, and does the best”.

“I’m really happy for that,” she adds, “because it’s much better than doing many small exhibitions. This makes more sense. This one is perfect. There will be a book. It’s in the most perfect place in the world anybody wants to go to, in the Emirates Palace. At the end of the day, if you don’t represent your artists in the best places you’ve got, then people will never hear about us.”

And when people do get to hear about them, the question arises: will the black box be able to hold them? Here’s hoping not. It would be satisfying indeed to see the unique talents of the Emirates burst out on to a wider stage. Emirati Expressions looks to be the ideal platform to launch them.


Inner Workings: