Abu-Dhabi Art 2018: Thoughts on the invisible and the intangible

Positioned opposite the entrance of a closed exhibition space displaying “all things photographic” on a wall somewhat isolated from the main commercial booths of the blandly named Hall M, a striking triptych by artist Sadik Kwaish Alfraji seems an unlikely place from which to navigate a possible journey to meaning through the 10th iteration of Abu-Dhabi Art Fair. Entitled Stages of Acquired Knowledge, Alfraji’s expressionist, elemental, faceless silhouettes gesture towards the existential, the pathos and perplexities of life. In an apparent reversal of the famous diagrammatic stages of man’s evolution, Al-Fraji’s increasingly hunched figures point towards the oft quoted paradox, the more we know the less we understand.

Stages of Acquired Knowledge by Sadik Kwaish Alfraji

Stages of Acquired Knowledge by Sadik Kwaish Alfraji


Alfraji’s work could equally be read as an allegorical reference to the changing nature of contemporary art. As part of a continuum of changes initiated in the 1960s artistic practice has become marked by the twin processes of the dematerialisation of the art object and its expansion into an interdisciplinary field of art practices. Initially adopted as both a critique of artworld structures and a desire to escape from the growing commodification of art, one of the profound consequences of this processual change is that contemporary art is no longer perceived simply as the formal production of art objects. In its place is the increasingly dominant understanding of art as a research based independent and heterogeneous form of knowledge production incorporating philosophical, sociological theories and scientific modes of study. Thus, contemporary art has become as Simon Sheikh argues, “a field of alternatives, proposals and models, a field of possibilities of exchange and comparative analysis…a place where things happen rather than a thing that is in the world”.[i]

Structured around the logic of real estate and designed for sales, art fairs have not traditionally been associated with the artistic outputs of this significant shift. Unlike the art object which can be seductively packaged as objects of desire, the dispersed, often intangible forms of knowledge crafted by the artist as researcher cannot be so easily converted into ready sales. But just as artistic practice has changed, so to art fairs. At this year’s Frieze Art Fair in London two galleries notably both from the MENA (Middle East North Africa) geopolitical region displayed the work of research based artistic practioners well known in UAE through their involvement in Sharjah Biennial: Joanna Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige presenting Monasteraki with Dubai based Third Line Gallery and of Basel Abbas and Rouanne Abou-Rahme with And Yet My Mask is Powerful represented by Gypsum Gallery from Cairo. As complex multi-layered, multi-staged long-term research projects both involve archaeological excavation to probe and challenge western normative knowledge structures, scientific certitudes and linear historicities.

Whilst such complex research-based works were not present in the commercial booths of Abu Dhabi Art, it has embraced the widespread trend of art fairs to act as an epicentre of a wide range of other arts-based activities including less materialized and more discursive knowledge-based modes of group practices through interdisciplinary discussions and talks, conferences and educational programmes. Consequently, Abu Art held 3 days programme of inspirational speakers such as curators Tim Fellrath and Sam Bardouil and talks relating to trends and issues in the art market at global and local levels organized by academics and curators Salwa Mikdadi and Nada Shabout. In an echo of the experimental format adopted at the Armory show in New York 2017 where commercial gallery booths orbited around a central space conceived of as a civil forum for meeting and debate, Abu Dhabi Art devoted a large space to community projects and partners aimed at audience participation. It was however through the fair’s programme of commissions, performances and exhibitions both in the main fair location at Manarat Al Saadiyat and in its offsite partner venue Warehouse 421 in Abu Dhabi’s main port area of Mina Zayed that Abu Dhabi Art opened out into a space that more effectively engaged with artistic knowledge production and all the uncertainties and ambiguities of its associated newness of perspective.

It was perhaps during the astonishing and deeply moving lecture-performance of Bird Watching by Lawrence Abu Hamdan as part of the Durub Al Tawaya performance programme, that Manarat Al Saadiyat, translated as “a place of enlightenment,” began to live up to its name. Claiming the ears right to witness, Abu Hamdan’s work seeks to expose the politics of listening in a variety of ways: through the troubling secret sound surveillance that governments impose upon their unwitting populations. Working on behalf of human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Abu Hamdan occupies the position of artist as sonic sleuth to track the aural traces that crimes leave behind them. Ex -political prisoners from a detention centre Saydnaya 25km north of Damascus, held and tortured in terrifying darkness, provide aural testimony to Abu Hamden that enables its architectural reconstruction and an exploration of the truth of sound.

Continuing with the theme of the role of the phenomenological within circuits of meaning and understanding, this year’s Gateway exhibition Structures of Meaning/Architectures of Perception physically punctuated the space between the fair’s commercial gallery booths and its community projects area. Guided by a principle question, “how do we process what we see and experience”? its curator Hammad Nasar explains how he sees every exhibition he curates as an opportunity to converse with artists about how they individually experience and interpret the world. Many of the works engaged with ideas of constructing meaning through language and a concomitant interest in books as structures of knowledge that wove subtle skeins of connection to several works in the gallery booths. This included several dafatirs or artists’ notebooks traditionally designed as a place of experimentation to explore the boundaries between word and image and the abstract calligraphic markings of Hassan Massoudy and Rachid Koraichi at the October gallery stand.

Back to the exhibition and Abigail Reynold’s glass library screens speak to the fragility of knowledge that connects to her wider concerns relating to political commentary on the closure and destruction of libraries across history and geography whilst Joanna Piotrowski uses books literally as figuratively as shelter.

Untitled by Joanna Piotrowska, 2016

Untitled by Joanna Piotrowska, 2016


In another section, Abdalla Al Saadi’s idiosyncratic landscape drawings and pictogram languages contained in books and scrolls with titles such as Antarctic Alphabets resonated beautifully with Nazgol Anasarina’s architectural columns cut away reveal embedded texts.

In a similar vein to Sarah Morris’s stand-alone commission of a moving image portrait of the Abu Dhabi constructed via filmic fragments of the quotidian, Marysia Lewandawska’s Cinema Islanddigs a little deeper into the nation’s collective memory. Screened in a purpose-built shimmering silver structure, Lewandawska’s film juxtaposes now familiar aerial images of a pre-oil Abu Dhabi sourced through research into BP archives held in London with a very personal video camera archive of an Emirati family at home and on holiday overlain by a haunting soundtrack of women singing and storytelling. Seeking to go beyond the official histories and narratives of petro-luxury and hyper development in the region Lewandawska roots out “unacknowledged knowledge” in the spaces between the public and private.

A sense of existential anxiety surrounding the pre-eminence of oil and the speed of change that its discovery initiated in representations of Abu Dhabi (and indeed the whole Gulf region) permeates two final exhibitions held at the offsite location of Warehouse 421 located in Abu Dhabi’s main port area of Mina Zayed. Commissioned by Durub Al Tawaya at Abu Dhabi Art, Mona Al Qadiri’s immersive video installation Diverwas premiered alongside a selection of Tarek Al Ghoussein’s stunning photographs as part of his ongoing research project into the islands off Abu Dhabi. Whilst researching into the historical ties between the pre- oil world of the Gulf when its economy was based on pearling, a period of history that as Al Qadiri notes, has been either erased or relegated to popular culture and possible post-oil futures, she noticed the similarities between the iridescent surfaces of pearls and oil. Using synchronized swimmers clothed in body suits akin to the lustre of pearls and oil set to the music of pearl boat songs, Al Qadiri bridges the gap between the two through both fictional ties and formal abstraction.

Diver by Mona Al Qadiri, 2018

Diver by Mona Al Qadiri, 2018


Speaking in the local newspaper, The National, Al Qadiri muses on how there is, “a real sense of tragedy in her works that we haven’t found a more sustainable way of living”. As if by way of response Al Ghoussein’s unframed photographic portraits capture the stark natural beauty of a world seemingly beyond oilalbeit in the presence of portents of change in the form of a monster machine munching its way across an island landscape. As the home to wildlife havens including one for endangered species on Sir Bani Yas Island set up by the Sheikh Zayed and small eco-tourist resorts, Al Ghoussein’s portraits entitled Odysseus elicit multiple layers of interpretation; as a paean to the late Sheikh during this year’s festivities celebrating his life and achievements as “Father of the Nation”, as documentary evidence of a found environment, as a record bearing witness to change in a distinctive place within Indian Ocean habitats and as a challenge to normative oil dominated representations of Abu Dhabi. But there is still more. Utilizing his trademark practice of inserting his body into a landscape Al Ghoussein interrogates his own relations with landscape and change towards an understanding of his own identity and as he peers curiously into what looks like a giant nest, Al Ghoussein strikes a pose not too dissimilar to Alfraji’s stooped figures that we began with.

With contemporary art sitting in a nexus of marketing, media and globalising forces, there is of course hovering over any discussion about artistic production the spectre of the vexed relationship between art and institutional frameworks, artistic knowledge production and commodification in its many guises. This is clearly at its most acute at an art fair. Even when identified as extra commercial activities there will be those for whom lack of physical distance to the art market translates into what Fredric Jameson identifies as, “the loss of necessary critical distance”. These are indeed treacherous waters for artists to navigate. But these are treacherous times. As Kat Auster argued at a recent conference on Artistic Research Practices at Plymouth University, the unquestioning idealization of scientific fact manifests itself in the neglect of other forms of knowledge – the aesthetic, the experiential and the sensory.[ii]This loss she suggests has, created a void in our socio-political and environmental relations that has been filled with popular rhetoric that undermines our ability to engage with a wide range of views and potentialities. The production of artistic knowledge is therefore not only desirable but necessary. So maybe we should have a little more faith in arts shapeshifting ability to work with contradiction and its persistent efforts it makes to liberate itself from any systemic framework.

Inherent in the artworks discussed here is the imperative to question, to probe to challenge knowledge and to partake in the negotiations between the representable and the intangible, the visible and the invisible. They engage with knowledge in a variety of ways to focus on its production and its loss, it’s retrieval and documentation and its multifarious mutations. In rendering this knowledge in poetic form, they produce not only thought-provoking works but also works of great formal beauty. Knowledge seen in this light is indeed a form of enlightenment and embracing it as such may allow Alfraji’s bowed figures to walk a little taller.

[i]Simon Sheikh, “Objects of Study or Commodification of Knowledge? Remarks on Artistic Research” in Art andResearch, 2009, Volume 2, No 2