Artists explore gentrification, preservation and cultural appropriation through material practice at Abu Dhabi’s Warehouse421
by Anna Gargarian
As my Uber pulls into Zayed port, I’m struck by the rows of warehouses neatly placed like lego blocks. In contrast to Abu Dhabi’s soaring towers or Saadiyat Isand’s sparse sandy landscape, the structures are low, industrial, and filled with life. We pass a carpet souk, with its white arcaded facade and golden signs, men are chatting (bartering?) in the doorways. A fruit and vegetable market are bustling with movement. A rarity in the otherwise sterile Emirati capital.
I wonder about the contents of each warehouse, where they come from and where they’re going. We loop around a roundabout before pulling up to the entrance of Warehouse421. It’s Saturday evening and the opening night of “Community and Critique: Salama bint Hamdam Emerging Artist Fellowships 2018/2019”, a collective exhibit of the center’s sixth cohort of artist fellows.
Since it opened in 2015, Warehouse421 has dedicated itself to supporting art and design from the Emirates, Middle East and South Asia through exhibitions and educational initiatives. Tonight’s exhibit features the work of 15 local artists who have participated in the one-year long Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship (SEAF), a partnership with the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and SHF foundation.
The Warehouse’s rusted exterior and glass entrance is minimalist and striking. A pink glow illuminates the facade and its flanking installations: Departure, a skeletal iron boat by Spanish artist Xavier Mascaró, and a black and white mural.
Inside, the Warehouse is bustling with guests. A predominantly female staff greets me, elegantly cloaked in their traditional Emirati black abaya and shiela (overgarment and head-scarf). Waitstaff twirl about the lobby with trays of fresh juice. The labyrinth of galleries winds around a central glass courtyard with the installation ‘(Cu.6H202)’ by Rawdha Al Ketbi (@r.ks). A series of concentric copper domes, the sculpture reminds me of a prehistoric tortoise. As I enter the courtyard, I’m taken aback by the extreme heat and humidity of this strange outside/inside space. The installation momentarily comes to life when it releases a burst of mist paired with strobing purple lights; tortoise turned space-craft….I think it’s ready for take-off. It’s a synesthetic experience of mist, rust, humidity, and the hissing of the machine – an obvious but poetic sculpture that reminds me of the relationship between mechanical and organic life.
As I re-enter the air conditioned galleries, I’m confronted with an installation by Christopher Benton (@maxfirepower), a Satwa-based artist originally from the US. At Warehouse421 the artist explores themes of gentrification and cultural preservation through video, sculpture and textile. A quilt-like tapestry hangs from a wall made from repurposed textile fragments held together by safety pins. A patchwork of brand names from local restaurants, shops and various service industries, the piece honors both a disappearing tailoring tradition as well as the labor force that makes up Dubai’s oldest neighborhood of Satwa.
I’m immediately reminded of Joaquín Torres-García’s constructivist paintings, with their gridded compositions of colors and artefacts that form abstract urban landscapes. Similarly, Benton “maps” a city neighborhood through its craft production and a constructivist formal language.
Across from the quilt is “Quasi-Problematic Assortment of Items, Arranged Based on the UN’s Formula for Overcrowding”. Benton’s installation is a one-meter cubic acrylic construction filled with miscellaneous items. According to the UN calculations of liveable housing, the piece “illustrate[s] at human-scale the amount of space a bachelor has in a bedspace room that houses 18 people”. The work is claustrophobic, colorful, playful and poignant.
I walk through galleries of elegantly displayed mix-media sculpture, prints, and paintings. I am drawn to the installation “Where it began” by Sultan Al Remeithi. The artist has transformed a cell-like gallery space into a neon frenzy of rave culture. The floors, walls, and ceilings are completely covered in spray painted text, posters, and grotesque portraiture. A sort of urban chapel, the viewer is immersed in vignettes of DJ’s at their decks and youth dressed in hoodies and headphones. On the far side of the room, a semi-transparent candescent sheet obscures a video projection of an unintelligible night scene: I can barely make out a car with flashing headlights. I overhear the artist explain to a journalist the contradiction he felt upon returning to the UAE after studies abroad. As much as party culture is organic to cities like Berlin and London, the experience in the Emirates feels appropriated and inauthentic. Ironically, as far as clubs go, this room feels legit.
Themes of artificiality resurface in the ironic work of a young artist studying and comparing water samples collected locally (presumably from Dubai)*. Water sources include an Indoor Snow Park, an Aquarium, a 5 Star Hotel Pool, a Man-made lake, and a Roundabout fountain to name a few. The descriptions of each sample are presented “scientifically” in identical glass jars with stark black and white labels stating the sample’s origin, the global coordinates of the source, and the date and time of collection. A closer read reveals the artist’s description of the source environment, which ranges from descriptions of fish-feeding habits, to nearby furniture, to people expressing their love for one another in the water’s presence. The idiosyncratic nature of her observations highlights the absurdity of the sources themselves.
As I make my way towards the exit, I am distracted by floor-to-ceiling red velvet curtains that contrast to the otherwise contemporary interior. Like a circus caravan parked at the gallery’s entrance, I enter the theatrical space of “Hollowed”, a site-specific installation by artist Maitha Abdalla (@maithaabdalla). Through video and sculpture, the artist constructs a surreal environment that is much larger than one originally expects. Dramatic lighting and an eerie quietness inhabit the space along with fantastical anthropomorphic creatures that explore “emptiness, memory, waiting and rebirth”. The exhibit is independent from the SEAF Cohort’s collective show, and it gives me a sense of the Warehouse’s diverse program.
I leave Warehouse421 hopeful, reflecting on how important it is to give space to and support the critical gaze of artists, particularly in the context of fast-paced development. Their sensitivity, humour, and humanity is inspiring and humbling.
“COMMUNITY & CRITIQUE: SALAMA BINT HAMDAN EMERGING ARTISTS FELLOWSHIP 2018/19 COHORT 6 SHOW”
On view at Warehouse421 from September 14 – November 24, 2019
Warehouse421, Abu Dhabi, Mina Zayed, Street Samrayr, +9712 6768803
*Dubai is the only Emirate hosting an indoor Snow Park.