Exhibition Review: Community and Critique @ Warehouse421

Artists explore gentrification, preservation and cultural appropriation through material practice at Abu Dhabi’s Warehouse421

by Anna Gargarian


Mina Port Zayed_Warehouses by Beno Saradzic

Mina Zayed Port Warehouses photographed by Beno Saradzic, 2012

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.

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Fruit and Vegetable Market, photography by Victor Besa for TheNational.ae

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. 

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Departure, artist Xavier Mascaró, photograph by Anna Gargarian.

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.

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‘(Cu.6H202)’ by Rawdha Al Ketbi, photograph courtesy of Warehouse421

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.

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Photograph by Alexandra Chaves for TheNational.ae

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. 

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Quasi-Problematic Assortment of Items, Arranged Based on the UN’s Formula for Overcrowding, by Christopher Benton. Photograph by the artist.

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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

 

Exhibition Review: Together is Possible

Where residents take part in each other’s sadness and joy without discrimination 

by Laure Raffy
(scroll down for original text in French)

 

Nelli Shishmanyan is a freelance photojournalist and member of the 4Plus collective (4Plus documentary center for photography) that brings together Armenian photographers engaged in human rights, and in particular, women’s rights. For the past seven years, her work has focused on territories in conflict. In 2012, during a workshop held in Tbilisi, she met two Azerbaijani photographers with whom she stayed in touch over the years. In 2018 they collaborated on a joint project to meet Armenian and Azerbaijani communities peacefully living together in villages in Georgia and Armenia.

This project, supported by the European Union within the framework of Peacebuilding through Capacity Enhancement and Civic Engagement (PeaCE) program implemented by EPF-Armenia, EPF-Azerbaijan, International Alert and CRRC-Georgia, was also presented in an exhibition in Tbilisi last October: «Together for Peace».

In March of this year, ACCEA / NPAK (Armenian Center for Contemporary and Experimental Art) unveiled a selection of fragments from this initiative and presented “Together is possible”, featuring photographs captured by Nelli Shishmanyan. This ambitious and necessary exhibition highlighted the possible understanding between the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities marked by the Nagorno Karabakh conflict for many years. In particular, it revealed images taken in 2018 in the villages of Tsopi and Khojori in Georgia and Khachaghbiur (former Chakhrlu) in Armenia,  where the two communities live side by side.

Armenia / Azerbaijan without a slash; without a break or separation. An ode to peace, a possible reconciliation, maybe not so distant, maybe awaits.

Shishmanyan’s work juxtaposes faces, humanizes communities that have been distanced, and that have been defacing one another since the late years of the Soviet Union; so close geographically and even culturally.

Highlighting a life where the children of the village attend the same school, where the water of the central fountain is drunk by all. Nelli reveals through her lens the movement of lives that are in full swing. Where laughter echoes through the photographs, and the kitchen smells tickle our senses. We enter alongside the reporter within the interiors of the village, in the intimacy of the neighborhood that shares tea, discussions, games, tolerance. Tables filled with pastries- delicacies that are offered to brothers no matter where they’re from. The laughter roars on both sides of the room, we hear it from here.

The wheels of war seem to disappear in these serene, isolated territories, where tensions fade as witnessed by these inhabitants.

As Nelli Shishmanyan tells me when I meet her: “This project is far from the notion of conflict. It highlights common traditions, connections between these people, peace first and foremost…Tensions emanate from governments, not from populations.”

Two men who, in the exhibited video, express themselves “…we want prosperity for both nations…we live peacefully.”

To receive, to question, as an example of “living together”, possible, imaginable, mixed, stronger.

With modesty, Shishmanyan and her Azerbaijani partners explore a subject suspended at the tip of our lips, complex. They highlight the imprints of undifferentiated hands left on the walls of the house of culture in Tsopi. A poetic throwing of arms that reveals the possible calm and the power of encounter.

A photographic practice without end, according to Nelli Shishmanyan, who shares when we talk about a possible continuation of the project “…Photography is part of life and life continues.”

And who knows, in a future exhibition maybe, we could meet the two Azeri collaborators in Yerevan.

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« Together is possible »

Là où les communautés prennent par aux douleurs
et aux joies de chacun, sans discrimination aucune. 

 

Nelli Shishmanyan est photographe reporter indépendante et membre du collectif 4Plus

( 4Plus documentary center for photography ) qui réunit des photographes arméniens engagés pour le droit de l’homme et des femmes spécifiquement. Depuis 2012, ses projets ont principalement attrait à certaines zones sensibles et territoires en conflit. En 2012, lors d’un workshop se tenant à Tbilissi, elle fait la connaissance de deux photographes azéris.

En 2018, ils iront ensemble à la rencontre des communautés arménienne et azerbaïdjanaise évoluant ensemble dans certains villages geogiens et arméniens.

Ce projet, qui bénéficiait du soutien de l’Union européenne dans le cadre du programme PeaCE, mis en œuvre par EPF-Arménie, EPF-Azerbaïdjan, International Alert et CRRC-Géorgie a été présenté dans une exposition à Tbilisi en octobre dernier : “Together for Peace”.

Une exposition s’est parallèlement tenue en décembre dernier, à Baku en Azerbaijan.

En mars dernier, l’ACCEA/NPAK (Armenian Center for Contempory Experimental Art) nous dévoilait quelques fragments de cette initiative et présentait « Together is possible », dans lequel nous retrouvions les images capturées par Nelli Shishmanyan. Cette exposition ambitieuse et nécessaire mettait en lumière l’entente possible entre les communautés arménienne et azerbaïdjanaise marquées par le conflit depuis de longues années. Elle nous dévoilait notamment les images réalisées en 2018 dans les villages de Tsopi et Khojori en Georgie et Khachaghbiur (anciennement Chakhrlu) en Arménie, où les deux communautés évoluent côte à côte.

Arménie / Azerbaïjan sans le / cette fois, sans rupture et sans mur. Ôde à la paix, comme une réconciliation possible, peut être pas si lointaine, attendue, possiblement.

Le travail de Shishmanyan pose des visages, humanise des populations souvent éloignées les unes des autres, qui se mutilent depuis les dernières années de l’Union soviétique, pourtant si proches géographiquement et culturellement.

Mise en lumière de vies où les enfants du village fréquentent la même école, où l’eau de la fontaine centrale est bue de tous. Elle nous dévoile, par le biais de l’objectif, le mouvement de ces vies qui battent leur plein. Où les rires résonnent dans les photos, où les odeurs de cuisine parviennent jusqu’à nous. On pénètre avec la reporter dans les intérieurs du village, dans l’intimité du voisinage qui partage thé, discussions, jeux, tolérance. Tables emplies de pâtisseries, de gourmandises que l’on offre à ses frères, d’où qu’ils viennent. Les rires se baladent de part et d’autre de la pièce, on les entend d’ici.

Les rouages de la guerre semblent disparaître sur ces territoires sereins, isolés, où les tensions s’effacent comme en témoignent ses habitants.

Et comme Nelli Shishmanyan nous le dit lorsque nous la rencontrons : « Ce projet est éloigné de la notion de conflit. Il met en lumière des traditions communes, des correspondances entre ces gens, la paix avant toute chose […] Les tensions émanent des gouvernements, non des populations. »

A l’image de ces deux hommes qui dans la vidéo présentée s’expriment « […] we want prosperity for both nations […] we live peacefully. »

A recevoir, à questionner, tel un exemple de « vivre ensemble », possible, imaginable, mélangé, mixte, plus fort.

Avec pudeur, Shishmanyan et ses partenaires azerbaïdjanais explorent, un sujet suspendu aux lèvres, complexe. Ils mettent en lumière l’empreinte de ces mains indifférenciables, imprimées sur le mur de la maison de la culture de Tsopi. Une levée des armes poétique dévoilant le calme possible et la force de la rencontre.

Une pratique photographique qui s’inscrit dans le temps et nous terminerons sur les mots de Nelli Shishmanyan qui signale lorsqu’on lui parle d’une possible continuité « […] La photographie s’ancre dans la vie et la vie continue. »

Et qui sait… Lors d’une prochaine exposition, nous aurons peut-être la chance de rencontrer ses deux collaborateurs azerbaïdjanais à Erevan.