The Gamcha Project

Sadly, most of the time when Dubai comes up in international news it is in association with displays of glittering luxury, which are only one narrow facet of the city's identity. Every so often some journalist makes reference to the laborers or workers, but it's rare that these men's faces and stories are actually told to the outside world; they are typically spoken for and about, not to. Here in Dubai we're indebted to the fellows who have left their families in search of a dream to come to build our city while scraping together sufficient money to send kids to school, help sisters with dowries, and construct homes for aging parents back in their home countries. In that sense, many of the city's workers are our everyday super heroes.

Elise Vazelakis, an American expat artist, was particularly inspired by laborer's traditional scarves (called gamchas) in their surprisingly bright colors and varied textures. She collected gamchas from workers and wove them into a series of unusual textiles that recognize the stories and individuality of the laborers and are firmly grounded in Dubai's culture.

With a personality vivacious enough to light up the Burj Khalifa on a foggy morning, Elise was easy to interview. Here's a peek into our conversation about The Gamcha Project:

Danna Lorch (DL): How did The Gamcha Project come about?

Elise Vazelakis (EV): I began the project about a year and half ago while living in the Dubai Marina.  There was so much construction around my area with the new Marina tram underway.  I became obsessed with the workers’ colorful scarves (called a gamcha) that they used to protect themselves from the elements.  I loved seeing how each laborer utilized his gamcha differently; wrapped around his face, under his hard hat and around his neck. These beautiful fabrics stood out against the bland backdrop of the construction sites. 

The Gamcha Project, Mixed Media, Gamcha, Photography, and other materials woven on a hand loom, 2013-2014

The Gamcha Project, Mixed Media, Gamcha, Photography, and other materials woven on a hand loom, 2013-2014

DL: How did you begin conversations with Dubai’s workers that led to your project?

EV: I searched high and low for the cotton gamchas, scouring stores and souks in every corner of Dubai. Unable to source them I decided to make care packages, filled with snacks and ten dirhams apiece. I waited in front of my apartment tower where the evening bus came to pick up the labour force after their workday. As they got on the bus I tried my best to trade their gamcha for my care package. I was ignored as they piled onto the bus, anxious to get home.

That was when a young Indian man who was watching me asked what I wanted from them. I explained to him that I was an artist and wanted their scarves. He promptly corrected me by letting me know my first mistake was that they are called “Gamchas” not scarves and then told me that they didn’t want to give me their gamchas. I explained to him that I wanted to trade them and told him what was in my care package. His eyes lit up! He said he would help me if he also got a care package. A deal was struck and he entered the bus and explained the situation.  Before I knew it gamchas were flying out of the bus windows. I ran out of care packages that day but promised to come back the next day with more. That was the start of my project and a relationship that I built with the workers.  

Also, at this time I had finally found a source of the gamchas; at the Labour camp stores. The new gamchas were stiff and without history. I did not want to work with them but I found that taking the gamchas from the men left them without an essential part of their uniform. So instead of snacks, I began to purchase the new gamchas and staple 10 dirhams to them.

Photography by Elise Vazelakis

Photography by Elise Vazelakis

The Gamcha Project, Mixed Media, Gamcha, Photography, and other materials woven on a hand loom, 2013-2014

The Gamcha Project, Mixed Media, Gamcha, Photography, and other materials woven on a hand loom, 2013-2014

DL: Once you collected the gamchas what process did you go through to transform them into art?

EV: The gamchas stayed in my studio for weeks with out a project in mind. At this time, my practiced was focused around oil painting. Not knowing what to do with the gamchas, I began to experiment with sewing them together, painting on them and knitting with them.  None of these techniques resulted in the results I was looking for.

So much a part of my art is experimentation, trial and error.  It is the not knowing that keeps the work interesting and fresh. Then the idea came to me to weave them together.  I made a handloom, tore the gamchas into thin strips and began weaving. 

I continued to collect more gamchas and by this time I was well known around the neighborhood. I was always greeted with welcoming smiles and happy gamcha exchanges. I began photographing the men prior to my gamcha exchange. I loved their eager faces so full of hope and excitement. I began to integrate their images into the weaving along with found objects on the construction sites that I would collect, like barrier tape and nails. 

Photography by Elise Vazelakis

Photography by Elise Vazelakis

DL: Have you ever had the chance to show any of the workers pieces from the project? If so, how did they respond? If not, why do you suppose this wasn’t possible?

EV: I did go out with with a thank you note written in 6 different languages with the laborer’s portraits on them. I have tried to explain the project, but there is a language barrier. Since I only speak English and they are multi-lingual in Arabic, and/or Hindi, Tamil, Urdu or Bangladeshi communication was limited to a smile and non-verbal communication.

The Gamcha Project, Mixed Media, Gamcha, Photography, and other materials woven on a hand loom, 2013-2014

The Gamcha Project, Mixed Media, Gamcha, Photography, and other materials woven on a hand loom, 2013-2014

Good Ideas: To learn more about The Gamcha Project or to view some of the weavings visit Showcase Gallery on Alserkal Avenue in Dubai here.

Image Credits: Courtesy of the artist and Showcase Gallery

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GCC: Achievements in Retrospective

Representatives of The Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (The Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC in abbreviation) deliberate while seated in red silk chairs around a polished wooden table engraved in gold leaf. GCC, a collective of eight artists largely of Kuwaiti origin have installed Micro Council, a doll-sized replica of the table in the center of an otherwise empty and sterile exhibition space at Sharjah Art Foundation. The table huddles weakly beneath the glare of LED lights streaming from a grandiose gold ceiling, referencing the nondescript yet luxurious conference halls and hotels where forums, accords, or even art fairs are held in the region.

Reclaiming phrases commonly bantered among ministry officials in speeches and memorandums, GCC calls itself a “delegation,” and the members Nanu Al-Hamad, Khalid Al Gharaballi, Abdullah Al-Mutairi, Fatima Al Qadiri, Monira Al Qadiri, Aziz Al Qatami, Barrak Alzaid and Amal Khalaf convene for “summits” around the world. The group’s name—which implies that these young artists speak for their entire generation—coupled with the idea that a one-year-old collective could stage or merit a retrospective, is deliberately pretentious, and a parody on power and how it is used or misused humbly or extravagantly by decision-making bodies.

Micro Council, 2013, Wood, brass, acrylic glass, glass, gold leaf, paint, Installation view at GCC: Achievements in Retrospective, 2014, Sharjah Art Foundation Art Spaces; Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

Micro Council, 2013, Wood, brass, acrylic glass, glass, gold leaf, paint, Installation view at GCC: Achievements in Retrospective, 2014, Sharjah Art Foundation Art Spaces; Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

GCC, Berlin Congratulant, 2013, Glass, brass, metal, and zirconica diamond trophy on marble-veneered pedestal, Installation view at GCC: Achievements in Retrospective, 2014, Sharjah Art Foundation Art Spaces; Courtesy of Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin and Sharjah Art Foundation

GCC, Berlin Congratulant, 2013, Glass, brass, metal, and zirconica diamond trophy on marble-veneered pedestal, Installation view at GCC: Achievements in Retrospective, 2014, Sharjah Art Foundation Art Spaces; Courtesy of Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin and Sharjah Art Foundation

The second portion of the exhibition has been installed in Bait Habib Al Shalwani, a repurposed historic home that flanks the Foundation’s newer minimalist spaces. Step into any government minister’s office in the Gulf and expect to encounter a shelf of carefully polished crystal awards engraved to commemorate various forums and inaugurations. GCC satirizes the custom with an installation of ten awards celebrating each of the cities in which the collective has gathered since its 2013 inception. Garish cubic zirconia bedecks a replica of a ship’s wheel, while the glass base is engraved with the bumptious phrase, “Berlin Congratulant.”

The trophies draw attention to both the commercial business of government swag and to the emptiness of a group of artists or diplomats honoring one another at the conclusion of a nondescript summit that may not have in fact accomplished much of any lasting impact. This contrast between the contrived and timeless is further strengthened by a sound installation in which a female speaker blandly reads aloud the GCC's charter article by article over a loudspeaker. At times the empty recording competes for attention with the haunting call to prayer projected from the blue-tiled mosque located just next door.

An exhibition of the same title was presented at MoMA PS1 over the summer, but the works have been rearranged here to respond to the architectural environment of Sharjah Art Foundation. The MoMA retrospective was far more provocative and displayed a series of photographs (including a mock diplomatic negotiation set in the Swiss Alps) that added an element of performance and engaged playfully yet meaningfully with various symbols and tropes of Gulf culture. One who has viewed both incarnations of the exhibition can’t help but wonder if these images were pointedly left out in Sharjah due to concerns of offending a hometown crowd. Regardless, this is an exciting and thoughtful exhibition by a group that is going places. It has been well placed at a progressive institution that is at the forefront of the emerging GCC art scene.

GCC, Figure B: Micro Council, 2013, Wood, brass, acrylic glass, glass, gold leaf, paint, Installation view at GCC: Achievements in Retrospective, 2014, Sharjah Art Foundation Art Spaces; Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

GCC, Figure B: Micro Council, 2013, Wood, brass, acrylic glass, glass, gold leaf, paint, Installation view at GCC: Achievements in Retrospective, 2014, Sharjah Art Foundation Art Spaces; Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

Good Ideas: The exhibition runs at Sharjah Art Foundation October 11, 2014 - December 10, 2014. For more information go here. http://www.sharjahart.org

Note: This review was originally published on ArtSlant

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The Poetry of Pleating: The Textile Designs of Nawal Gebreel

Nawal Gebreel is a Libyan-born textile designer based in Liverpool. She is best known for her scarves, which occupy that dreamy, grey area between art and design. The first time I encountered one of her pieces it was lying crumpled up in monochrome on a rough wooden table. I approached it thoughtfully as one would a sculpture, and began to circle it from all angles as though at a museum. The truth is I thought it might be a sculpture. It turned out to be the Navzati Wrap, a structured, architectural piece that mimics the slinky texture of fish scales reflecting the light.

The Navzat wrap named after the designer's mother

The Navzat wrap named after the designer's mother

I interviewed Nawal at her daughter’s Dubai home where we were joined by two sociable Bengal cats, who tickled our feet and attempted to rub their outstretched paws across scarves as delicately pleated as flower petals. A petite woman with a pixie cut and spectacles, dressed all in black, she struck me as both practical and impossibly cool.

Growing up in Eastern Libya, Nawal’s uncle owned a stylish department store, and from an early age she would watch as tailors draped clients in fabric elegantly, then cut and stitched to flatter each woman’s individual figure and character. She recalls, “I was exposed to fashion and tailoring at an early age. My grandmother could make any dress or coat precisely but never used a pattern. As a child, my mother would draw me anything I wanted—a flower, a house, a figure—and this encouraged me to use my hands and experiment with art.”

The Shosho scarf/wrap

The Shosho scarf/wrap

This penchant for draping and experimentation can be sensed in all of Nawal’s designs. She prefers nothing more than fabric shopping in London, running her fingers across the bolts of cloth, sensing intuitively for just the right elements for a design conceived while haphazardly folding a white cloth napkin in her lap at a dinner party. She is also influenced by Shibori (the Japanese art of dying, binding, pleating or tying cloth to create a unique pattern), as well as undersea beauty, contemporary art museums, and origami.

The beauty of Nawal’s practice is that she only started out at age forty, proving that it’s not compulsory for a successful designer to set out at age 22 with vision and capital in order to make a name:

“I only began my formal education as a textile designer at age 40 once my children went to university. It was then that I began to travel 2 hours door-to-door from my home in Liverpool to Manchester Metropolitan University) for a degree in BA (Honours) textiles, and ultimately launched my design label.” 

The Savy scarf

The Savy scarf

The risk of beginning a new career path decades later than most paid off when Nawal began with painting and print effects, ultimately designing her first pleated scarf in 2000, followed by several other collections and exclusives with The Royal Academy of Arts. Today she works from a studio at Liverpool’s Bluecoat Centre, an old school recently restored to provide space to artists of all backgrounds working across various mediums.

I snapped this one behind the scenes of Nawal and one of the Bengals trying on scarves together

I snapped this one behind the scenes of Nawal and one of the Bengals trying on scarves together

Good Ideas: To learn more about Nawal Gebreel and her scarves visit the designer's website here.

Image Credits: Courtesy of Nawal Gebreel

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Sculpture Carves Out a Place at Abu Dhabi Art

Sculpture is on the rise as a definite trend at this year’s edition of Abu Dhabi Art, with examples ranging from Subodh Gupta’s Et tu Duchamp? which represents a playful gender-bending twist on the Mona Lisa by giving the fair lady a goatee, to Emirati contemporary artist Hassan Sharif’s textile sculptures formed of balled and twisted textiles discovered in Dubai’s local souks. The shipping and logistics involved for a gallery from outside the UAE to include sculpture (or other large scale works) in a booth at the fair are extremely costly, and demand great confidence in the sophistication and buying power of collectors, museums, or cultural institutions attending Abu Dhabi Art and looking to make acquisitions.

Anish Kapoor-, Untitled, 2011, Alabaster. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery and Abu Dhabi Art

Anish Kapoor-, Untitled, 2011, Alabaster. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery and Abu Dhabi Art

Sherin Guirguis, Qasr El-Shoaq, 2010, Plywood, aluminum, and lead. The Third Line.

Sherin Guirguis, Qasr El-Shoaq, 2010, Plywood, aluminum, and lead. The Third Line.

Visitors less focused on collecting can be observed with selfie sticks in hand, eagerly posing with the sculptures in the background. Perhaps the three-dimensional aspect of the work adds to viewers’ ability to easily engage with the art as they circle it, whereas a painting must be studied and often requires some reflection to find an entry point.

Nathanial Rackowe, SP12m 2012, Powder coated scaffolding tubes, fluorescent, lights, scaffolding, clamps. At the Lawrie Shabibi booth. Courtesy of Abu Dhabi Art

Nathanial Rackowe, SP12m 2012, Powder coated scaffolding tubes, fluorescent, lights, scaffolding, clamps. At the Lawrie Shabibi booth. Courtesy of Abu Dhabi Art

Roy Lichtenstein, Metallic Brushstroke Head, 1994, Painted and nickel plated bronze, Edward Tyler Gallery. Image Courtesy of Abu Dhabi Art

Roy Lichtenstein, Metallic Brushstroke Head, 1994, Painted and nickel plated bronze, Edward Tyler Gallery. Image Courtesy of Abu Dhabi Art

Sculpture as an artistic medium has its Eastern roots in ancient Egypt and its Western groundings in ancient Greece, with both environments focusing mainly on sweeping odes to the Gods. While classical sculpture was typically carved from great slabs of marble stone, or later forged in bronze, contemporary sculpture can literally be formed from any material—from plastic, to light, textiles, and even sound. It’s easy to confuse sculpture with installation, and occasionally there is a fuzzy area between the two mediums. In general, an installation is an immersive (often interactive) work of art that you can step into, under, over, or even onto.

Work by Hassan Sharif at the Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde Booth. Courtesy of Danna Lorch

Work by Hassan Sharif at the Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde Booth. Courtesy of Danna Lorch

Dan Flavin, untitled to Virginia Dwan 2, 1971, blue, yellow, pink, and red fluorescent light. Courtesy of David Zwimer Gallery and Abu Dhabi Art

Dan Flavin, untitled to Virginia Dwan 2, 1971, blue, yellow, pink, and red fluorescent light. Courtesy of David Zwimer Gallery and Abu Dhabi Art

Standout examples of sculpture at the fair include the American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s playful metallic brushstroke head, complete with iconic polka dots at Edward Tyler Gallery. The late Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light ode to Virginia Dwan (imagine having a sculpture named in your honor!), at David Zwimer creates a sultry mood of electric blues and soft pinks, proving that minimalist sculpture can still offer warmth. Finally, an alabaster piece by Anish Kapoor perhaps referencing an oyster in a gritty shell, is installed at The Lisson Gallery booth.

Ai Weiwei, F Size, 2011, Huali wood. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery and Abu Dhabi Art

Ai Weiwei, F Size, 2011, Huali wood. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery and Abu Dhabi Art

Good Ideas: The sixth edition of Abu Dhabi Art runs 5-8 November, 2014. Admission is free but registration is essential. For everything you need to know go here.

A version of this piece was co-posted on The National's Art Blog. Special thanks to the talented Anna Seaman.

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What is Art? Martin Creed Doesn't Know

What is art? Even Martin Creed, winner of the 2001 Turner Prize, doesn’t quite know. In a talk titled, “What is Art?” that took place on the first public day of Abu Dhabi Art, the artist and musician took to the auditorium stage holding a guitar, with his harmonica swinging from his neck. A woman stood behind him, repeating his physical movements in an unexpected parody. Creed, who has made waves in the past for saying, “I don’t know what art is,” and “I wouldn’t call myself an artist,” admitted to having grappled with the talk’s title: “I didn’t want to have a title because I don’t think it’s good to say what you’re going to do, so I don’t really like titles.” This aversion to definitions has become so extreme that the artist opts to number rather than title his works. They are all classified on his website in crisp, identically proportioned thumbnails like rare butterflies pinned to a board.

Martin Creed at Abu Dhabi Art. Image Courtesy of The Cool Box and Abu Dhabi Art

Martin Creed at Abu Dhabi Art. Image Courtesy of The Cool Box and Abu Dhabi Art

In his lulling accent, Creed went on to suggest, “Art is anything that anyone thinks is art.” This open-ended admission clearly amused the rows of teenage students from Raffles Academy kicking their feet up in the balcony. In school and in the art world alike, definitions often denote superiority, and it is rare for someone—let alone a leading expert— to admit that they don’t know or aren’t quite sure of something. Thought, according to Creed is what often controls art.

From the time he was in art school studying painting, Creed rebelled against the notion of thought, attempting to “start out from zero without knowing beforehand what a work would be” or how it would develop” (for an example of this technique, he showed a slide referencing No. 263, an installation concerning a protrusion from a blank white wall).

Martin Creed and an accompanying performance artist. Image courtesy of The Cool Box and Abu Dhabi Art

Martin Creed and an accompanying performance artist. Image courtesy of The Cool Box and Abu Dhabi Art

In later years, he’s set out to create a visual work that is like a piece of music in the immersive experience it provokes in the audience. To illustrate the parallels between art and music, the artist performed a series of original songs including one with the telling lyrics: “I was thinking, and then I wasn’t thinking, and then I was thinking.”

Although the unrestricted nature of the talk was refreshing, it was lacking that the artist elected not to express a more specific vision concerning the role of the artist in society, and the function of art in general.

Martin Creed performing original music at Abu Dhabi Art. Image courtesy of The Cool Box and Abu Dhabi Art

Martin Creed performing original music at Abu Dhabi Art. Image courtesy of The Cool Box and Abu Dhabi Art

Good Ideas: Abu Dhabi Art runs through 8 November and is open to the public and free of admission with registration. For more information go here.

A version of this review is co-posted on The National's Art Blog

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