Five Cafes to Inspire Your Creativity in Dubai

I’m frequently asked where I like to write in Dubai. Experts advise not to work from the couch in your pajamas, but I do it all the time and am highly productive in leopard print. Beyond my chaise lounge I have five firm favourite cafes, which I rotate like my collection of striped frocks with pockets. All of these spaces have lovely music, free wi fi, natural light, lots of electrical outlets for recharging gadgets, and the proprietors like the ambience that writers, readers, and freelancers bring, so you don’t need to worry about sitting a while with pen or watercolour brush in hand. Thanks to my friends over at kate spade new york for providing the quirky accessories to brighten up my spring wardrobe (and this post).

Picking up some pointers for my husband while taking a tea break at Book Munch

(1) Picking up some pointers for my husband while taking a tea break at Book Munch

Book Munch

The quintessential neighborhood bookstore café is cute as a button in hot pink and lime green, with a communal table at the front with magnificent natural light. This is the perfect place for a secret-spilling girly lunch or to bring your little bookworm to read and write. I took a short break out from writing a poem to take a peek at “Stuff Every Husband Should Know” by Eric San Juan. How charming! Perhaps I’ll tuck this tiny tome into the pocket of my husband’s pinstripe suit one morning. I was glad to spy the latest volumes of Dubai-based poets Frank Dullaghan, Rewa Zeinati, and Zeina Hashem Beck displayed on a table. I also fell in love with a cookbook titled, “Fairytale Food: Enchanting recipes to bring a little magic to your cooking.” Book Munch does in fact feel like the kind of café that would appear in a romantic comedy, the kind of place where it's possible to fall instantly in love with a stranger or a book.

http://www.bookmunchcafe.com

Hot pink and lime green over at Book Munch

Hot pink and lime green over at Book Munch

Impossible to have a bad day while writing with this octopus ring on my finger

(2) Impossible to have a bad day while writing with this octopus ring on my finger

Costa Coffee (DIFC Branch)

I stick out like a flamingo in a sea of sleek-suited ravens in DIFC. I always feel thrilled not to be wearing a suit like everyone else. Even the cappuccinos arrive with a $ written in chocolate powder atop a cloud of foam. Just another day of hustling in DIFC? I love this café for its long, communal work table, wait staff who take time to learn your name, views of the Burj Khalifa, great acoustics in case I’m meeting someone for an important conversation, and cozy mid-century modern décor. It’s also just across a steel bridge from the DIFC art galleries in case I want to take a break to check out the latest shows and fall in art love. Once my building’s power went out and I was on deadline and no one batted an eyelash extension when I sat typing away at the same table for six hours straight here. Thanks, Costa DIFC!

http://www.costacoffee.ae

Mid century modern with good natural light at Costa Coffee DIFC

Mid century modern with good natural light at Costa Coffee DIFC

At Costa Coffee in DIFC even our cappuccinos are hustling

(3) At Costa Coffee in DIFC even our cappuccinos are hustling

A4 Space on Alserkal Avenue

I spend the day at A4 Space when I get tired of awkwardly drinking a single expensive cappuccino over the course of three hours in order to justify working at a café. A4 is a completely free workspace for creatives set in the heart of Dubai’s gallery hub Alserkal Avenue. The coffee is plenty strong here, there are lots of seating options (from a giant spool of thread, to beanbag chairs, communal tables, and reading nooks), the wireless access is zippy, and there are often cool film screenings or exhibitions going on downstairs. I always bump into  artists, gallerists, and designers here, which has led to some of my favorite collaborations.

A4 is also the perfect place to hold any kind of meeting that demands outside the box brainstorming…and if you start to feel too serious you can grab a stack of art books from the community library (my donation was a copy of ‘Ariel’ by poet Sylvia Plath) and climb up to the tree house built high off the ground.

http://www.alserkalavenue.ae/a4space

 

A4 Space features a wall where you can leave a wish or a dream. Guess what mine was?

A4 Space features a wall where you can leave a wish or a dream. Guess what mine was?

Writing up an interview on UAE design and re-reading Sylvia Plath's poetry for the 1000th time at A4 Space

(4) Writing up an interview on UAE design and re-reading Sylvia Plath's poetry for the 1000th time at A4 Space

I grab a lemonade and climb into the treehouse at A4 Space when I have to concentrate and get serious stuff done

I love to grab a lemonade and climb into the treehouse at A4 Space

Choose your weapon at A4: Paintbrush, pen, or ladybug bedecked iPad?

Choose your weapon at A4: Paintbrush, pen, or ladybug bedecked iPad?

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Shakespeare and Co.

Mango lhassi and prissy English décor make for a good place to sit and hand write an important letter or focus and get a project done. This café is like the child of Jane Austen and Ibn Battuta, with lace and silver tea pots everywhere you look, in addition to backgammon, sweet melon shisha and addictive saj. I prefer the original location at Al Saqr Business Tower on Sheikh Zayed Road, which recently added a lovely shaded garden. My (now!) husband took me here at the end of our first date, so it’s sentimental.

http://www.shakespeare-and-co.com

 

Morning journaling at Shakespeare and Co

(6) Morning journaling at Shakespeare and Co

Shakespeare and Co in DIFC

Shakespeare and Co in DIFC

XVA, Al Fahidi

XVA is a cafe, art gallery, and hotel tucked down an alley way in a series of traditional Emirati homes complete with wind towers in the Al Fahidi historic neighborhood right on the creek. I take the metro to the Al Fahidi stop and spend long, dreamy afternoons drinking watermelon juice in the shaded courtyard, wandering through the gallery spaces, and often nibbling on date muffins with formidable founder Mona Hauser.

Iraqi artist Halim Al Karim has been in residence at XVA for years and you can glimpse evidence of his work all around. Last month he wrapped the courtyard in shiny fruit and flower paper as part of an installation titled 'Chaos.' XVA is a wonderful place to sit, eat, and breathe deeply for the day amidst leafy trees, neighborhood artists, tourists, and poets.

http://www.xvagallery.com

 

A leafy date with my laptop and a watermelon juice at XVA's courtyard cafe

(7) A leafy date with my laptop and a watermelon juice at XVA's courtyard cafe

A magical courtyard at XVA combines installations by resident artist Halim Al Karim with traditional Emirati architecture

A magical courtyard at XVA combines installations by resident artist Halim Al Karim with traditional Emirati architecture

IMG_2578

I ordered a Mike Salad (named after local artist Mike Arnold) and settled into Miranda July's first novel, while I waited for it to arrive

I ordered a Mike Salad (named after local artist Mike Arnold) and settled into Miranda July's first novel, while I waited for it to arrive

Product Information

All courtesy of kate spade new york (thanks Mall of the Emirates store!)

(1) Lily Avenue Kiki clutch and Lawn Party Snail Ring

(2) Shore Thing Octopus Ring, Splash Out Melly clutch

(3) Shore Thing Octopus Ring, Splash Out Melly clutch,
iPad Air Hardcase Make a Splash Lenticular

(4) Lady Bugs Silicone iPhone 6 case, Little Ladybug Ladybug ring, Splash out Sunglasses Clutch

(5) Spring Blooms iPad Air Hard Case

(6) Little Ladybug Bug Necklace

(7) Cedar Street Stripe Pom Pom Scarf

(8) Beach Gem Cuff Bracelet

Image Credits: Danna Lorch

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Sukoon: The Arab Literary Salon Opens Its Virtual Doors in English

Eyes may roll at the overused cliché of Beirut as the “Paris of the East,” but in the 60’s the city was truly the fast beating heart of the Arab world’s literary scene, with informal salons breaking out on smoke-filled balconies late into the night and often well past dawn. Poetry was real, and contained urgent political and philosophical messages. Poets and writers were powerful and capable of summoning real social change and self-censorship was not as prevalent in the region as it is today.

The old-fashioned Arabic language literary salon, complete with public intellectuals, painters, and dancers may sadly be a thing of the past, but new poetry nights, literary festivals, and online forums are popping up in Cairo, Dubai, Beirut, and Amman. Sukoon, an online literary journal in English including art, poetry, and prose that “reflects the range and richness of the cultures of the Arab world,” is at the core of this revival. Completely free and accessible to all readers who have entry to the internet, Sukoon came onto the scene in 2013 and has already managed to create a virtual literary salon for a number of poets, fiction writers, artists, and readers.

What follows is a conversation with Sukoon's Founding Editor Rewa Zeinati, who is herself a poet and the author of 'Nietzche’s Camel Must Die', a book compiled from 115 Facebook Notes, which flippantly, sadly, and oftentimes hilariously reflects on everyday life in the region. Born in Lebanon, educated in Beirut and the US, and currently based in Dubai, Rewa is an example of the multiple overlapping and contradictory identities and uncensored narratives that represent the contemporary Middle East:

Danna Lorch (DL): Choose three words that name what Sukoon is about.

Rewa Zeinati (RZ): Arab narrative (in) English.

DL:Okay. And now choose three words to clarify what Sukoon is not.

RZ: Censored, scholarly, non-literary.

DL: Describe the desk at which you work and your particular editing habits.

RZ: The desk? Well, it’s white. Set against sliding glass doors that open to a balcony (which I hardly ever use, but the light is incredible). My editing process: I read each piece a couple of times before deciding if it works. Often, I’d get an immediate sense of whether it works or not from the first two or three lines of a poem or a story. It’s usually pretty clear from the onset.

Shurooq Amin, All Quiet on the Eastern Front, from the Popcornographic series, mixed media on canvas and wood, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery. Note: The painting’s title is based on Eric Maria Remarque’s book by the same title which was banned in Nazi Germany)

Shurooq Amin, All Quiet on the Eastern Front, from the Popcornographic series, mixed media on canvas and wood, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery. Note: The painting’s title is based on Eric Maria Remarque’s book by the same title which was banned in Nazi Germany)

DL: Why is Sukoon a literary magazine in English rather than in Arabic and what implication does the choice of language have on the audience you are writing for?

RZ: Sukoon is a reflection of my own literacy, my own duality. I am Arab-themed and in English. I consistently read Arabic poetry and prose (in the Arabic language)—Mahmoud Darwish, Hanan El Sheikh, Nawal Al Saadawi, Nizar Qabbani etc. although my first language is English. Starting an Arab-themed journal in English makes sense to me.

Of course that would mean it reaches a different kind of audience, obviously a Western audience; an audience who, otherwise, may not be familiar with the Arab narrative first hand—the closest would be a translation. Consequently, we (Anglophone Arabs, if you will) would learn about each other through our own view of each other, as well as through the lens of non-Arabs writing about the Arab experience which is why the “motto” for Sukoon is “From the outside in, and from the inside in.”

Majid Alyousef, Dialogue with Mondrian, Acrylic on cardboard.

Majid Alyousef, Dialogue with Mondrian, Acrylic on cardboard.

DL: What one poem from the latest issue is stuck rattling around in your head? Share the lines that refuse to float away.

RZ: Oh, many poems have stayed with me from all four issues! From the latest issue,
Frank Dullaghan’s poem, “Living with Small Disappointments.” Here are a few lines:

“[…] And there is war,

that moronic and continual condition of our species –
as if this is the only way we can limit ourselves.”

A few lines from Elmaz Abinader’s poem “Arsenal”--

“We are our own weapons: waiting hardens the calves, teaches us how to move—
phrases are formed and we mouth ancient stories but nothing

as remarkable as this preservation of life when death lurks.”

Tamer Elsawy, Losing My Virginity, pencil sketch

Tamer Elsawy, Losing My Virginity, pencil sketch

Or a segment from Olivia Ayes’ poem “Fear: a sequence” (from the third issue):

vi. asubuhi صبح morning

“Rage, dear. We understand. We lay our bodies against
the cold cement floor. We believe, as you do—the winds
punching the trees, the rain pummeling horizontally across
our faces, the shores rising to the height of hills. We cannot
prevent disaster—only wait. Tomorrow, the sun and sky
will return to touch us gently, apologizing with a poem.
We’ll thank the wet earth between our toes, the bodies
you’ve given back to us, absolved. We will remember
that we do not belong to ourselves—“

DL: Why have you chosen to make the magazine entirely free and online?

RZ: Sukoon is online for global accessibility.

DL: What is it like to work with Arab writers with a cult following like Shurooq Amin and Naomi Shabib Nye? Were you looking for strong female voices or did that mood just come about organically on your virtual pages?

RZ: It is definitely an honor, but it was not intentional. I wasn’t looking for women’s voices particularly, but I’m hrilled to have included strong women voices of artists like Nathalie Handal, Hedy Habra, Shurooq Amin, Naomi Shihab Nye and many others throughout the issues.

Mohamad Ghamlouch, Istanbul Turkey, photograph, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Mohamad Ghamlouch, Istanbul Turkey, photograph, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

DL: Is there still such a thing as a literary salon in the Arab world or do journals, anthologies and magazines like Sukoon replace that physical gathering?

RZ: Yes, I believe that literary salons still exist here. I think online magazines complement those physical gatherings. They enrich and add to those important voices that may not otherwise be accessible if it weren’t for the availability of virtual platforms opening us up to each other. And to quote Naomi Shihab Nye in the interview found in the first issue of Sukoon, she says of literary journals, “they have given us so many ways to find each other.”

Shurooq Amin, The Dates of Wrath, from the Popcornographic series,  Acrylic painting, photography and collage on canvas mounted on wood. Courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery. Note: Title based on John Steinbeck’s book 'The Grapes of Wrath', banned & burned in some American cities in 1939, 1980 & 1982, and in ireland in 1953.

Shurooq Amin, The Dates of Wrath, from the Popcornographic series, Acrylic painting, photography and collage on canvas mounted on wood. Courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery. Note: Title based on John Steinbeck’s book 'The Grapes of Wrath', banned & burned in some American cities in 1939, 1980 & 1982, and in ireland in 1953.

Good Ideas: Sukoon is available online to everyone. To read the latest issue or to consider submitting creative art, poetry, or prose for consideration, go here.

Credits: This feature was co-posted with Mashallah News

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From the Harem to the Revolution: Worn Out Images of Middle Eastern Women in Art

Two chador-clad figures gesticulate with fully covered arms onscreen at the rear of Carbon 12, a gallery in Dubai. It would be easy to yawn and dismiss Anahita Razmi’s video, Middle east coast west coast, as yet one more work in which an artist covers Middle Eastern women’s faces and bodies to insinuate that they are voiceless. That assumption is turned on its (veiled) head, once one picks up a set of headphones to listen to the work’s sound, which reveals that the performers are actually a male and female couple bickering about stereotypes associated with west coast and east coast artists in the United States. It turns out that Razmi set Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson's 1969 audio recording to the performance.

Anahita Razmi, Middle east coast west coast,hd video,23 mins 04 secs,2014. Courtesy of the artist and Carbon 12 Dubai

Anahita Razmi, Middle east coast west coast,hd video,23 mins 04 secs,2014. Courtesy of the artist and Carbon 12 Dubai

Razmi’s show is titled Sharghzadegi, after a made up Farsi term for "Eastruckness," which plays on "Gharbzadegi," a somewhat derogatory adjective for "Westruckness," used in Iran to describe a person who models her or himself after Western values. The exhibition concerns our predilection for labelling and branding by questioning whether terms like “The Middle East” are relevant or even mean anything. Razmi, who is half German, half Iranian, photographed a Farsi tattoo on her forearm that translates, “This is Not Iranian.” She asked in our interview with exasperation, “What is not Iranian? Is it the person or is it the sentence?” then went on to clarify, “I am making a personal statement but a non-statement at the same time. These works are labelling something but at the same time questioning what labelling does.” Razmi is suggesting that the Eurocentric notion of “The Middle East” has become absurdly vague in our globalized times, as have tired gender and cultural typecasts.

Anahita Razmi, This is not Iranian. Courtesy of the artist and Carbon 12

Anahita Razmi, This is not Iranian. Courtesy of the artist and Carbon 12

The tattooing of Middle Eastern women’s bodies with text was famously played out in Shirin Neshat’s Women of Allah, a series of four photographs from the late 90s, which presented women in chador beside phallic weaponry, with every exposed centimetre of skin inked in classical Persian poetry, as if to imply that women—even the dangerous revolutionary variety— are the named possessions of the male religious elite. While this notion was wonderfully controversial back in the 90s, in a post 9/11 climate, the equation of Middle Eastern women with violence and veils has been so overdone that artists with roots in the region look downright lazy if they self-represent female bodies in this way—unless, like Razmi, they have a fresh spin.

Shirin Neshat, Speechless from the Women of Allah series, 1996, gelatin silver print and ink. Courtesy of the artist and LACMA

Shirin Neshat, Speechless from the Women of Allah series, 1996, gelatin silver print and ink. Courtesy of the artist and LACMA

Interestingly, LACMA seems to believe that Neshat’s earlier work is both "contemporary" and an example of Islamic Art. The museum is featuring Speechless from the Women of Allah series as the promotional image for a group exhibition titled Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art of The Middle East which includes strong work by artists including Hassan Hajjaj (whose Kesh Angels follows and documents a funky group of female bikers in Morocco), Wafaa Bilal, and Mona Hatoum. Regardless of the show’s scope, equating women from the region with guns and veils still draws crowds. It is dangerous for a powerful institution like LACMA to play into Western media stereotypes and imply firstly that Islamic contemporary art and "Art of the Middle East" are the same thing, and then to throw in such a pigeon-holed image of a woman from the region as a teaser.

Hassan Hajjaj, Kesh Angels, 2010:1431, Edition of 7, Metallic Lambda Print on 3mm White Dibond, 39.8h x 54.17w in : 101h x 137.6w cm. Courtesy of the artist and Taymour Grahne Gallery

Hassan Hajjaj, Kesh Angels, 2010:1431, Edition of 7, Metallic Lambda Print on 3mm White Dibond, 39.8h x 54.17w in : 101h x 137.6w cm. Courtesy of the artist and Taymour Grahne Gallery

In the Orientalist era, females did not have license to represent themselves artistically, and were instead objectified by European painters like Delacroix and Ingres, whose work provided a cover for buttoned up Victorian adventurers to explore their own sexual fantasies related to the harem rather than convey a realistic window onto women’s lives. In 2008 Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi reclaimed the harem and women’s bodies with a riff on Ingres’ 1814 painting of a nude concubine, La Grande Odalisque, in which a porcelain-skinned woman looks demurely and sensually away from the painter as though she is a decorative object. In Essaydi’s photograph by the same title in her Les Femmes du Maroc series, the subject looks fiercely into the camera as if to imply that she controls both her own sexuality and her destiny. Her body is tattooed in henna calligraphy with architectural patterns coordinating with the threshold she dominates. "Odalesque" in Turkish means "to occupy a space" and Essaydi is perhaps calling into question the ways in which Arab people have allowed themselves to be occupied by an Orientalist world view, even decades after colonialism’s demise—how women’s bodies provide the ultimate canvas, blank page, and battleground for that struggle.

Jean-August Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814

Jean-August Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814

Lalla Essaydi, La Grande Odalisque, Les Femmes Du Maroc, 2008

Lalla Essaydi, La Grande Odalisque, Les Femmes Du Maroc, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Toledo Art Museum

It is impossible to break down stereotypes related to women from the Middle East and art without simultaneously unpacking complex tropes on patriarchy. Kuwaiti painter Shurooq Amin whose show, It’s a Man’s World was closed within three hours of opening at a Kuwait City Gallery in 2012, is known for portraits that expose her views on the hypocrisy of her society, but also for self-portraits that portray Arab women as powerful and independent figures in a patriarchal culture. In A Man of No Importance, Amin crowns herself a queen upon a throne, unfolding a chain of tiny paper doll men in traditional dress. Amin fiercely tackles notions of masculinity, one taboo at a time, and there are a handful of other artists from the region, both male and female, who are engaged in the same on going project.

Shurooq Amin 'A Man of No Importance'. From the Popcornographic series. Mixed Media on Canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery

Shurooq Amin 'A Man of No Importance'. From the Popcornographic series. Mixed Media on Canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery

Good Ideas: Anahita Razmi's Sharghzadegi will run at Carbon 12 Dubai through 18 May, 2015

Credits: A version of this opinion piece was originally posted on ArtSlant

 

 

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Close The Language Door: Ala Ebtekar’s ‘Nowheresville’

Who hasn’t lain on their back, propped up on a rock or a mattress of grass and watched the clouds roll across the sky until the pinprick stars blink into inky evening, one at a time? Philosophy, astronomy, and the genre of Science Fiction come together to probe at universal celestial mysteries in Ala Ebtekar’s latest body of work, Nowheresville/ 'NÄ-KŌJA,-ABÄD at The Third Line in Dubai.

Zenith (IV), 2015, Acrylic over cyanotype on canvas, four panels, 182x92cm each, 182x368cm total

Zenith (IV), 2015, Acrylic over cyanotype on canvas, four panels, 182x92cm each, 182x368cm total

Although he has lived most of his life in the California Bay Area, much of Ebtekar’s practice has explored Persian mythology and ancestry with connections to American hip hop and pop culture. In ‘Elemental’ (2004), he famously whitewashed a replica of an Iranian coffee shop to represent the dying out of the traditional gathering spaces that had once given birth to Iran’s modern art movement and its significant discourses. With ‘Nowheresville’, the Stanford professor’s work has fully moved beyond group identity into the realm of the universally mystical. Our interview took place beneath a large-scale heptagon light sculpture. A NASA recording of the vibrations emitted by the rings of the planet Uranus, rose and fell eerily around us. It was conceivable that we could cross through one of the artist’s portals to the future at any second.

Untitled (Manuscript 14), 2013, Manuscript, 32x42cm

Untitled (Manuscript 14), 2013, Manuscript, 32x42cm

Here is what we discussed while we waited to embark on that journey:

Danna Lorch (DL): Tell me about Shahabuddin Suhrawardi, the 12th century Persian mystic philosopher for whom this show is named.

Ala Ebtekar (AL): First of all, there is very little academic work on Suhrawardi, although Henry Corbin has written about him and translated his books into English. To this day, most people don’t understand much of what was written. It’s philosophy, mainly [communicated] through stories, each containing triple or quadruple metaphorical levels of meaning, dealing with the idea that creation is based on light and transcendence goes back to filling yourself with light. Many New Age books today like ‘The Secret’ concern mindfulness, but here is someone who was talking about it in a relevant way in the 12th century.

Ala Ebtekar, Untitled (Manuscript 14), 2013, Manuscript, 32x42cm.JPG

Ala Ebtekar, Untitled (Manuscript 14), 2013, Manuscript, 32x42cm.JPG

DL: For the Manuscript series, you physically cut out portions of text from ancient illuminated manuscripts’ leaves. Are you looking at what is known through text and what can never be understood through language?

AE: Some people from the curatorial team at a museum visited the exhibition and looked at the series and assumed it was dealing with censorship. That actually wasn’t what I was going for. A lot of older Persian work is text-based. Walter Benjamin talks about how the aura is usually lost in translation.

Rumi has a very beautiful poem about the moon. He says:

“At night I wait for the moon to shine on my face.
Close the language door and open the love window.
The moon will only enter through the window.”

How do we close that language door? I attempted to capture the aura of these texts and created a window.

DL: Everything I’ve seen of yours relates to light, but in order for us to distinguish light we have to know darkness. In what way is darkness present in ‘Nowheresville’?

AE: Light has to have a contrast, so for that reason, the ‘Tunnel in the Sky’ works have a full book page behind them, which is from Robert Heinelin’s first 1955 edition. I’m exploring the tension between veiling and illuminating. In terms of the colour, there is a conscious transition from earth white to celestial blue.

Tunnel in the Sky (Variation 2, Chapters I-IV), collage cut mat over monoprint

Tunnel in the Sky (Variation 2, Chapters I-IV), collage cut mat over monoprint

Tunnel In The Sky (Variation 2 Chapters I-IV), 2015, Collage_Cut mat over monoprint on found book page, 62x49cm (detail)

Tunnel In The Sky (Variation 2 Chapters I-IV), 2015, Collage_Cut mat over monoprint on found book page, 62x49cm (detail)

DL: You and the Sun collaborated on the Zenith panels. How did that unlikely artistic dialogue come about?

AE: I challenged myself to find a way to contain light in an object without an electric plug. I came across the cyanotype process, which was developed in the 1800’s by an astronomer named Sir John Herschel. Process-wise, you treat the material with solution then create a negative that you place over it. You put the work in the sun and make an exposure depending upon the level of colour desired. In this case, that period lasted two hours. After you bring it inside, you wash and dry the material, and only then is the colour really evident. The idea of the work being touched by the sky is relevant to me. The work is conceptually born of light.

Installation shot at The Third Line

Installation shot at The Third Line

DL: How did you choose the heptagon shape for your installation, 'Sakina' around which the rest of the works are orbiting?

AE: This is a seven-sided heptagon shape and there are a lot of connections. This shape symbolizes the universe, the seven days, and the seven planets. Also it’s the first perfect number in mystical numerology.

Untitled, 2013, Manuscript, 42.5x32.2cm

Untitled, 2013, Manuscript, 42.5x32.2cm

Untitled (Manuscript 15), 2013, Manuscript, 42x32cm

Untitled (Manuscript 15), 2013, Manuscript, 42x32cm

DL: The brilliant thing is that although you’re mixing space discovery with Sci Fi kitsch and Persian mysticism there are a myriad of clear connections, one leading to the next.

AE: It’s true: The seventh planet is Uranus. The father of the astronomer who coined the cyanotype process was William Herschel, the same scientist to discover Uranus. Although it sounds like Tibetan bowls, the soundtrack we’re listening to is a 1986 NASA recording of the sounds made of the reverberations of the rings of that planet, taken by The Voyager.

Zenith (IV), 2015, Acrylic over cyanotype on canvas, four panels, 182x92cm each, 182x368cm total (detail)

Zenith (IV), 2015, Acrylic over cyanotype on canvas, four panels, 182x92cm each, 182x368cm total (detail)

DL: Also, in Sufism, seven represents the levels of heaven in Conference of the Birds. Spiritually and energetically anything is possible in this show. Seated here beneath this force field, we could beam up at any moment.

AE: That’s what ‘Nowheresville’ means and what Suhrawardi’s philosophy describes. In one of his stories, a young seeker asks a mystic, “So where is this ‘Nowheresville’ located?” the mystic answers, “It is the place your index finger can’t point to.” There is something nice about that place being different for everybody and the intention of the show is not for this show to be that place, which would be pretentious because it is different for everybody. I hope that audience will experience trying to get to that place on their own.

DL: I first encountered your work through your installation and phonograph cylinder performance at Maraya Art Park in Sharjah. Are you involved in any other public art projects currently?

AE: I teach at Stanford University and am currently working on a public art project that I was awarded for the city of Palo Alto. That is working with LED lights to illuminate the pedestrian walkway that leads from downtown Palo Alto to Stanford. Light is the medium but we’re working with different data to create an algorithm that will essentially influence the colour and intensity of the light depending on the date, time, or weather. In that sense, my art is headed in the direction of looking at how information can be displayed visually and become an experience.

In conversation with Ala underneath the heptagon

In conversation with Ala underneath the heptagon

 

Good Ideas: Nowheresville runs through 15 April, 2015 at The Third Line in Dubai.

Credits: Images courtesy of artist and The Third Line

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Typing Syria: Whatsapp as Performance Art or Awareness Campaign?

Typing Syria is a social experiment and performance piece running in a Whatsapp group through the month of April. Subscribers are not allowed to engage with the characters, and are encouraged to eavesdrop but not act. This voyeuristic relationship echoes the international community’s attitude towards the Syrian situation four years on, which can be likened to the screen saver that comes onto the iPhone after 30 seconds of inattention.

Typing Syria Screenshot 1

Throughout the performance, two old friends, fictional characters named Khalid and Sa’eed, separated by borders and time zones, type onto Whatsapp, trying to connect through limited words and an increasing divergence of daily lives. Just like any other young, unmarried guys, there is light discussion of beers and girls (perhaps in subtle reference to the largely secular nature of urban Syria before the conflict began). However, it becomes evident very quickly that Sa’eed is in Syria and Khalid is pursuing asylum in Holland. There are moments of universal relatable humanity, such as when Sa’eed’s female relatives bake pastries. These vignettes are interrupted by reality—the power goes out and the pastries cannot be cooked.

Typing Syria Screenshot 2

It’s oddly (and perhaps deliberately) unclear on which “side” of the conflict the characters sit. Khalid is rejected for an asylum visa in Holland. He wonders aloud, “its weird that weve come to this. Now I just wait. Syrians begging other countries for their rights.” Sa’eed tries to connect Khalid with friends in Italy, but refuses to leave Syria because he is in love with a girl whose “brain is a real machine” who used to wear the veil but recently removed it but has a brother who is “2/3 ISIS.”

Typing Syria Screenshot 3

When Sa’eed types that he wants to secretly live with this woman—a scenario that is implausible for a Syrian context before or after the conflict—the “performance” began to feel like an awareness campaign geared towards a Western audience that should have been titled, “Syrians: They’re Just Like Us.” The reality is that Syrians are diverse in belief and culture, as well as stories of survival, and by trying too hard to demonstrate that the characters are educated, secular, and hip, the artists risk viewers generalizing about an entire population. At a time when many people inside (and even outside) Syria do not even have access to basic food, water, and power, it is dangerous to focus exclusively on two relatively affluent, English-speaking characters. Perhaps this will be un-packed in further texts throughout the month. Nonetheless, the performance does a decent job of weighing the tensions between disconnection and connection, exile and domesticity, while probing the ways that today’s conflicts are mediated by social media.

Screenshot 4, Typing Syria

It is unclear why the artist or artists’ names associated with Typing Syria have not been mentioned, although a press release did mention support from NYU Abu Dhabi, and as the characters’ numbers are a +971 country code, it seems the project originates in the United Arab Emirates. Unless screenshots go viral later this month, it is doubtful that this performance will change the international community’s lack of response to the situation in Syria in any significant way. Will we all continue to look on with passive interest before scrolling through our social media feeds?

Typing Syria Screenshot 5

Good Ideas: For more information about the performance visit Typing Syria.

Credits: This review originally appeared in ArtSlant. All images are screenshots snapped on my phone from Typing Syria.

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