Gypsy Madonnas: Alexander Barkovsky's Uzbek Lithographs in Dubai

The artist Alexander Barkovsky stepped into Alif Gallery wearing skinny jeans and a traditional embroidered Uzbek hat, sat down on a swivel chair and spoke with me about the two years he spent living with the nomadic Mughat people of Tashkent, ultimately earning enough trust to photograph women with their children in poses that echo Raphael and Leonardo’s quintessential Madonnas. The compact gallery space was festooned with a laundry line displaying typical Uzbek pants in bold prints, and the images themselves—lithographs stylized with bursts of saturated color—are nestled in frames built from the bright dowry chests that Mughat girls fill with embroidery and other household items before marriage.

Alexander spoke to me through the translation of Alif’s Founder, Natalya Andakulova, and the rhythm of posing a question, listening to Alexander melodically respond in Russian as we locked eyes, then recording Natalya’s detailed translation, echoed the artist’s entrenched, painstaking process of printing, which took place in his chilly Tashkent studio with the use of an 19th century Soviet press and a smooth, acutely sensitive river stone.

The Lithography process

The Lithography process

A closeup of the lithography stone and a contemporary work being produced using a time worn technique

A closeup of the lithography stone and a contemporary work being produced using a time worn technique

He cites two key influences on his practice: Sergey Prakudin-Gorksii (1863-1944), the father of Russian color photography, and the French illusionist and filmmaker Georges Melies (1861-1938), who originally bought a camera to use in his theatrical shows and then, after it jammed, accidentally discovered the technique of causing objects or people to distort or fade on film.

It’s controversial to present this work in Central Asia, a place in which the Gypsy (a derogatory yet common term), Roma, or Mughat situation is considered sensitive, with many documented cases of discrimination, as well as the belief that the community is unhygienic and embedded in petty crime. It’s still more controversial that the artist represented real Mughat woman as martyrs in his works, explaining, “In general, the men sit at home and the women walk the streets begging for money, even right after giving birth. From her first moments of consciousness, a child understands this way of life and the role of her mother.” He chose to recall Russian icons and Renaissance works honoring the Virgin Mary as a way to recognize the women’s goodness and elevate their sense of self and the way they are regarded by society.

Alexander Barkovsky in his Tashkent studio

Alexander Barkovsky in his Tashkent studio

Despite these noble objectives the artist said, “Half the women denied my requests to shoot them as they hold the belief that the soul will be transferred to any image captured on film, and it is very challenging to change their minds about this as it’s a story that has been passed down by grandmothers in the community.”

The women who viewed the final work did not approve of it. They are influenced by Bollywood’s glamorous notions of beauty and considered these images to be distorted, regardless of the fact that Sotheby’s thought otherwise, selling Gypsy Madonna #6 at a 2013 auction in London titled At The Crossroads: Contemporary Art from The Caucasus and Central Asia.

Barkovsky's 'Gypsy Madonna #6'

Barkovsky's 'Gypsy Madonna #6'

Good Ideas: Alif Gallery is a relative newcomer, focuses on Central Asian art, and serves as further proof that Dubai’s steadily growing art scene is coming to act as a hub for galleries and artists from around the world. The gallery is located in DAMAC Towers and the show runs through 22 October, 2014. For more information go here.

Image Credits: Courtesy of Alexander Barkovsky and Alif Gallery

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Bernhard Buhmann's Pretenders: The Masks of Social Media

I sat in the middle of Carbon 12’s gallery space speaking quietly with the Austrian artist Bernhard Buhmann, but we were hardly alone. 10 gregarious characters surrounded us, and although they were painted in oils and acrylics on one-dimensional canvas, I felt that they could jump onto the concrete floor, shake themselves out, and join in our conversation at any moment.

Maybe it was their mismatched stockings or the way that they seemed able to almost dance off the canvas towards us, but I felt that there was something childlike and simple about these personalities as if they are trying too hard to be liked. ‘The Pretenders,’ the title of the artist’s second solo show at the gallery, is a commentary on our social-media obsessed times and the addiction that many of us have to advertising only a glossy, edited version of ourselves and the most exciting aspects of our everyday lives to the outside world. The paintings explore how it is easily possible to lose oneself in the vicious circle of keeping up appearances. The sheer 2-metre height of each canvas leaves the artist and the characters with no place to hide insecurities or flaws.

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Here’s an excerpt from the quasi-philosophical conversation I enjoyed with the sociologist turned full-time artist:

DL: Given people’s obsessions with selfies, appearances, and fashion here in Dubai, I find it very intriguing that you chose to present ‘The Pretenders’ here. Was that deliberate?

BB: There are 17 paintings in this series, 10 of which are here, all of which were completed in the past 5-6 months for this gallery space. I chose the 2 meters-high canvases to make the characters life-sized so you could feel their presence. In Dubai of course you see shiny and bright, big, impressive things, so of course this show particularly fits here, but you can see selfies in Europe too, where everyone has the need to change their roles very quickly, seeking attention with the desire to be known.

DL: Do you personally take selfies?

BB: No way, but I do have 17 of them displayed here! I don’t believe that social media is bad and this show is not about criticizing people who use it. It’s more about raising consciousness of how social media is utilized and examining what is missing when someone is immersed in the lifestyle of relying upon social media. In today’s world it may be necessary for survival purposes to constantly reinvent yourself, to be able to make yourself new at a moment’s notice—social media and these paintings reflect that environment.

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DL: Do each of these characters represent a particular aspect of society or do you hope for the meaning to be more open-ended?

BB: It’s open-ended. There is no single message or one particular way to view the show. The best art must open an entry point for you to find yourself. The best way an artwork can function is to pose something that touches you. Your strong reaction to that does not even have to be intellectual. It can be pure emotion. Even a color—a certain shade of bright red, for example—can ignite emotion.

DL: Is there an element of fear at play here?

BB: Yes, of course. They want to be bright and joyful, but you can see that underneath their masks they are grotesque. They try to hide their imperfections, and nearly all their skin is covered. Whenever they want to shirk responsibility, they can simply change their masks.

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DL: Human beings rarely show all sides of themselves--we are made up of complex facets. Perhaps we prefer the fantasy of who someone appears to be, to the reality of who they really are beneath their thick mask.

DL: Describe your studio in Vienna.

BB: It’s the stereotype of an artist’s studio. It’s a big space in an 18th century factory. I keep a guitar there and play it badly while I’m waiting for layers of paint to dry or puzzling over where to go next with a painting. I keep regular hours from 9 or 10 in the morning until 6 in the evening and then close the door.

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Good Ideas: ‘The Pretenders’ runs at Carbon 12 on Alserkal Avenue through 28 October. For details go here.

Image Credits: Courtesy of the artist and Carbon 12 Dubai.

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A Curious Affinity for Blue: In Conversation with Street Artist Myneandyours

Myneandyours is known for stickers, wheat paste, and murals of clouds, all in a recognizable shade of blue. Myne is based in Dubai, but was raised in London with Iraqi roots. He came up listening to punk music, going to gigs, and skateboarding on city streets, all of which led to street art. Now a full time artist with a studio at Tashkeel, an artists’ incubator and community set in Dubai, Myne recently completed a mural in Tunisia as part of the #Djerbahood project, a remarkable initiative organized by Galerie Itinerance, bringing some of the world’s top street artists to paint walls on the tiny Tunisian island of Djerba.

Fly High, Great Eastern St, Shoreditch, London, 2014, Photo Credit Monoprixx

Fly High, Great Eastern St, Shoreditch, London, 2014, Photo Credit Monoprixx

I sat down with Myneandyours at Dubai’s trendy A4 community space to talk street art, mythology, and technique. Here is the conversation that followed:

DL:Mabrook (congratulations!) on your recent trip to Djerba. Tell me about your experience.

MY: We painted in Erriadh, a small town outside the city center. The temperatures were so boiling hot that all the work was done at night. When I was painting I had the owner of the house [who had offered his wall to me], his brother and son bringing me food throughout the night. I painted from 9pm-9am. The owner’s brother and teenage nephew dragged out a mattress, played Umm Kulthum, chain-smoked, and ate pistachios to keep me company the entire time.

DL: You ultimately chose to paint a mural featuring a local Berber woman. Why did this image feel like the right choice?

MY:In the Odyssey, Odysseus stops along his journey back to Troy on an island that is now believed to be Djerba. The island is inhabited by the Lotus Eaters who feed on the fruit from the lotus flower, which makes them sleepy, apathetic, and able to get through the day. I wanted to leave something behind that related to our local hosts so I chose to paint a local Berber woman with a lotus flower.

A trio of public bathroom doors painted during the Djerba Hood Project in Tunisia, 2014

A trio of public bathroom doors painted during the Djerba Hood Project in Tunisia, 2014

The Fruit of the Lotus, Djerba, Tunisia, 2014

The Fruit of the Lotus, Djerba, Tunisia, 2014

DL: Why do you have a curious affinity for blue? It turns up in all your work.

MY: I wanted to create an identity and consistency between my work. I began with the blue cloud, which I incorporate into almost everything I do. I don’t like to sign my work so the blue is in lieu of my name in most cases.

DL: You’re best known for your clouds. When did you draw your first cloud?

MY: About 7 years ago, it started out as a doodle for a friend who wanted to get a tattoo. Then I started putting it up on buildings and making stickers of the cloud, which I’d put up all over London. My mom is so cool that she pastes my stickers all over New York City. The symbol means different things to everyone, but from a scientific perspective, through the cycle of condensation we are all connected to the clouds and the environment.

A screenshot from Myne's laptop demonstrating the technical process he goes through when creating a mural. The final piece appears deceptively simple and spontaneous.

A screenshot from Myne's laptop demonstrating the technical process he goes through when creating a mural. The final piece appears deceptively simple and spontaneous.

DL: That’s the beauty of street art. You’re affecting people without really realizing it and the work takes on a life of its own, long after you’ve left it.

MY: Some pieces I put up just to be provocative. I come back and they’ve been painted over or removed. I find it inspirational that my work caused someone to think and take action.

When I go out at night, I pre-paint 3 meters on paper. I take wheat flour paste, a huge, extendable brush and I climb a building and put the work up. I pre-print because I don’t want to rush or make a mess and if someone doesn’t want it to be there, it’s just paper and anyone can take it down. I like that it’s temporary.

DL: There’s something very Zen about that.

MY: Yeah. It makes it very exciting to come back in a year and see if it’s still there.

Great Eastern St, London, July, 2014, Billboard

Great Eastern St, London, July, 2014, Billboard

DL: I don’t place much importance on labels, but would you call yourself a graffiti artist?

MY: Graffiti is something different from what I do. Those artists are writers who are speaking to one another on the wall. Those guys are amazing but that’s not me. In Dubai I only paint outside legally, I knock on doors and ask permission. I’m searching for a big wall, something dirty and grimy that I can hit here.

DL: You relocated to Dubai last year and became full time artist. What was your previous day job?

MY: Back in London I used to have a day job in an office directing marketing for a certain pizza franchise. I sat in a cubicle. My wife Reem would compare me to Superman. I’d wear a suit and tie by day but at night I’d sneak out with my bucket and paper to scale a building.

DL: Do you sketch your work out beforehand or encounter it for the first time when you’re face to face with a wall?

MY: If you analyze my work on a mathematical level it makes sense. It becomes like an OCD thing—I’m working 6000% on the screen. No one will ever see what I see, but I’m doing it for me because I want to produce something that is perfect. So many artists are more spontaneous and just throw paint on a wall and see what happens. That’s amazing, but I’m not like that.

It will be ok, Sclater St, Shoreditch, London, July, 2014 Photo Credit - Mark Hat.

It will be ok, Sclater St, Shoreditch, London, July, 2014 Photo Credit - Mark Hat.

DL: Let’s talk stickers. Your clouds are all over cities in the UK and Middle East. How did you become a sticker artist?

MY: When I’m out and walking down the street, holding my wife’s hand on the way to a restaurant, my mind is still with Myneandyours, and I am always hiding a sticker in my other hand, looking for right place to attach it.

DL: Does that come from a desire for people to see your work all over the city?

MY: It’s not so much about making people see my work, but about awakening a sense of wonder for our environment. If someone sees the cloud pasted to a building and then again as a sticker on the street signal, she will begin to question how it got there and what it means. It’s not advertising because the cloud isn’t pushing a product or idea and there is no signature or website. I’m hoping to cause people to realize how frequently we’re just pushed into an idea without questioning what is really behind it.

Marylebone, London, 2012

Marylebone, London, 2012

It's all in my head, Putney, South London, 2012

It's all in my head, Putney, South London, 2012

DL: Where did your tag, Myne and Yours originate?

MY: I create the work for me, I put it outside for you. But it’s also about how this life is ours to do with what we want. You don’t have to sit in a cubicle all day if you don’t want to.

DL: Many of your pieces are installed several stories up on a building or billboard. Is it precarious for you to hang the wheat paste so high off the ground?

MY: In London the best time to hit a wall with wheat paste is about 4 in the morning when people are still in bed. I sometimes find myself hanging upside down over a ledge alone. I attach the bucket to a 50-meter rope then climb the rope and pull it up.

For commissioned walls everything is first sketched out using Adobe Illustrator. Then I use an MTN 94 can of spray paint with a combination of stencil work with freehand work to get clean lines. I can enjoy the luxury of putting it up over the course of a full day or two and having someone along to keep me from falling.

Ayda, Qarantina, Beirut, 2011

Ayda, Qarantina, Beirut, 2011

Good Ideas: Connect with Myneandyours here

Images: Courtesy of Myneandyours unless otherwise specified in captions

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Arabian Wings: Saudi's Art Auction Culture

Arabian Wings pioneered the notion of an art auction in Saudi Arabia, beginning with a historic first event held back in 2011. The move was strategically clever as although there is a growing group of educated collectors in Saudi, they had previously been obliged to travel to Dubai to access opportunities at Christie's Middle East and to a lesser degree at Ayyam Gallery's popular Young Collectors Auctions. Now in its 4th edition, Arabian Wings' next auction will take place in Jeddah on 11 September at The Gallery Art Space located at Al Furusya Yacht Club.

The eclectic catalogue consists of more than 200 works of both modern and contemporary art, with a heavy Saudi bent. The lots vary widely from a photograph by emerging Saudi artist Mohsen Alem estimated $500-$1000 (See Lot 192 below) to original pieces by European masters Picasso and Van Gogh. Read on to eavesdrop on my conversation with Arabian Wings Founder and Auctioneer with Mohammed Bahrawi and to take a peek at my top picks for lots to be auctioned.

Lot 028. Untitled, Omar Nagdi, b. Egypt 1931.  US $29000-34000

Lot 028. Untitled, Omar Nagdi, b. Egypt 1931. US $29000-34000

Q & A with Mohammed Bahrawi, Founder of Arabian Wings

DL: How have you observed that the auctions organized by Arabian Wings are encouraging a culture of art collecting in Saudi Arabia?

MB: When we first launched Arabian Wings, it was about adding to the scene and helping it flourish. The collecting scene in the Kingdom has now become more apparent – we have taken a common practice and brought it to our shores. Yes, there are more people interested in collecting than before and that is what we are aiming to do…

Lot 055: Halal 0%, Mansour Ashmouni, b. Saudi Arabia 1974. US $5000-8000

Lot 055: Halal 0%, Mansour Ashmouni, b. Saudi Arabia 1974. US $5000-8000

DL: This is the 4th auction to take place since 2011. How is this edition different from the others?

MB: With every auction, we feel that Saudi Arabia and the region are more excited about the artwork that is displayed. We have raised the bar each time and this edition we have been lucky to display a Van Gogh and a Picasso. This is an indictor of the caliber of our auctions and how we made our mark.

Lot 073. Al Quds, Nahar Marzooq,  b. Saudi Arabia 1970. US $4000-6000

Lot 073. Al Quds, Nahar Marzooq, b. Saudi Arabia 1970. US $4000-6000

DL: Should collectors bid on a work because it is a good investment or because something about the piece moves them emotionally?

MB: This is a very interesting question. There is no denying that art has become an investment and in the economic climate that we went through in the last few years it was a safe investment. But collecting has always been driven by emotion. There is a rush that comes when you first buy that artwork that you have made a bid on against the seasoned collectors. That feeling is driven by emotion and the love of the artwork once you first connect with it. We would advise collectors to make an investment or emotion-driven decision based on why they want each specific piece.

Lot 085: Mountain Bloom, Rimma Gagloeva, b. 1940 Uzbekistan.  US $6000-9000. From the collection of Alif Gallery Dubai

Lot 085: Mountain Bloom, Rimma Gagloeva, b. 1940 Uzbekistan. US $6000-9000. From the collection of Alif Gallery Dubai

DL: Is there an appreciation for modern Arab art among the collectors you engage with or is the general interest geared towards the contemporary, boundary-pushing pieces?

MB: The modern art movement in Saudi Arabia only goes back 70 years. However, the interest in collecting goes [far] beyond those 70 years. Collectors are interested in both modern and contemporary works.

The fact that we have the likes of Abdullah Hamas and also a generation of contemporary artists like Khalid Bin Afif, Saad bin Mohammed, Heba Abed, Abdullah Idris and Saud Mahjoub, says a lot about the strength of Saudi art and how it continues to resonate with a wide audience.

Lot 113: Camps, Abd Elrazzek Shaballout b. Syria 1974. US $15000-20,000

Lot 113: Camps, Abd Elrazzek Shaballout b. Syria 1974. US $15000-20,000

DL: How were you trained as an auctioneer?

MB: My background includes serving as Founder of Arabian Wings, curator for many of other projects and a specialist in the history of Saudi art. Arabian Wings’ presence at many international auctions in addition to our knowledge and strong relations with auctioneers globally has served as informal further training.

Lot 128:  Calligraphy, Hassan Al Masoudi, b. Iraq 1944. US $2000-4000

Lot 128: Calligraphy, Hassan Al Masoudi, b. Iraq 1944. US $2000-4000

DL: What are the top three lots in the catalogue that you would recommend to a young collector who would like to acquire his or her first major work at the upcoming auction?

MB: 40% of the artworks are considered modern and 60% of the pieces are classified as contemporary, and most likely to appeal to young collectors. For me it is difficult to focus on a particular piece, however I can name a few:

Lot 25 – Khalid bin Afif
Lot 48 – Hamad Al Saab
Lot 98 – Itab Al Sheikh
Lot 107 - Ali Al Hassan

Lot 192: Untitled,  Mohsen Salem,  b. 1961 Saudi Arabia. US $500-$1000

Lot 192: Untitled, Mohsen Salem, b. 1961 Saudi Arabia. US $500-$1000

Good Ideas: The 4th Arabian Wings Auction will take place 11 September, 2014 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia at 7pm at TheGallery Art Space located at Al Furusya Yacht Club. You can view a complete catalogue of all lots here. To register for a paddle to bid in person please go here. To make plans to bid via telephone you can learn more here.

A version of this interview has been co-posted on The National Art Blog, edited by Anna Seaman. For a perpetually good read check it out here.

Images: Courtesy of Arabian Wings, the artists, and corresponding collections.

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The Rise of Dubai Street Art

This summer, an assignment to present Dubai's growing street art scene in Open Skies (Emirates Airlines' in-flight magazine), sent me to art studios, graffiti walls, galleries, and tripping through various unpaved back streets. I hope that this piece quietly changes international perceptions about what it is like to live in Dubai and what our art community is all about. Read on for an excerpt and some photos I snapped behind the scenes as the article was coming together:

Ruben Sanchez and his work on the cover of September's Open Skies

Ruben Sanchez and his work on the cover of September's Open Skies

"Despite debate about its direction and definition, Dubai's street art scene is growing, bolstered by government backing for public art, high-profile supporters, residencies from world-renowned artists and a small but committed community of local talent.

I snapped this photo of eL Seed's wonderfully messy desk at Tashkeel during our interview

I snapped this photo of eL Seed's wonderfully messy desk at Tashkeel during our interview

Dubai has made a name for itself in the art world in the last decade. It has a respected annual art fair, Art Dubai, which, having celebrated its eighth year in March, is widely regarded as one of the highlights of the Middle East's art calendar. Christie's Middle East, and its rapidly developing gallery scene, driven by hubs in Dubai International Financial Centre and Alserkal Avenue, a collection of galleries and creative spaces in what is still an industrial area of the city, is vibrant year-round.

Ruben Sanchez playing around in his Tashkeel Studio with a skull he found in the desert

Ruben Sanchez playing around in his Tashkeel Studio with a skull he found in the desert

But, despite its growing reputation as an 'art city,' Dubai is not where you would expect to find an emerging street art scene. Local patrons, gallery directors and artists disagree over definitions, as will become evident in a moment, but mention street art to your average man or woman on the street and they will associate the movement with run down urban centers and New York's graffiti explosion in the 1970s and 1980s, with artists who painted subways, benches and other urban surfaces and were documented in Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant's 1983 documentary Style Wars, street-inspired gallery shows by commercial artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, or more recently, Shepard Fairy, creator of Barack Obama's 2008 Hope presidential campaign poster, and the enigmatic British stencil artist Banksy.

The pantry full of spray paint that Sya One and Steffi Bow keep stocked in their Jumeirah Village Triangle villa, proving that the suburbs aren't dull at all

The pantry full of spray paint that Sya One and Steffi Bow keep stocked in their Jumeirah Village Triangle villa, proving that the suburbs aren't dull at all

Steffi Bow's self-portrait hanging in the stairwell of the villa she shares with husband Sya One

Steffi Bow's self-portrait hanging in the stairwell of the villa she shares with husband Sya One

Those who have spent time in the Middle East might also refer to Beirut, a city that is painted top to bottom in bright murals by internationally admired artists such as Yazan. The notion of street art doesn't fit with the common- and on the whole accurate- perception of Dubai as a sparkling modern metropolis.

There's no Banksy of Dubai - yet. But most residents of the city will recognize the work of Arcadia Blank - if not the creator's tag- the only anonymous graffiti writer in town, who is known for scrawling satirical or poetic phrases such as "Alone we're empty. Together we are the universe" distinguishable by a triangle or u-shaped symbol."

FN Designs' gallery wall was tagged in the dead of night by Arcadia Blank with: "Reality wasn't built 4 everyone."

FN Designs' gallery wall was tagged in the dead of night by Arcadia Blank with: "Reality wasn't built 4 everyone."

The Open Skies feature

The Open Skies feature

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You can download the complete article here: Dubai Street Art Open Skies Sept 14 Danna Lorch

Good Ideas: To watch a video of Sya One and Steffi Bow talking street art at their wall in Jumeirah Village Triangle or to read this feature online, download the free Open Skies app on iTunes here

Image Credits: Danna Lorch

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