Max Pam's Unquenchable Wanderlust: Ramadan in Yemen

“What could I say about Yemen that did it justice. I tried in my journal to work it honestly. I tried with 60 rolls of black and white 120 film to translate the experience. That hot, spare and beautiful Ramadan.” –Max Pam

Max Pam is an Australian photographer who spent Ramadan of 1993 traversing the rugged terrain of rural Yemen. This is the first time that this many of these images have been exhibited in their entirety, and they have found a very fitting home at the latest addition to Dubai’s burgeoning gallery scene, East Wing.

The Suq. From Ramadan in Yemen

The Suq. From Ramadan in Yemen

Although Pam did not make it to Dubai for the opening of Ramadan in Yemen, I was lucky enough to correspond with him and receive his behind the scenes take on several of the photographs from the show that especially spoke to me. I’ve added his comments into the captions.

Many of the photographs were mounted on paper, ringed with memories about each image handwritten by the artist. I found myself rotating my neck in awkward circles, stretching to make out each of the stories. I may have looked like a heron watching a fish dart below the surface of a marsh standing there, moving like that, but I simply couldn’t tear myself away from what I was reading. The handwriting made me nostalgic for a time when it was normal to receive postcards from wandering friends, and to know someone so intimately that I could recognize their handwriting. Those days of personal correspondence are quickly dying out.

Max Pam's distinct handwriting framing a photograph from the series

Max Pam's distinct handwriting framing a photograph from the series

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From Ramadan in Yemen

From Ramadan in Yemen

Photography at its most powerful achieves the project of making unfamiliar issues or cultures relatable and unforgettable and Pam has accomplished that here. The images are highly intimate glimpses into every day life in Yemen, from buying an iftar chicken in the market to taking a day long taxi over the mountains to visit family members, to fixing a car—little mundane moments that anyone viewing the images has surely experienced in his or her own cultural context.

This makes it easy to relate to the subjects in a way that makes us realize that the people of Yemen are not that different from people anywhere else. The sensitivity and respect with which Pam shoots is what drew me in above all. I was amazed to learn that he reached this level of comfort with his subjects and their culture rapidly, as the entire journey was made in a matter of weeks.

Abdullah Fixing the Broken Toyota. Pam: "This shot happened on the road from Shihara to Sanaa, the back axle almost fell off and took 3 hours to fix.”

Abdullah Fixing the Broken Toyota. Pam: "This shot happened on the road from Shihara to Sanaa, the back axle almost fell off and took 3 hours to fix.”

North Yemenis, 1993.  Pam: “Here two and three generations of men—grandfather, son, and grandson were photographed on the high ridge Shihara occupies on Shihara Mountain, 2,600 Meters high.”

North Yemenis, 1993.
Pam: “Here two and three generations of men—grandfather, son, and grandson were photographed on the high ridge Shihara occupies on Shihara Mountain, 2,600 Meters high.”

Although he has an enviable home base in Fremantle, Australia (check out this interview and home tour if you’re curious to know more), Pam is a lifelong wanderer and is well known for books like Supertourist that document his field trips. His wanderlust manifests itself as an unquenchable craving to see and capture far off lands and the people who live there.

A Russian Gun, 1993. Pam: “I met him on a track firing his Russian handgun out into the massive view. He introduced me to his grandfather and son.”

A Russian Gun, 1993. Pam: “I met him on a track firing his Russian handgun out into the massive view. He introduced me to his grandfather and son.”

The Chicken, 1993. “This is so typical of a country without supermarkets— you buy meat live in the market and take it home to be killed and eaten.”

The Chicken, 1993. Pam: “This is so typical of a country without supermarkets—
you buy meat live in the market and take it home to be killed and eaten.”

Taxi to Taizz, 1993. Pam: “9 people rode in the Peugeot 404 station wagon, the common vehicle of choice for the intercity shared taxi service. These were the people directly behind me on that ride, from Aden to Taizz, a full day’s drive.”

Taxi to Taizz, 1993. Pam:
“9 people rode in the Peugeot 404 station wagon, the common vehicle of choice for the intercity shared taxi service. These were the people directly behind me on that ride, from Aden to Taizz, a full day’s drive.”

Newcomer DIFC gallery East Wing is a serious addition to Dubai’s growing art scene and promises to bring some of the top names in contemporary photography to the city for exhibitions, master classes, and art salons. The space also has a tempting collection of photography books on offer arranged on shelves that made my inner intellectual shiver with envy. The books are not shrink wrapped in plastic, so you can actually hold them in your hand, turn pages and browse over an afternoon. Director Peg Amison said that plans are in place to host a number of educational talks and events beginning over the coming art season.

An installation shot of the show at East Wing's new space in Dubai's DIFC

An installation shot of the show at East Wing's new space in Dubai's DIFC

The library at East Wing. I am coveting those bookshelves and the reading nook.

The library at East Wing. I am coveting those bookshelves and the reading nook.

Good Ideas: Ramadan in Yemen will run at East Wing in Dubai's DIFC through 10 September, 2014. You can also purchase a copy of the accompanying limited edition book published by Editions Bressard. For more information about the show and East Wing go here.

The cover of the limited edition publication of the work by Editions Bressard

The cover of the limited edition publication of the work by Editions Bressard

Image Credits: Courtesy of Max Pam and East Wing

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#FOMO and Selfies: Thank you for your cooperation by :mentalKlinik at Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde

The Istanbul-based duo made up of Yasemin Baydar and Birol Demir are known for their playful installations and performance pieces that examine contemporary culture’s pleasures through a neutral lens that is neither judgmental nor sympathetic, and their latest show at Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde continues the project. The duo's esoteric name and the fact that the show is highly conceptual might intimidate someone who doesn't normally flit confidently between galleries, but in reality this show is all about contemporary pop culture, with messages accessible to anyone with a mobile phone who has ever snapped a selfie.

Gallery installation shot

Gallery installation shot

Right from the start, the show assaults us at the gallery’s entrance, as we’re forced to pass a chain link fence lit up with a neon sculpture spelling out the message that has been made trite by over-rehearsed flight attendants and telemarketers the world over, Thank You for Your Cooperation. The signage implies that everyone who enters is complicit in submitting to an order, but exactly what we are guilty of upholding is initially puzzling. Was there a waiver that we somehow missed signing?

Thank You For Your Cooperation, 2014. Coated metal and neon

Thank You For Your Cooperation, 2014. Coated metal and neon

WOO-OOO, 2014. Moving heads (two pieces), light control engine, choreography02

WOO-OOO, 2014. Moving heads (two pieces), light control engine, choreography02

Stepping into the exhibition offers the sensation of abruptly landing in a candy-colored universe populated by various mirrored installations and sculptures all of which demand examination. But before you can cross the polished concrete floor to take a closer read, your cell phone rings and you fumble through your pockets in an embarrassed panic. You could have sworn you'd switched your settings to silent mode!

However, upon listening to an electronic orchestra composed of other staccato notifications in quick succession, it becomes clear that the tones are part of a layered sound sculpture titled FOMO. As in #FOMO: The 21st century term that stands for fear of missing out, popularized by the Tweet-savvy to name the unsatisfying sentiment that wherever one is, there is always someplace trendier to be. Social media exploits this restless mood by encouraging users to take selfies, check into glamorous geographic locations, and otherwise incite envy in friends and acquaintances alike.

WALKING ON AIR, HANDE, 2014. Ceramic printed tempered glass, aluminium panel, artificial mud

WALKING ON AIR, HANDE, 2014. Ceramic printed tempered glass, aluminium panel, artificial mud

By rattling off these sounds, all of which will have varying relevance to each visitor (depending upon one’s phone model and settings) the artists are calling to consciousness how our emotions and sense of self-worth are ruled by the virtual world, and in consequence how rarely our minds are connected to our bodies in a state of present tense being.

The PROFILE series, which consists of four jewel-toned tempered glass panels printed with capitalized block letter font, further explores today’s notion of time. When regarded quickly, the letters appear to spell out gibberish, but upon slow study it becomes clear that these are widely used hash tags such as: THE_NEXT_KATE_MOSS, EXHIBITIONIST, TRIPPING, NO RELIGION, FRENEMY, HISTRIONIC. It’s impossible to scrutinize the work without finding yourself reflected in the mirror as an accomplice to the art, posing for a kind of compulsory selfie.

AMARI, from the PROFILE series, 2014.  MOODY_THE_NEXT_KATE_MOSS_EXHIBI TIONIST_TRIPPING_NO_RELIGION_FREN EMY_HISTRIONIC. Tempered glass, micro-layered polyester films.

AMARI, from the PROFILE series, 2014.
MOODY_THE_NEXT_KATE_MOSS_EXHIBI TIONIST_TRIPPING_NO_RELIGION_FREN EMY_HISTRIONIC.
Tempered glass, micro-layered polyester films.

As close to a selfie as I'll ever get. Text of QUINN from the Profile reads:  ULTRA_NATIONALIST_HIPSTER_GIRLY_G OTHIC_ECO_CONSCIOUS_BARFLY_BUZZ ER_TECHNONERD

As close to a selfie as I'll ever get. Text of QUINN from the Profile reads:
ULTRA_NATIONALIST_HIPSTER_GIRLY_G OTHIC_ECO_CONSCIOUS_BARFLY_BUZZ ER_TECHNONERD

Nestled among the truly pretty (note that use of the adjective is not meant to imply an absence of meaning) works, is the WALKING ON AIR series, which presents generic family photos sullied by thick layers of artificial mud. The images reference precious photographs found floating in the remains of America’s 2012 Hurricane Sandy, a natural disaster that will go down in history for the devastation and displacement it caused. In this series, :mentalKLINIK cleverly counters the FOMO predilection by calling into question what lasting happiness is really about.

Solid conceptual exhibitions remain relatively new to the region, and although Thank You for your Cooperation is quite open-ended, it is also entirely relevant to our times and thus for the most part (other than the ambiguous SIMON, Floor 23rd which features a child’s teddy bear trapped in a gold diptych, which felt like someone was trying so hard to be evocative that the work's message became convoluted) relevant to anyone with a social media account. The show also further establishes Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde as the space to visit in Dubai to take in a program of boundary-pushing yet eloquent contemporary art.

SIMON, Floor 23rd, 2014. Thermopane glass, mirrored and reflective micro-layered polyester solar film, coated aluminium curtain wall profiles, ABS rapid prototype

SIMON, Floor 23rd, 2014.
Thermopane glass, mirrored and reflective micro-layered polyester solar film, coated aluminium curtain wall profiles, ABS rapid prototype

Good Ideas: Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde is located on Dubai's Alserkal Avenue. For more information and to plan a visit go here.

You can meet :mentalKlinik here.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of :mentalKlinik and Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde

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Walking on Water: Kamal Boullata's Bilqis

It’s not every day that a male artist is able to depict a legendary woman’s journey with real sensitivity, much less in a series of abstract triptychs. Bilqis, Kamal Boullata’s latest series, was shown over the summer at Dubai’s Meem Gallery (which has a well-deserved reputation for one of the region’s strongest programs and publications), and is the artist’s interpretation of the Quran’s account of Bilqis’ physical and spiritual romance with both the powerful King Solomon and his religion of Islam.

Kamal Boullata, Bilqis 1, 2013. Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist and Meem.

Kamal Boullata, Bilqis 1, 2013. Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist and Meem.

According to the story (see An-Nami, Sura 27 in the Qur’an), King Solomon built a crystal palace and invited Bilqis (known in English as The Queen of Sheba) to visit him. When she arrived in the throne room she mistook the floor for water and lifted her skirts so they wouldn’t get wet. The King explained that she was walking on glass and her eyes had fooled her. From that time onwards, Bilqis fell deeply in love with the King and through knowing him and his God, came to believe in Allah rather than the divine power of sun, which she and her people had previously worshipped. Since that time, Islamic architecture has consistently included glass floors that simulate the experience of walking on water, an analogy to letting perfect faith in God overcome earthly realities.

An illustration depicting the meeting of Bilqis and Solomon

An illustration depicting the meeting of Bilqis and Solomon

As a boy growing up in Jerusalem, Boullata used to often visit the Dome of the Rock. The studies in Islamic geometry he discovered in the holy space’s tile work profoundly influenced his later definition of beauty. He accessed and relived those childhood memories over the past 40+ years he has spent as an exile of his homeland, and the outcome is this stirring series of abstract paintings.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

Boullata, who I briefly interviewed at the Meem opening, said that beauty transcends politics. He is in possession of a gentle voice juxtaposed with a true writer’s knife-sharp gift for selecting and presenting just the right words. He is a Palestinian Christian and the fact that he so seamlessly finds inspiration in Islam deserves pause for a moment of dialogue across the Abrahamic faiths at a time of particular political upheaval in the region.

Kamal Boullata, Bilqis 4, 2013. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Meem

Kamal Boullata, Bilqis 4, 2013. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Meem

Kamal Boullata, Bilqis 2, 2013. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Meem.

Kamal Boullata, Bilqis 2, 2013. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Meem.

Bilqis was conceived during a residency at Wissenschaftkolleg in Berlin using a rigid initial process in which drawings were outlined first in pencil on graph paper, adhering to concise mathematical formulas (including the Fibonacci Sequence which has its origins in the Middle East) and a compulsion for perfectly straight lines, similar to the blue prints that the architect of Solomon’s palace may initially have drafted.

In contrast, the paintbrush strokes are spontaneous and emotional, and the many of the color combinations chosen including sunset pinks, iris blues, and bud greens, feel soft and feminine, to echo the figure and character of the queen. This coupling of strict patterns and freely blended colors echoes the remarkable union of man and woman, masculine and feminine energies, held in perfect balance artistically.

Installation shot courtesy of Meem

Installation shot courtesy of Meem

I snapped this photo at the opening, which was packed with some of the region's greatest collectors and thinkers, who all turned out to support Boullata's latest efforts.  Other than at an art fair, I've never seen such a powerful group of art people in one space.

I snapped this photo at the opening, which was packed with some of the region's greatest collectors and thinkers, who all turned out to support Boullata's latest efforts. Other than at an art fair, I've never seen such a powerful group of art people in one space.

The entrance to Meem Gallery in the Al Quoz industrial district of Dubai

The entrance to Meem Gallery in the Al Quoz industrial district of Dubai

The artist Kamal Boullata

The artist Kamal Boullata

Good Ideas: Meem Gallery shot a wonderful short video of Kamal Boullata speaking about Bilqis, which you can view on You Tube here.

The gallery is based in Dubai’s industrial district of Al Quoz and you can learn more about upcoming exhibitions and publications here.

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The Untitled Chair Project: A Collection of Portraits on Polaroids Inspired by the UAE

What would you do if you knew you had the choice to save a stranger’s life? What if I told you that the chance was in front of you at this very moment and involved very little discomfort or sacrifice?

Before the photographer Sean Blake lost his best friend Doug to Leukemia back in the mid 90’s, he made a vow to spread awareness about the need for bone marrow donors. The Untitled Chair Project, a photography initiative that has gone viral, is Sean’s heartfelt return on his promise to Doug.

Sean Blake's Camera

Sean Blake's Camera

Polaroid snaps of the artist and jewelry designer Nadine Kanso

Polaroid snaps of the artist and jewelry designer Nadine Kanso

When I invited Sean for a fancy cup of tea at the Ritz Carlton in Dubai, I was delighted when he showed up with his own seat—a neon red chair, which lit up the tastefully beige lobby and drew a number of curious but not unfriendly stares. Sean, who is originally from Texas and has the height, firm handshake and easy laugh of a fellow southerner, unbuckled a weathered messenger bag with “hub” the word for love in Arabic painted across the flap. He clumsily dropped a retro blue camera onto the table causing the china teacups to rattle dangerously.

The chair (which is from IKEA and covered in signatures) and the camera (which is a Diana F+) are the equipment Sean has used to spread a message of awareness across 92 countries in a most unusual way, beginning in the UAE. Sean tells me, “When I moved here I quickly made Emirati friends, and the way they offered hospitality and shared their culture completely changed my life. I wanted to do something to give back to the society.”

Sean's "love" bag and cool red kicks

Sean's "love" bag and cool red kicks

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Having the long-term commitment to Doug steeping like mint leaves in the teapot of his mind, Sean did a little research and found out that of the 15.5 million registered bone marrow donors worldwide, only 90 are from the region. The number was so low simply due to a lack of awareness. A bone marrow transplant may be the best treatment option or even the only potential cure for patients with leukemia and more than 80 other life threatening diseases. Most patients don’t find a matching donor in their family and are completely dependent upon the donor database. Matches for bone marrow are needle in a haystack rare and typically come from the same ethnic group as the patient, which means that in order to save lives it is absolutely dire that more people register as potential donors.

Rather than pass out pamphlets or deliver a lecture, Sean began to snap pictures of the chair at various UAE landmarks and posting them online with GPS coordinates. He remembers, “First back in 2011, I offered a one of a kind polaroid to the first people to comment, which led me to send the originals all over the world. They went viral. I asked everyone to take a snap with the polaroid I'd sent them somewhere in their town and post it on social media, and soon I was getting back responses from all over Europe, Latin America, the USA, and Middle East.”

GPS Coordinates: 25.337267 55.390241

GPS Coordinates: 25.337267
55.390241

Phase two of the project (which remains ongoing) involves offering cost-free photography shoots to anyone who is willing to take on a commitment to the cause. Here are the rules according to Sean: “The participant gets to pick the location and time and I don’t give him or her any direction. They can show their personality and do anything they want with the chair as long as it doesn’t involve gazing directly into the camera.”

For each session Sean uses one pack of old school film containing only enough to snap ten photographs on the Diana F+. At the end of the session the participant chooses one to get signed and matted, which creates an opportunity for them to share the message with friends and family. Then they sign the chair as a sort of contract.

Nihal at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Nihal at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Sean's stories of the shoots are glorious. There was Nihal, the kind Sudanese woman who befriended Sean and his wife in line at a visa-granting office and asked to be shot outside Abu Dhabi’s iconic Grand Mosque. There was the artist Nadine Kanso who has a heart as golden as the jewelry she designs. There was even a Malaysian tourist who shared the photo with his mother, who turned out to be a famous vegan blogger and in turn encouraged a huge audience of Asian readers to become registered donors. The list goes on and the photos, one after the next, feel spontaneous and dream-infused as the film that Sean chose for the project.

Valentina from Solbiate Arno, Italy in Ras Al Khaimah

Valentina from Solbiate Arno, Italy in Ras Al Khaimah

I was embarrassingly ignorant about how to register and donate bone marrow, and assumed the process was painful and time-consuming, but Sean set me straight by explaining that it’s simply a matter of asking one’s family physician to swab a piece of cotton against the cells of the inner cheek and send the data in for analysis at a lab. That swab gets analyzed in a lab in order to identify your tissue type. If the information is an exact match for someone who is desperately in need of a donor, then you’re notified immediately. Otherwise your data goes on a list of potential future matches. I nearly teared up when Sean said, “All I want to do is prevent someone else having to go through the pain that our family went through in losing Doug.”

A shoot on the beach boardwalk of Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi

A shoot on the beach boardwalk of Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi

The Lebanese artist and designer Nadine Kanso

The Lebanese artist and designer Nadine Kanso

After our tea (which thankfully did not involve any broken fine china), we wandered among the galleries in DIFC, where Sean shot me writing a poem in my yellow notebook while seated on the red chair beside a favorite pink sculpture. I was honored to sit on the chair and will be asking my physician to assist in adding my name to the list of Bone Marrow donors at our next appointment. Who knows…it might just save a stranger’s life one day.

Here I am in DIFC on a rainy morning, in conversation with the red chair

Here I am in DIFC on a rainy morning, in conversation with the red chair

Good Ideas: You can follow Sean Blake and learn more about how you can get involved with The Untitled Chair Project here: http://theuntitledchairproject.blogspot.ae

To read more about registering to be a donor visit: http://bethematch.org

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Sean Blake and the Untitled Chair Project

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Khalid Mezaina's Porta-Mosque

It’s all about a messy bedroom art studio, pencil stubs, pocket-sized sketchbooks, and a day job. Khalid Mezaina has teamed up with Capsule Arts to release a limited edition print for Ramadan. The piece highlights the GCC institution of the porta-mosque, temporary mosques that can be found all over the region to give people the chance to pray while driving on major highways, working in construction zones, or living in rural areas away from a formal, permanent sacred space. By using his signature whimsical graphic style to illustrate an informal cultural institution, the print elevates the porta-mosque to pop culture status.

Read on for my interview with the Dubai-based illustrator known for his documentary take on UAE life. Our discussion is punctuated by Khalid’s photography of local porta-mosques:

Porta Mosque 1

DL: What was it like to grow up in Dubai and when did you first start documenting life here through drawing?

KM: Looking back, growing up in Dubai seemed to be like any other normal childhood. The fast changes happening in the city felt normal to me because I assumed it was happening everywhere else as well! It was only when I grew up that I realized that the city changed so much in such a short timeframe. I look at it as growing up ‘with’ Dubai, rather than growing up ‘in’ it. Just like me, I think the city was, and still is, evolving, defining who it is and its place in the world.

Porta Mosque 2

DL: Is the porta-mosque particular to the UAE?

KM: I don’t think porta-mosques are specific to the UAE. They actually exist all over the region where there are construction sites, real estate developments or a labor force community. Even though these mosques are so simple in their construction, they still have so much character and individuality to them. These mosques tell stories about the communities that congregate within their space, and how religion is important and sacred no matter what social class you come from.

DL: How did you go about researching porta-mosques to illustrate for your print?

KM: I drove around Dubai (and other nearby UAE cities) taking quick photographs of existing porta-mosques for reference. Once back in the studio, I worked on one drawing, extracting elements and recreating my own version of a porta-mosque as a final illustration. Once I was satisfied with the penciled version, I inked the drawing, which is what you currently see as the final version.

Porta Mosque 4

Porta Mosque 3

DL: How and where do you typically draw and are you ever tempted to try other styles or mediums?

KM: As cliché as this might sound, I draw everywhere! From doodling during slow meetings, to sketching during my travels, I try to draw at every given chance. I carry sketchbooks with me everywhere, so all my artworks/illustrations always begin as a pencil drawing in my sketchbook, which I later ink and scan to modify as final versions.

I’ve always dabbled with other styles and mediums over the years. The two techniques I equally enjoy are drawing and screen-printing. But nothing ever satisfies me as much as drawing with a pencil/pen on paper.

The artist Khalid Mezaina as photographed by Tulip Hazbar

The artist Khalid Mezaina as photographed by Tulip Hazbar

DL: What is your studio like? Messy, neat-freak clean as a pin, covered in gum wrappers?

KM: My studio is also known as my bedroom. And my bedroom is absolutely messy! I am not proud of its current state and I wish I could be more organized. But this is what happens when everything you own is confined to a private, inhabited space. Definitely not messy to the point where you’ll find gum wrappers (I don’t chew gum)! But what you’ll find are lots of books, lots of magazines, lots of music, and lots of visually stimulating belongings I’ve collected over the years.

DL: You manage some significant arts initiatives at Tashkeel by day. How do you balance a full time job with your own artistic practice? Advice, please!

KM: Balancing a full time job with my own creative practice is very difficult. Both need equal attention and both need to be moving at a constant pace. I do find it a struggle at times. But overall I seem to be doing ok. My advice for anyone in a similar situation would be not to have both practices opposing each other. In fact, both should feed off each other and help rather than hinder. What I learn at Tashkeel definitely impacts my personal practice, and vice versa.

The limited edition print at Capsule Arts by Khalid Mezaina. Image courtesy of the artist and Capsule Arts

The limited edition print at Capsule Arts

Good Ideas: To learn more about the print visit Capsule Arts.

In the charitable spirit of Ramadan, the artist and Capsule Arts will donate 25% of the proceeds from each print to The Big Heart Campaign, a Dubai-based fund that supports Syrian refugee children in countries including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan.

Photo Credits: Photographs of the porta-mosques were taken by Khalid Mezaina and are shared with his permission.

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