Identity And Belonging In A Bewildering World: Nadia Khawaja’s In Search Of Me At Grey Noise Gallery In Dubai

the burning

The Burning, 2012, felt tip pen on paper, 107.4 cm x 154.3 cm

One of the benefits of Dubai’s melting pot culture is that it acts as a magnetic hub, attracting people from all over the world to share in its luxurious lifestyle. On the ground here it seems like a new gallery is popping up nearly every week to meet the diverse needs of this market, each space making art from another country accessible to the public. Grey Noise, a gallery founded in 2008, then relocated from Lahore to Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, regularly brings fresh Pakistani art to Dubai, and gives off the vibe of the edgy, unselfconscious guy in the broken-in leather jacket who you always wished you could be. In its short tenure in Dubai, Grey Noise has already twice participated in the exclusive Liste-The Young Art Fair in Basel and developed a real following among Dubai’s hip culturati.

ode to the sun

Ode to the sun, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 244 cm x 366 cm

Upon entering Nadia Khawaja’s solo show, In search of me at Grey Noise, the artist’s geometric sketches drew me in and made my astigmatism-prone eyes dance in circles like whirling dervishes. Many of the pieces, including The Burning and World of spheresfeatured concentric patterns. At first glance from across the gallery these looked like simple pen and notepad doodles, but upon closer exploration emerged as having demanded quite remarkable precision to execute, and in possession of a raw, urban ethos.

Ode to the sun with the I love language series in the foreground at Grey Noise

Ode to the sun with the I love language series in the foreground at Grey Noise

The I love language series featured a made up alien code, and standing before it I was frustrated not to be able to crack it open. I understood at last that this was the point of the show—an artist in search of herself in an endless, monotonous crowd, taking comfort in the similarity of others, but also aching to break away and establish herself as a distinct individual. In all these pieces, I hunted in vain for a break in the code—a circle to stand out from the squares— because the hopeless optimist in me wanted to believe that the artist’s quest to claim herself had ended with a satisfied peace.

world of spheres

World of spheres, 2013, felt tip pen on paper, 62 x 82 cm

When Umer Butt, co-director of Grey Noise, introduced me to Nadia Khawaja, I noticed with amusement that he was dressed in subtle dots and stripes reminiscent of the show itself. Nadia and I then stood for ten minutes talking about our lives as artists with the uncensored honesty that only strangers can share. She confirmed my interpretation of her work as homage to a young person’s quest for voice and belonging, for identity and anonymity in the broader world. She quite obviously felt a combination of bewilderment and astonishment standing in the middle of the gallery, a cold beverage in her hand, surrounded by strangers scrutinizing her art and naming her unfinished journey out loud.

In search of me by Nadia Khawaja is showing at Grey Noise Gallery (Dubai) through 30 June, 2013. For more information please visit:

Photo Credits: Images courtesy of the artist and Grey Noise Gallery (Dubai)