The Sunlight Filled Courtyard: An Interview With Artists In Residence Curator Ipek Ulusoy Akgul

The Artists in Residence (A.i.R) curator, Ipek Ulusoy Akgul and I were drinking fresh mango juice one long, still afternoon in the courtyard of House 11 in Al Fahidi, romanticizing what it might have been like to live here 50 years ago. It would have been so peaceful. Just pearls, fish, sweeping, dishes, and the call to prayer, I said sighing. The next thing we knew, a rat the size of a cat gleefully leapt across the cobblestone and into a tree, as if on cue. Oh…pearls, fish, the call to prayer, and a lot of daring rats! The dream was shattered. Gross!

Drawing of a dapper rat by Leonard Leslie Brooke circa 1903

Drawing of a dapper rat by Leonard Leslie Brooke circa 1903

Historic fantasies aside, Ipek and 5 artists shared this house for a 3-month residency commissioned by partners: Dubai Culture, Art Dubai, Tashkeel, and The Delfina Foundation. Now in its third year, the program selected Ipek along with Maitha Demithan, Nadia Ayari, Sunoj D., Sara Al Haddad, and Maryam Al Qassimi for the 2014 residencies.

The restored historic villa that the AIR residents worked from for 3 months

The restored historic villa that the AIR residents worked from for 3 months

If you’re like me and always hear the term “residency” but secretly don’t know what that means, I’ve got you covered. Here’s what it’s all about: residencies give artists and curators a creative period of incubation away from their studios and everyday lives. Residencies are competitive to secure and typically involve the artist being commissioned to create a final product. The AIR Residencies are unusual because there are so many partners involved in bringing Emirati and international artists together under one roof in a historic villa in Old Dubai.

The residents and their guests drank fresh mango juice in the courtyard when breaks were needed

The residents and their guests drank fresh mango juice in the courtyard when breaks were needed

The A.i.R residents were each asked to create a project for Art Dubai and participate in a group exhibition for the house itself to be show during SIKKA art fair. 2 projects in 3 months in a new place, knowing that the bright stars of the art world will honestly critique the final results is a whole lot of pressure for an emerging artist, but the residents kept things light by cooking meals together and taking breaks to feel the sun on their faces in the courtyard.

Ipek instructing me on proper table decorum in Maryam Al Qassimi's studio turned gallery space

Ipek instructing me on proper table decorum in Maryam Al Qassimi’s studio turned gallery space

Ipek, who relocated from Turkey to Dubai last year, initially comes across as delicate and shy, but it’s clear that she consciously marinates words in her mouth before speaking, as if following the Arabic proverb “Taste your words before you spit them out.” When she finally shares a thought, her entire demeanour changes from innocent to knowing, and she has a curator’s rare gift for naming a work of art’s meaning through the use of language. Regarding the residency she reflected: “We were really responding to what this space is all about. It has a history, but it’s also completely restored so we were also questioning the authenticity. Each artist engaged differently.”

The studios were transformed into gallery space during SIKKA, with each artist installing a project in the room that she/he had been using for the residency’s duration. After our rat incident, we got up from our chairs and Ipek gave me a guided tour of the villa. Here are a few of the pieces that really stood out to me:

Maryam Al Qassimi, "Morals of Eating," research image, 2014.

Maryam Al Qassimi, “Morals of Eating,” research image, 2014.

Being instructed on the proper use of the fork by Ipek as part of

Being instructed on the proper use of the fork by Ipek

Maryam Al Qassimi: When Maryam was growing up in the UAE all the kids were taught proper table manners in school with the same pamphlet starring a creepy little boy demonstrating Western etiquette. “Morals of Eating” resurrects this little boy into custom designed red wallpaper that triggered my astigmatism and made my eyes swim. A single interrogation-like lamp hung above a basic wooden table with two chairs and two place settings positioned towards the wall. Visitors (in this case Ipek and I) were invited to sit as if getting ready to eat, and follow a variation on the pamphlet that was so popular in the 80’s.

Facing the wall and following strict instructions felt punitive. It also made me question why we were learning Western rather than Emirati table manners. Ipek read out the rules and I demonstrated. Pausing from the lesson she explained, “This room was Maryam’s studio and she spent all her time facing the wall, working intensely. The wall has a lot of power in this space. Images of this little boy used to cover her classroom walls.” I loved this nostalgic, interactive project and really hope that Maryam expands upon the concept in the near future.

Previous work by Maitha Demithan was shown at Tashkeel in Dubai earlier this Winter

Previous work by Maitha Demithan was shown at Tashkeel in Dubai earlier this Winter

Maitha Demithan: The well-respected Emirati artist, best known for her scans of family members, worked from a room containing an old well that had the accompanying humidity of a Turkish hammam. The space has been darkened like a theatre and if you were not careful you could accidentally stumble into the well. Taking my elbow to keep me from tripping Ipek explained, “Maitha decided to explore a new medium, which the residency really encourages. She used to work with people who were familiar with her (usually family members), but for this project she challenged herself to interface with subjects she didn’t know, using video for the first time.”

Her project titled “The Sitters,” was shot both at the AIR Houses and XVA (the neighborhood’s most vibrant spot), asked both strangers and the AIR residents to sit in a brown leather chair on camera. No further direction was given, and the results are playful and disorienting. First the scans and now video makes me think that Maitha is getting closer and closer to daring to get into performance art. It seems like “The Sitters” was her way of cautiously dipping a baby toe into the medium. Please keep going, Maitha!

A still shot from "The Sitters" by Maitha Demithan

A still shot from “The Sitters” by Maitha Demithan

Nadia Ayari: I recently posted about breakfasting with Nadia and seeing her work in the Art Dubai bathrooms. At first glance, I was ready to criticize her for creating a body of work that seemed too similar to her previous show at The Third Line, which also featured character Fig and Tree. But I was wrong! The previous series were oil on canvas but these are Nadia’s first frescoes.

Ipek educated me a little more: The medium allowed Nadia to engage with her characters in a new way. Once you start working on a fresco, you have to finish it within four hours or the whole thing dries up. You can’t go back. You have to finish.” For an artist like Nadia who typically takes her time completing paintings, this medium was a real test.

Nadia Ayari Fresco

Good Ideas: The A.i.R. Residency program will continue in 2015 in conjunction with SIKKA and Art Dubai, Tashkeel, and The Delfina Foundation. To learn more click here.

Image Credtis: Courtesy of the A.i.R. Residents and partners