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A Return to the Ground: Exhibition celebrating the UAE’s natural landscapes in Tokyo

The exhibition is on display until Dec. 17. (Supplied)
The exhibition is on display until Dec. 17. (Supplied)
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11 Dec 2023 10:12:37 GMT9
11 Dec 2023 10:12:37 GMT9

Sophie Mayuko Arni

TOKYO: A group exhibition of 10 UAE-based artists opened in Tokyo on Monday.

Curated by Dirwaza Curatorial Lab and organized by the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Tokyo, “A Return to the Ground” presents artworks from both leading and emerging figures of the UAE’s art scene, dealing with the rich natural landscape of the Arabian Gulf.

Coinciding with COP28, the 28th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Climate Change Conference currently happening in Dubai, the exhibition deals with the theme of sustainability from a refreshing perspective for the Japanese public.

This occasion gives the chance to many artists from the UAE’s growing contemporary art scene to introduce their works in Japan, most of them for the first time. Included in the exhibition are acrylics on paper and a sculpture from Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, a veteran of conceptual art who represented the UAE National Pavilion at the last Venice Biennale in 2022.

Additionally, guests will be able to view “Bathing Boulders,” a video by Vikram Divecha reflecting on the northern Emirate of Fujeirah’s natural rock formations. The video was also previously exhibited at the UAE National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017.

Munira Al Sayegh, founder of Dirwaza Curatorial Lab and lead curator, shares her intentions behind the exhibition, saying, “I’m hoping for the Japanese public to absorb the visual similarities and begin to understand the geography of the United Arab Emirates, in its diversity, and the importance of the environment within the society of the UAE.”

“Ideally, I would like for visitors to become more curious and interested in asking questions to further explore the subject of the environment and the land of the UAE,” she added. 

Talin Hazbar, a Syrian artist and architect based in the UAE, is presenting her 2022 artwork, “Sediments,” a work made of rope, cotton, nylon, and metal—piles of memories. The artwork statement calls these piles “holding stories.”

These piles serve as a record to showcase the time they have been lost for. Inspired by the sands of the desert surrounding Dubai and Sharjah, as well as the marine life of the UAE’s coasts, including coral reefs and seashells, Hazbar shines a new light on her surrounding landscape, which is constantly shifting in fragility.

Zooming in both the micro and macro perspective, her architectural training shows how she repurposes materials and creates interactive installations, mixing sound, video projections, and built environments for audiences to ‘feel’ the earth they stand on.

Before concrete was poured over the soil of Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road, and built its world-famous skyline, a diverse mix of sand and marine life long existed in the UAE. Artists such as Hazbar remind us of this heritage and resurge elements of nature into the contemporary realm.

Her practice is not far removed, in this sense, from the striking installations of Mono-ha artists, similar to Korean-born and Japan-based Lee Ufan, who focused his practice on earth materials, especially stones, during the fast development of Japanese cityscapes in the 20th century.

In preparation for this exhibition, Anita Shishani, a curator at Dirwaza Curatorial Lab and part of the curatorial team, thought about the Mono-ha movement, which avoided all additional embellishment. “Mono-ha artists focused on the land, and what the land gives you. This reminded me of stories when Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim used to go into the mountains of Khor Fakkan and turn over rocks, just to see how they looked on the other side. In this sense, the relationship between art and the natural world is not dominated by the artist but rather gives room for nature to just be—to just exist.”

Tarek Al-Ghoussein, the late Kuwaiti photographer who called the UAE home for many decades, previously exhibited his work in Japan. His landscape photography was showcased at the Mori Art Museum for the last major survey exhibition of Arab contemporary art, curated by Fumio Nanjo in 2012, entitled “Arab Express: The Latest Art from the Arab World.”

Al-Ghoussein is indeed a pioneer figure in photography in the Emirates. For this exhibition, Dirwaza Curatorial Lab included his “Odysseus” series, photographs documenting Abu Dhabi’s many islands. Viewers can feel a sense of liminal space, between reality and fiction. The artist sometimes stands in his own compositions, pondering the sense of his place within this dreamy natural landscape.

“A Return to the Ground” is also an opportunity to shine a light on the new generation of artists who call the Emirates home. Sarah Al Saman will present a textile work celebrating the history of weaving in the region, while duo Zuhoor Al Sayegh and Fatema Al Fardan’s installation gives an ode to the iconic shape of palm trees, a common sight throughout the Arabian Gulf.

Reem Falaknaz’s photographs, as well as Adele Bea Cipste’s and Zara Mahmood’s drawings, will give viewers a glimpse of UAE’s natural landscape, from desert to rock mountains to seascapes, with works suggesting a meditative state between humans and the ground they stand on.

Shishani shared that the main curatorial direction was to explore the human relationship to the ground. “Dirwaza Curatorial Lab works primarily with UAE-based artists, and we came up with the idea of the “Return to the Ground.” I know the landscapes between the UAE and Japan are different, but we wanted to remind audiences of our universal connection to the ground by reflecting on materials that come from the ground, this feeling of being rooted when you are in nature.”

Dania Al Tamimi, another curator at Dirwaza Curatorial Lab, commented on the exhibition, saying: “The landscapes of the UAE and Japan are different, which means the artists’ backgrounds are very different. Once inside the exhibition, we hope viewers will observe connection points that go beyond the materials, beyond the landscapes, and towards cultural similarities.”

“We hope that audiences can feel a similarity between the UAE’s and Japan’s artistic practices in terms of their shared heritage, history, and spiritual relationship with natural landscapes—many connections can arise within the context of the ground from us being one with nature,” Al Tamimi added. 

The UAE is often described as a transient place. Dubai, post-COVID-19, has arguably reached the level of New York, Los Angeles, London, and Paris as the world’s ideal city for tourists, and the number of new tourists and residents of the UAE since 2020 can only attest to this.

Inside a beacon of economic development of the 21st century, moments of meditation and reflection are needed. This exhibition fosters a more balanced view of the UAE’s natural environment, one that should be refreshing to see for the Japanese public.

The exhibition is located at Ebisu-minami Shibuya-ku and will be on display until Dec. 17.

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