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One from the road
by Muhammad Yusuf January 03, 2013
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FN Designs, Dubai, in a final burst of creativity to usher the 2012 year-end, came out with a unique show (Nov. 10 – Dec. 10). Titled Piston Heads, it paid a tribute to the motorbike helmet – an accessory that is used for safety and protection, but which can be turned into a work of art, in the right hands.

Ever since two-wheel and four-wheel vehicles replaced camels and horses as speed hunters in the region, metalled roads and sandy tracts have become home to speed devils. They can be seen — and heard — in all their glory, on highways, freeways and by-lanes, night or day.

Along with the vehicles, also came the culture of the wheel. Motorcyclists, in early days, were twice blest. They could enjoy speed and also the wind on their faces. But a number of accidents made safety helmets mandatory.

Said the mobikers: if you can’t beat them, join them. They used their creative talents and with a little help from like-minded enthusiasts in garages, turned the law into art. They began customising their helmets with head-turning, eye-catching colourful designs, that created an entire subculture.

The Captain America Helmet, made famous by Peter Fonda in the landmark Cult Classic film Easy Rider, was a pioneer in helmet art. That helmet, which made an individual statement of confident coolness, created a roar from the exhausts, which has yet to die out. An ordinary piece of motorcycle gear had become an extraordinary piece of art. The dull-looking cranium-saver has never looked back since.

Piston Heads showcased the work of 15 artists, living and working in the UAE. Hailing from a wide range of ages, nationalities and styles, they customised a plain white Vintage Motorbike Helmet, changing it into a piece that resonated with outrageous fantasy, fervent imagination and scalding humour.

The Brownmonkeys, an art and design collective, presented The Shawarman Apex Head Controller. Combining fashion statement with utility and heavily influenced by Japanese manga super sentai culture, its Darth Vaderish looks did not detract from its ferocious pull.

Dana Saif Al-Mazrouei, a product of the Latifa School for Girls, has a strong foundation in art and design. On commission to paint level 89 of the Burj Khalifa, she was also selected to show her works at a Sheikha Salama Foundation initiative in 2012.

She transformed her helmet into the “burqa’a,” or a falcon head piece, which is usually used to cover the eyes of a falcon, to make it more peaceable — though its aggressive intent, as developed by the artist (Roman cockscomb, bold stitches and all), could have quite the opposite effect on the head of a motorcyclist.

Local favourite Hatty Pedder’s Bird Lady, was a surrealist creation. It showed an exotic creature, with the body of a bird and head of a lady — and existed only in the imagination of the artist, till it was manifest. The face of the lady was highly seductive; catlike eyes, bouffant hair and arched eyebrows, spoke of siren-like qualities.

But this was in sharp contrast to what she was doing, namely, hatching an egg. Here was Woman as Virgin and Mother! The super-sized egg on which Pedder’s bird lady sat, provoked the thought: what type of fledglings would be hatched?

Pedder has been in Dubai for the past 18 years. After a degree from Central Saint Martins, she has worked in fashion and painting, and the influence of the former is seen in her works. She shows permanently at Raffles Dubai.

Jade B Urmenita’s Zayed is one of the pieces that was snapped up during the show. The late President of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, known for his toughness and softness, found able presentation in Urmenita’s helmet, an object which also has a tough exterior but a soft interior.

Jalal Luqman used found objects like a watch and sand, to make his point he titled The End. “We spend our lives running after things, creating things big and small. But whatever we run after, ends up living longer than ourselves,” he said, adding that the sands of time eventually bury the objects we build.

A mixed media artist from the Emirates, Luqman introduced Digital Art to the UAE in 1996. He is known for alchemising ordinary material like metals and wood into timeless pieces that question and provoke.

Lina Al Amoudi is described as “a quiet kid that likes to make things.” Her Gargoyles of Sin focused on the architectural carved stone grotesques, usually made of granite, found in buildings. Their spouts are used to convey water from a roof and away from the side of a building, thereby preventing rainwater from running down masonry walls and eroding the mortar in-between.

But for Al Amoudi, gargoyles are warriors who were betrayed by humans, forever frozen in stone. Somewhat in repentance, she did them up in angelic white, and crowned them with the Taj Mahal and the Royal Crown of England.

Mater Bin Lahej’s Image and the Body was redolent with flying colours. The idea of speed — of flying hair, billowing clothes and curving turns on the road — was evoked through contra-positioning lines of colour against the headwind smashing against the helmet.

A self-taught artist, Bin Lahej has participated in local and international exhibitions. He has been continuously holding an annual art summer camp for kids since 2006, in his gallery Marsam Mattar. He also hosts art workshops.

Maytha Hasher AlMaktoum’s piece Wild Thing was a take on a Roman warrior’s helmet. Done in gold, with tile-like lashings, it glittered and spun its golden sheen. The saurus-like spikes and the curved, spiral coils of the miniature tiles, when contrasted with the elegant black stripes in the frontispiece of the helmet, was a depiction of power and control.  “This is where glam meets wild,” AlMaktoum said. “There is nothing wrong in being wild every now and then.” 

Mo Abedin let his art speak as therapy. His Tentakiss made no proud claims of rebellion or guerrilla activism. Instead, it was a Laughing Buddha kind of work, with a strip of black evocative of a smile, with something dribbling out of the mouth of the genie-like figure. The ghoulish effect was offset by a blonde tendril of hair peeking out of its hair-and-face cover (abaya?), which was soothingly done up in light violet and blue designs.

Emirati Mohammed Kazim collected co-ordinates from his GPS and transferred them onto the helmet, symbolising movement. Najat Makki’s untitled piece showed sparkling colours, decorating buildings and landscapes. It was a daring leap that turned the helmet into a canvas — not surprising, since Makki is one of the Emirates’ pioneer painters.

Patricia Millns, whose art is as fascinating as her inspirations, did a piece called Emra’a (adornment of a woman). Based in the UAE for nearly three decades, the number of art boards she adorns and the exhibitions she has participated in, will take one towards infinity.

She decorated the helmet much as a woman makes herself up. “It communicates her presence in her absence,” Millns said. “It covers and protects but is also a reflection of an existence. It creates cultural metaphors.”

Sasan Saidi, who gravitates between Dubai, Berlin and Cape Town, did up his helmet in pen and ink, with strong overtones of satire and social criticism. The theme was that of a “War Child,” who no helmet can save. A scaly, evil gnome, a menacing submachine gun and a desperate child, made up his work. The quiet, reflective features of the child jarred in contrast with the gnashing of the gnome and the shoot-to-kill position of the gun.

Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services (SCHS), which provides specialised care to differently-abled children, showcased a work from one of its students. It showed a heritage scene with a child leading a camel. It was meant for silent auction, to benefit the organisation.

Wafa Hasher AlMaktoum, FN Designs Founder and Director, displayed her work titled Fly High. It showed the wings of a falcon, a bird renowned for its speed in the air. It commemorated speed aficionados on earth, who take wing on bikes.

Al Numairy Performance (ANP), a Dubai-based service which offers automotive and motorcycle performance solutions, co-hosted the show. The exhibition also carried photographs by ANP, which showed life in and around pit stops.

A customised ANP-powered Pontiac GTO 1,000 hp (Lulu), added value to the exhibition, with its red body paint, silvery engine, gleaming headlights and hubcaps and lightly tinted windows, that threw sparks inside the gallery. A customised Suzuki Hayabusa sport bike motorcycle, with engine updated for speed, also shared the honours in the gallery space, to remind one, if reminding was needed, that speed came in all shapes and forms. (Incidentally, “hayabusa” is Japanese for “peregrine falcon”).

Piston Heads celebrated the romance of the road and the independence of the biker. It was an event that packed street cool with art zest.

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