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by Muhammad Yusuf January 10, 2019
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The Empty Quarter gallery, Dubai, is currently hosting the photographic works of John R Pepper (Inhabited Deserts, Dec. 12, 2018 – Feb.15, 2019). “Pepper’s deserts are not ultimately the result of travel photography”, says Kirill Petrin, Russian entrepreneur and art collector who has written an essay to accompany the exhibition. “His photographs, paradoxically, don’t take you to the actual places where they are shot. They take you elsewhere, to a new place for your mind and imagination to inhabit … as you stand before them, Pepper’s photographs slowly transform what you believe you are seeing into a totally different thing.

“Not surprisingly, some of the rocks look quite alive, resembling the beasts of fairytales, or divine manifestations (as in the face on a cliff), or succinctly mirroring human interactions, confrontational exchanges (as in the photo of two boulders facing each other), or dance, or a family reunion … Who said that deserts are uninhabited? Pepper’s work populates them with our thoughts, our dreams”.

“My concept, my goal”, says Pepper, “has been to use the desert as a painter uses a virgin white canvas; and while travelling through different deserts of the world (from Russia to Egypt, Mauritania, Oman to the USA), I sought to discover what imagery was revealed to my eye - sometimes it was figurative, sometimes abstract.

“In the South Sinai in Egypt, there were tall hills of rocks. Climbing those hills, walking through what appeared to be a simple amalgam of stones, I discovered anthropomorphic figures such as faces, fish, elephants, humans etc.

“Suddenly the rocks, these non-living elements were transformed into the opposite: living, expressive, vibrant figures. In the dunes of Oman the lights and shadows transformed a seemingly neutral valley into the body of a young woman trying to emerge from the sands.

“Conceptually I attempt to find the symbiosis between the landscape before me and the imagery buried within me. I do not seek the image: rather the photograph finds me. Through this subliminal search the result is, hopefully, my photograph, my “canvas” is an expression of my inner being, of what I feel as an artist”.

Pepper reveals more details on his affaire de coeur with deserts to Time Out

* WHY ARE YOUR DESERT COMPOSITIONS IN BLACK AND WHITE?

I have been working in B&W since I began taking photographs at age 12. I believe that taking photographs in colour is like giving the ‘answers’.

I prefer to have the viewer ‘fill in’ with his or her imagination. I believe that the use of B &W in general is more interesting as it leaves more mystery - but in particular for deserts, it adds to their sensuality.

* ARE YOU GIVING A LARGER MEANING TO THE WORD “INHABITED” IN YOUR WORK?

The best answer to this question is in the curatorial essay by Kirill Petrin who has perfectly analysed my work. “The camera in Pepper’s hands”, he says, “becomes a brush or chisel with which he blurs the lines between capturing something already made, and creating something which has never existed.

“This transition from “capture” to “create” is even more evident in the abstract or semi-abstract images … Pepper’s hands create abstractions that have all the expressive power of great abstraction coupled with all the spontaneity of nature”.

* DO YOU THINK DESERTS ARE DISAPPEARING FROM THE EARTH?

I believe that the deserts we know are still present and not disappearing. They are present and will always be present. Unless you are including the Artic Circles as deserts, which they are; in this case, they are disappearing. But the sand deserts, to my knowledge, are not.

However, I believe, sadly, that we are creating new and more desolate deserts. These deserts are due to the leaders of the world ignoring Global Warming, to large corporations ignoring their responsibility in saving the environment and due to, in every country that has real deserts, the young men and women who practice ‘Dune Bashing’ by going out on motorcycles and cars and ravaging the dunes by using them as skateboarders use skate parks - the difference being that the skate parks are made for that purpose. The dunes are not. 

* YOU HAVE HINTED AT MAN MADE STRUCTURES MOVING INTO DESERTS. TO YOU, IS THIS A NEGATIVE OR POSITIVE THING?

Man moving into the desert is both positive and negative. It depends on how it is done. If man moves into the desert without respecting the desert, without being conscious that it is also an integral part of the overall environment by trying to dominate it, then it is negative.

However, sometimes, it can be positive. If a country creates a new city with a new industry that gives work to scores of people and also respects the deserts around it, then it is positive. Look at the incredible developments of Abu Dhabi, Dubai in the UAE, of Argh-e-Jadid in Iran or, years earlier, of Las Vegas in the USA, to mention only a few.

However, man often tries to impose himself on the desert and the desert conquers back its own territory. Often man does not understand the true nature of deserts and aggressively tries to impose his will on it. It will not work.

* WHAT IMPRESSES YOU MOST ABOUT DESERTS?

Silence, vastness, the immense passage of time, man’s insignificance in relation to the size, scope, time of deserts; the ‘life’ in them; the passage of history in them; their flexibility, their strength, their sensuality, their danger and how insignificant we are, in a temporal context, to them.

 * ISN’T BRINGING AN EXHIBITION ON DESERTS TO THE UAE AND THE GULF RATHER LIKE BRINGING COALS TO NEWCASTLE?

That is up to the viewer to decide. But I don’t believe it is so. Not only are the deserts different in so far as the sand is different (some is white and light and pure others is dark and rugged, other still is rougher still, other is cold rather than hot, etc) but the topography and geography and temperature are all different.

What I am doing is creating authentic and unique images that are set in different deserts in the world. Finally, you might want to spend a moment on the unique factor here, made possible by the fact that I am a cultural representative of the Republic of Italy through the support of the Embassy of the Republic of Italy in Abu Dhabi and the Consulate of the Republic of Italy to United Arab Emirates, that the deserts of countries from many regions are all exhibited here, because art is not political rather a bridge between the people and cultures of different nations and helps, in its own small and parallel manner, to attempt to promote tolerance and understanding and acceptance.

* WHAT MESSAGE WOULD YOU LIKE THE VIEWER TO TAKE AWAY FROM THE EXHIBITION?

In an ideal world, I would like viewers to choose an image and buy it and take it away with themselves, so they can live with it because it brings something to their lives.

But if they are viewing it as though it were in a museum, then I would be happy if their souls were somehow filled a bit by my work; if their eyes were richer because of it, if their hearts were more at peace and if they felt that they had some type of experience which made them, or their day, a little better.
 

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