Nujoom Alghanem’s work The Actress of that Scene, done in oil and mixed media on canvas.
Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer
Aisha Alabbar Gallery, Dubai, is currently presenting (from Feb. 22) Unframed, a solo exhibition by Nujoom Alghanem. To run till May 26, it brings together for the first time historical and new paintings as well as a new series of photographic film stills. The exhibition identifies key moments from Alghanem’s two decade-plus career as an artist, poet, and filmmaker and looks beyond the metaphoric film reel, focusing one frame at a time.
There is something sinister about Between Two Shores, her large, acrylic and charcoal painting. Is it the shivers that the ghostly eight white figures that hover over the orange water prompt? Or is it Alghanem’s intention to convey the impossibility of the figures reaching shore? Or is it the cityscape — undeniably Deira — rendered in flaming red? “We keep moving from place to place in Dubai and it feels like the city is competing with us, chasing us, blocking our ways, blocking our free spirit, becoming almost unidentifiable,” she says.
“It’s like we have to develop a new relationship with Dubai all the time, so though I have not been on good terms with the city, I am trying to establish a new peace with it.” It could be all these — yet there is a lot more. All Alghanem’s creative productions are in fact visual essays, and Between Two Shores is one such example. It is a factor that first manifested as something that pierced her heart, and then struck her hand that she felt compelled to write poetry. Later, it became a painting.
Across all that Alghanem creates – paintings, poems, and films – a core aspect shared by the three art forms is the sense of healing that they offer their maker. One of the show’s crown jewels is the collection of paintings from the mid-1990s. Distinguished by their small size, earthy colour scheme and creative intrigue – abstract and figurative at once – many of the oil paintings were made during Alghanem’s time in the USA, from where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Video Production from Ohio University, in 1996.
During her undergraduate years, she took a variety of electives and developed a deep fascination with history, African masks, mysticism, mythology and “the anthropological aspect of things”. It reflects in her work. She experimented with materials, such as burlap, to give her paintings texture and in her oil paintings, the “undefined creatures, both human and non-human but not animals” told of other worlds. “These kinds of obsessions don’t go,” says the artist. “They come back.” They in fact did, in paintings from the early 2000s, also on show in Unframed. For the first time, Alghanem presents photographs – stills from her films – with handwritten verses of her own poetry.
There’s the legendary conceptual Emirati artist Hassan Sharif from Sharp Tools (2017) and the 90-year-old female healer from Sharjah in Hamama (2010), Fatima, the female camel breeder in Nearby Sky (2014) and Falak, from Passage (2019), tells us never to settle for what we know. There are a host of other admirable subjects. In combining the written word with a still from a moving image, Alghanem submits: do we read the text and understand the image, or do we see the image and understand the text? Does it even matter? Isn’t film poetry? Isn’t poetry words and don’t words ultimately make a visual essay? The answers, my friend, are blowing in the unframed and unframeable winds.
Alghanem (b. 1962, Dubai) is a pioneering Emirati artist, poet, and multi-award winning film director. Her multifaceted career which spans four decades, explores forms of storytelling. She is a longstanding member of the UAE’s creative scene – someone who has been there, done that, from the very beginnings. During the 1980s, she cofounded Aqwas Collective with the late legendary artist Hassan Sharif, Youssef Khalil and Khalid Albudoor, in an attempt to look beyond traditional art by experimenting with free-verse poetry composition, constructionism, and post-modernism – and inviting a certain amount of criticism.
The group orchestrated pop up exhibitions in public spaces, such as Central Market of Sharjah (1985), in addition to producing Silsilat Al Ramad (Chain of Ashes), a non-conventional poetry, art, and short stories publication. In 2019, Alghanem made history becoming the first woman to stage a solo exhibition at the UAE’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale, showing Passage, a site-specific film installation. The installation was recreated in 2021 for a solo presentation at Abu Dhabi Art and again in 2022 as part of Portrait of Nation II: Beyond Narratives. She has also presented many other solo exhibitions. Founded in 2018 in Al Quoz, Aisha Alabbar Gallery is one of the first Emirati-led galleries in Dubai focused on contemporary and modern art by Emirati, local, and regional artists.
Dedicated to UAE-based artists and producing five innovative exhibitions a year, the gallery has collaborations with curators and organisations, investing resources in bringing art practice in the UAE onto the contemporary stage. Each show is accompanied by immersive activations, talks, and workshops. The gallery seeks to contribute to the evolving UAE arts ecosystem through exhibitions, accompanying programming and commissioned publications. It is also committed to education and community events, which strengthens its exhibition programme.
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