Abdullah Al Saadi: A UAE National Treasure

This article was published in Al Tashkeel Magazine in March 2016.
Abdullah Al Saadi sits inside his studio. Image by Anna Seaman

Abdullah Al Saadi sits inside his studio. Image by Anna Seaman

Tucked away in the mountain valleys near a village called Madha on the Omani border with the UAE, Abdullah Al Saadi’s studio is a veritable treasure trove of discovery for the art enthusiast. Al Saadi, born 1967, is one of the most prolific Emirati artists and his studio, which he built himself next to his family home, houses the results of his life-long dedication to his art.

Inside, a collection of scarecrows that he made for an installation in Sharjah in 2013 stands to attention. Dead insects hang in frames – remnants from a time early on in his practice when he collected the beasts that reminded him of his childhood. On a set of metal shelves leaning against a wall outside are several non-descript grey stones arranged meticulously in order of size and on the lower level, in his private library, catalogues of his previous shows are stacked and indexed.

Abdullah Al Saadi enters his studio. Image by Anna Seaman

Al Saadi’s is a careful practice that began even while he was at high school. He recorded an expansive and expressive diary of his memories of the UAE art scene in the 1980s, which became an essential part of the catalogue for the UAE National Pavilion’s exhibition at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, 1980 – Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates. 

In the early 1990s, he began collecting animal skulls and bones from the mountains surrounding his house and made sculptures from them. They were originally displayed at the Emirates Fine Arts Society in Sharjah in a dark room with a fan and a single kerosene lantern so as to cast ominous and beautiful shadows across the walls.

“The bones themselves were a kind of art to me,” says the artist when I ask him to reminisce. “The shapes they form are very beautiful especially when you combine two or three. Conceptually, I was also wondering about the death of animals. We use sheep or cows for food and farming but when they die we throw away the bodies without any spiritual feeling. I was asking myself why we do this and then I created from the dead animals, a new creature.”

Abdullah Al Saadi stands by his rock collection. Image by Anna Seaman

Although heavily laden with poetic poignancy, Al Saadi does not set out to create art with such weight. He simply asks himself questions about the nature of life and our humanity and his talent is to present material in a way that forces his audience to reflect in the same way.

One of his strongest pieces of work took him over a decade to compose. My Mother’s Letters 1998-2013, was displayed in Sharjah Art Foundation in 2014. It was a collection of objects that his illiterate mother used to leave in his studio as a kind of message to let her son know she had been to visit. A piece of string, an oddly shaped rock and even an old chocolate wrapper were among the objects preserved and kept and displayed in glass cabinets during an exhibition called Al Toubay.

His art is based on and pivots around a fascination with collecting. Whether items from the natural world around him, or remnants of his own story, Al Saadi found beauty and observations in the simplest objects.

A scarecrow and other objects in the garden of Abdullah Al Saadi's studio. Image by Anna Seaman

The sweet potato in many ways summarises Al Saadi’s work. The vegetable, once a staple of the East Coast diet and also a crop grown by his father, a farmer, has been the subject of many of Al Saadi’s artistic projects.

In 2004, he produced a work titled Studies of the male and female forms of sweet potatoes and an exhibition in 2008, which dealt entirely with sweet potatoes.  For the UAE’s National Pavilion in the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, Al Saadi showed Naked Sweet Potato, an ongoing project included clay and metal sculptures, stone engravings, paintings and a video piece all about the humble vegetable.

“What fascinates me about the sweet potato is the shape,” he says. “When I grew up we always used to eat the sweet potato but without concentrating on the shapes. For me, when I studied the shapes, I found some close to humans, animals and birds and saw that every sweet potato is different from the rest they have their own stamps and characters.”

At Emirati Expressions in 2013, which carried the subtitle Realised, was an extension of the project. In it, 24 gold sweet potato-shaped pieces of jewellery were presented in illuminated columns on Abu Dhabi’s Manarat Al Saadiyat. There was also his research material that included an alphabet he created based on the shapes of the sweet potato and an entire journal of his ode to the oddly shaped tuber, which he has indexed in endless different designs and describes as having a symbiotic relationship with the people who grow it.

“It is an ongoing project that represents my history and the history of a nation,” says Al Saadi.

As well as telling the story of him and his father, Al Saadi also weaves in the narrative of his relationship with his son into his art. The Watermelon Series (2013) is a set of watercolour paintings of red mountains that he painted after his son said that the triangular slice of watermelon that he was eating looked like a mountain. This series was continuation of a larger body of work he produced in the same year called The Comparative Journey – a visual documentation of several journeys he made through the mountains both at home in the UAE and during a trip to South America. 

A stone slipper inside Abdullah Al Saadi's studio

The hardships of these travels were reflected again in the Stone Slippers (2013), a collection of real stone slippers and drawings made to represent the life of a gypsy who continuously travels in search for something he may never find.

The charm and character of Al Saadi’s practice is distilled with a visit to his studio. There is no pomp or circumstance about the place. It is a simple homestead that yields to the forces of nature and is simply populated with the tools of his trade. Yet from this modest platform some of the UAE’s most important pieces of work emerge.

“I do not intend to show people my life,” he says. “I just capture what is around me to express my ideas. This often means that I use the stories of my life but this doesn’t mean it is about me; it is about things that everyone can relate to and can observe. This is the meaning of art.”