Play: a group exhibition
Sitting on a carpeted floor with a small doll in her hands and surrounded by colourful fabric, ribbons, toys and a variety of other objects, a little girl is immersed in playtime.
She is the protagonist in Enchanted, an oil-on-linen work by Fatima Atallah, who is one of more than 30 artists featured in the latest open-call exhibition at Tashkeel: Play.
Atallah, a Lebanese artist, is still at an emerging stage in her career. This is only her second exhibition in Dubai, where she has lived since 2015. She responded to the open call, which invited artists living and working in the UAE to explore various facets of play such as impulsiveness, irrationality, joy and nostalgia.
“In this piece, I play with the temperature by using cold and warm colours, the textures of the fabrics, and the lines and designs found in the small details of the work,” explains Atallah. “All this I consider as ‘play’. My philosophy when I approach any kind of artwork is to embrace playfulness, not to think too much but to try new colours and shapes, and see what happens. That’s why when the call for this Tashkeel exhibition came out, I felt like it was a call to me personally.”
The show includes artworks of multiple mediums, such as painting, textiles, installations and photography. It also includes a specially designed app, constructed by Johnny Farrow, a lecturer of visual arts and interactive media at NYU Abu Dhabi.
Blue Again, Then Not is a self-generating video which produces a two-colour background with three round spots, with both the background and the spots shifting slowly to make playful patterns in the eyes of the viewer. To understand the result, think of those moving patches you see when you close your eyes after looking at a bright light.
Another video-based work comes from Cristiana De Marchi, a prominent artist and curator who lives and works between Dubai and Beirut and whose piece addresses issues of migration, displacement and identity. The Die is Cast is a video that depicts hands of different skin colours throwing a set of seven white dice, on which are engraved the different elements of identity: gender, age, social and political status, religion and geographic origin. It is a playful piece, but it points at much deeper and more serious issues of the modern age.
Hanna Orlowski, who divides her time between Dubai and Mozambique, has presented a film of her 95-year-old grandmother in an apartment in Berlin, playing a harmonica with her friends. In this instance, the artist is showing the importance of play to keep the mind fresh.
“In this exhibition, there is play for all ages, play with artistic practice and play with form,” says Lisa Ball-Lechgar, Tashkeel’s deputy director. “Play is very much part and parcel of the artistic process. If you don’t play, experiment or explore you are not going to expand the boundaries of your practice as an artist. Putting that into the wider and social sphere, playfulness is also a key part of creativity and maintaining a strong imagination.”
The concept of playing with your identity also appears at several points throughout the exhibition. For example, the work I Elude You, by Dubai-born artist Fatima Al Budoor, is a series of three screen prints arranged on the colourful cotton that women in the Gulf commonly wear under their abayas. The images show female figures covering either one or both of their eyes. It is a comment on how we play with our appearances and how a person can embody several personality traits at once.
Lithuanian artist Loreta Bilinskaite-Monie, who lives in Dubai, is exhibiting a self-portrait photograph in which she is dressed in traditional clothing from her home country. The playfulness of this image comes from the fact that all the clothes and accessories the artist is wearing were sourced and made entirely in the city’s Satwa district. Bilinskaite-Monie wears vivid coloured fabrics, a headscarf and a floral hair piece to create a look that is typically Lithuanian, and yet embraces many aspects of Emirati life.
Another interesting addition to the exhibition is a series of digital illustrations by Ichraq Bouzidi, a design architect from Morocco who lives in Dubai. Her work, Eternal Youth, uses minimalist lines and language to depict old people playing children’s games. “My work speaks of dreams, hopes and the interstitial space between childhood and old age,” explains Bouzidi. “The aim is to communicate emotions with simple and discreet lines.”
But perhaps one of the most striking images in the entire exhibition is a piece by 15-year-old Alexandra Troy, who grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, before moving to Dubai. Her painting shows two children with white skin playing with the severed head of a small black-skinned boy, whose body stands in the centre of the frame and also participates in the game. The image is surreal and rather overtly violent, but it emits a powerful statement nevertheless.
In the exhibition’s catalogue Troy explains: “Often, those who hold the most power may treat the lives of others like a game, not seeing the consequences of their actions. In this painting, the children on the left and right are ‘innocently’ enjoying themselves as they hold the life of the third child in their hands.
“They think nothing of what they are doing, demonstrating the lack of compassion of so many. Overall, this piece delves into the implications of a game, and questions whether play is truly left in childhood.”
Tackling such a broad subject in so many diverse ways makes this exhibition a true snapshot of the strong and emerging talent across the UAE, while it also leads to several moments of deep personal contemplation.
The Play exhibition. Marcg 12 - April 24. Tashkeel, Nad Al Sheba, Dubai.