The Abraaj Group Art Prize 2017

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Clockwise from top left: Rana Begum, Raha Raissnia, Sarah Abu Abdallah, Doa Aly and Omar Berrada.

Founded in 2008 by the Abraaj Group to support contemporary artists of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, the Abraaj Group Art Prize invested in and has given resources to artists to develop their practice. Every year, the Abraaj Group Art Prize selects a guest curator, a winning artist plus three shortlisted artists, whose work is to be showcased in a thematic group exhibition at Art Dubai art fair.

We have interviewed the protagonists of the 9th edition of the Prize: Guest Curator Omar Berrada, Winning Artist Rana Begum, and the three Shortlisted Artists Raha Raissnia, Doa Aly and Sarah Abu Abdullah to know more about their upcoming exhibition “Seepage/ritual”, running from March 15-18, 2017 at Art Dubai.


 

  • Omar Berrada, Guest Curator
  • Rana Begum, Winning Artist
  • Raha Raissnia, Shortlisted Artist
  • Doa Aly, Shortlisted Artist
  • Sarah Abu Abdallah, Shortlisted Artist

  • A 2 minutes excerpt from the conversation with Omar Berrada

 

Michela Alessandrini: Thank you very much Omar Berrada, guest curator of the 2017 Abraaj Group Art Prize and exhibition that will take place during the Art Dubai fair in March 15-18, 2017. I would start by asking you for a brief introduction to the prize and then to give us an idea of the exhibition. How did you draw together all the artists – the shortlisted ones and the new commission?
Omar Berrada: Sure. Thank you for inviting me to this conversation, firstly. This year is the 9th edition of the Abraaj Group Art Prize, so it is been around for a while. The prize is based in Dubai but it concerns artists from the so called MENASA region: Middle East, North Africa, South Asia. It is a very large, pretty wide kind of region of the world and several dozen countries are involved. It is not because of language identity or a specific type of culture, for it goes from Morocco to Bangladesh basically. But it is very much about artistsfrom the South and the diaspora of the South. For me it is interesting because being from Morocco have been working in Europe or in the US, and I have often worked with North Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East or a kind of smaller, maybe more apparently unified regions. This is more capacious in a way and creates more interesting encounters in some way between artists from different places, while still remaining a thing of the South. The idea of the Abraaj Prize is to allow artists either a certain amount of financial ability to produce ambitious work, or visibility, because the exhibition takes place during the Art Dubai fair and is full of visitors who come to see it. The way the Prize is functioning now is that it has four artists every year, one winning artist and three shortlisted, that are all brought together into one exhibition by a guest curator. The winning artist makes a new work, it is a new commission and has a hundred thousand dollar production budget. Then the shortlisted artists get a cash prize but they are not commissioned to make a new work. The guest curator is supposed to choose from existing works, things that are going in the exhibition. Now, of course, for an exhibition like this it is always tempting for artists to make something new or changing existing work. Therefore, in conversation with me, each artist developed something new as well.

MA: Maybe you want to talk about a particular collaboration that you have established with those artists?
OB: Yes, one of the interesting things about the context of a prize, as opposed to a more regular exhibition, is that I did not necessarily know the artists beforehand. I may have known their names and a little bit about their work but they are not necessarily artists I have worked with and I have known well before. The choice of the artists did not come from me as a curator having the idea of an exhibition, a concept or a theme, or something I really wanted to do, and then looking for works and artists that correspond to that idea, or that I always wanted to work with, or a work I wanted to show for some reasons. This was done in another way: that is to say a call for application to which more than three hundred artists applied. Then there was an open process of making a shortlist and meeting with the jury and picking the four artists that we wanted to be in this exhibition. So they were chosen separately for individual merits of their application to the prize and not in response to a theme or a question that was first established. My role as a curator was then to try to figure out a way to bring the work and the universes, the worlds of these four artists into an exhibition that works as an exhibition and not just as a showcase of different practices. It is an interesting challenge because I can assume that it may not work anytime. In this case, I am happy with what we are coming up with. I have tried to draw a picture out of the different practices of the artists through separate conversations with them. The title of the exhibition is “Seepage/ritual” and the idea is that the exhibition is trying to establish a relation, maybe a dialectical kind of relation, between something of the order of seepage and something of the order of ritual. Meaning seepage as maybe the matter of life, something that escapes, something that keeps happening and coming in and out of focus. Then ritual is perhaps a way of trying to gather some control or some organizing principals of this multitude. The reason for that is that all the artists in the show seem to more or less generally work in series. The interesting thing about series is that you get attention between each individual working in a series and then the series itself. Take for instance Rana Begum’s work in general. I can not tell you about the commissioned piece that will be available on the day of the opening, I am keeping a very secret atmosphere around it, but I am showing other works of hers in the exhibition and one is called “No. 680”. It is a painting-based work that is made out of many small painted panels on MDF, each one is small and rectangular, they are hung in lines and columns, and they make a larger painting made of smaller paintings. If you look at each one of them it is very precise, it has a shape, a color. It is hard-edged and it is self-contained as its own internal complexities. But then when you put them all together in these lines you get a sense of opening, almost like a gesture towards infinity. You get this very contained and at the same time very open thing. In a different kind of way, Doa Aly works in video but also in drawing. I want to show the variety of practices of each artist, because they all work across different media. So in the video installation of Doa that we are showing, you get attention between the movements of the bodies, which are very organized and very choreographed, you feel that they are following a very free established framework of movement over the four-channel installation. At the same time they are speaking, you hear sound but it is all overlayered, so you hear different voices and they mix and you can not make out what they are talking about. The work is called “House of Rumour”. It is a very organized movement of bodies, there is a very chaotic sound going on. I know that she had initially considered this work in the aftermath of the Egyptian uprisings and their kind of failure. She says failure of the uprisings has… Or the kind of disappointment of the revolution in a way has given rise to a lot of text, to a lot of discourse, so much spoken and written about it. This is the kind of rumor going on. The video tries to make sense of that. I think it is a thing of life, this excess of reality in a way, or an excess of the reality that a work of art is trying to give some form to without necessarily trying to erase it or control it completely. At least it is not necessarily wanting to control reality but it is staging attention between excess and control.
Rana Begum is from Bangladesh, Raha Raissnia is from Iran and the US, Doa Aly is from Egypt where she lives, and Sarah Abu Abdallah is from Saudi Arabia, where she also lives. So they also work and live in different contexts. Raha Raissnia’s series of painting “Series in Fugue” introduces the notion of the fugue which is a musical notion that is very important in the exhibition. All of these works seem to be about rhythm: when Doa Aly makes choreography of bodies, the notion of movement, rhythm and music is very apparent. In Rana Begum’s work there is this notion of geometrical repetition of shapes that is maybe akin to the language of minimalism in art. It makes you think of some works from the 60’s, Donald Judd’s work, some Agnes Martin maybe, it gives the work some of her influence, for she has adopted the language of minimalism. But at the same time you can feel in her work something of the order of the repetition of motives that you can find in Islamic architecture for instance. She talks about this, the fact that she is very much at ease with those two things: the language of minimalism in art and the geometrical language of Islamic art.

MA: You said that this repetition is a way to contain excess, how?
OB: Because that gives it a framework through visual rhythm. As I said, it tries to contain, or it stages, the excess in a way. It gives it a form; you can see it is there because the repetitions could be theoretically infinite. So at any one time you know by looking at the work that it cannot succeed in containing the excess, but it both gives you an idea of the excess and organizes it into a form that the viewer can relate to with the senses and with the mind basically. While Rana Begum’s work is very colorful, she works with very frank colors, the work of Raha Raissnia is very black and white in a way, not completely but it is a very chiaroscuro kind of work. Somebody wrote a text about her work calling her “the night painter” because she paints on wood but there are many layers and a very physical presence. In this series of works in particular there seems to be a confrontation with architecture: you see repetitions of forms that could be windows or staircases or passage ways, these kind of elements of architecture that are openings or bridges between different places. There are also elements of light where the light part of the painting is opposed to the darker part of the painting. The paintings stage this possibility of openings that you will never know if they are going anywhere or not, and it becomes almost abstract at the same time. It made me think of — well, you are Italian so you certainly known it — the “Carceri d’Invenzione”, the Piranesi’s series of edgings. There are all these crazy impossible architectures that are enclosed ones and have staircases and corridors but you never really know if you are actually in a prison or you are getting out, what is the topography of the space that they show you. Sarah Abu Abdallah is making something new for the show which I have not seen yet, so I cannot speak about it completely and specifically. I have an idea but I can not say too much because I might not be very specific. What is interesting about her is that she is maybe the one who is, at least on the surface, trying the least to contain the excess, she works pretty directly with the matter of life. She uses video a lot and she films her every day circumstances: it could be at home, or on the street. She is not afraid for her work and for images to look messy sometimes. Where you get the essence with the three other artists and certainly with Doa, or Rana – whose work has a very thought process that is extremely insistent on giving shape. In Sarah there seems to be an interest in experimenting with the mess. I am interested to see what kind of tension that will bring in the exhibition.

MA: Maybe just a few words on the catalogue and then I will speak with the artists.
OB: Sure. For the catalogue of the exhibition I am working with a graphic designer who is also an artist, his name is Omar Mesmar. It is really great to be able to work with a graphic designer who is also an artist because his work is more than just designing a book or whatever conceived. We are having conversations from the beginning about all the aspects of the book and therefore also of the exhibition, because it is happening in parallel. What we are trying to do is a book that is not so much an exhibition catalogue in the sense of that it would present each artist, their work that is shown and document it with images and all of that. We are doing something more like an artist catalogue of sorts or a multi-artist book that becomes the catalogue in the sense that each artist makes an intervention in the book that it could almost be considered as a work in itself. So it is not a commentary on the work that is shown in the exhibition, but more an echo of the work that is trying to find a form within the space of the book. It will not give you a lot of context about the works but will be a kind of portable way of taking the exhibition home with you within the limited space of the book.

MA: You continue the experience of the exhibition once you are home.
OB: Some elements of the catalogue will be very physical and very sensory. It will try to echo the experience of encountering the work. In some other cases it would be more textual but not a critical commentary basically. Sarah has written a series of poems that will be in the catalogue. You will see, but in any case each of the artist sections is a direct intervention in itself and then they respond to each other, they will not be necessarily separate sections.

MA: Ok, thank you very much. 

Rana Begum: When Omar and I started talking especially with the piece being outdoors, it was quite important to have something that connected with the other artists as well. I do not generally make a work that is just one off: the idea does not just appear, it is backed up with a body of work that I have done over the past two, three years, and possibly longer. That was something that I spoke to Omar about. I thought it was quite important to show that connection: how the major piece came up and is connected to the other series of work in the studio. One of the pieces, that is one of the series of works that is significant to the new piece of work, is the paintings that I have been working on since 2011. The paintings themselves stand upon a series of works that — basically I was making a piece of work to show some movement with the viewer and ask the viewer to walk towards the work, to notice a shift of color and form within the work. As my focus was on that, I had not realized that there is all another layer of color and geometry within that work that I came through accidentally. It was that kind of accident that I wanted to focus on because it is incredibly interesting in terms of how these two physical colors were interacting and creating another layer of geometry and color. I had not anticipated what happens with the work but to me that third layer was not tangible, it was not something that you could touch, in some ways it was not physical enough. I have been thinking about it for few years and the best way for me to approach and understand that interaction was to start painting and look at how one color works with another color and what would happen if I started layering those colors. That is when the paintings appeared. But even working on those paintings, they were for me more like a research rather than finding a result if you like. They were a stepping stone for something bigger, something much more physical. That is where the Abraaj Prize comes in. I proposed something that I realized will happen too fast actually. I just knew that I need the physicality to achieve what I want to achieve with the color and form at the same time.

Raha Raissnia: It has been very nice to work with Omar. He seemed to be very observant and very intelligent in response to my work. He selected some pieces that we had available. His main attention in regards to my work was to include all the three areas of my practice: film-making, drawing, and painting. These three areas are sort of interdependent and inform one another. I cannot say that my focus is given towards one or the another, all three are equally practiced regularly. He really cared to exhibit all these three different works from the different areas. I will have a film exhibition and film installation. There is still imagery which are the slides; there are handmade hand collages; ten painted 35-mm slides that are superimposed with a 16mm film, that was also very much made by hand. There is a lot of hand-painting done on the film. And also it uses this very special screen that is designed by me uniquely to create a kind of an optical effect. It also has a sculptural aspect to it, it is a light film sculpture in a sense. It uses two screens that are placed against one another and one screen is painted by hand so it is sort of like a painting but it creates an optical effect. This film installation will be presented in a room that we are building in the exhibition, while outside of the room I will have a series of paintings that have been done on wood panels. The title of the series is called “Series in Fugue”. The film installation is recent but the paintings are too, although they were made in 2013. Formally they relate very well with the film in my mind. I am happy to have these paintings to play against the film or be in the company of the film. In addition to that, Omar selected three works on paper that are very recent. I made them less than a year ago. Again it just happens that sort of formally and also for the content they relate very closely to both the paintings and the film. I am very happy about the selection again because the works are from different times but in my mind they are all connected. I am very interested to see them together in the exhibition.

Doa Aly: My work is called “House of Rumour”. It is a four-channel audio-video installation finished in 2016. I called it at the beginning “Speech Opera” but basically it is a choreographed and filmed performance with twelve performers talking all together in a synchronized manner while performing a certain choreography. The key-words are contesting narratives, how people have used these vehicles to promote certain narratives, or the questions of agency and all of that. These were the things that were in my mind while I was working. It is a very self-referential piece basically. The initial inspiration was a two page description in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” of the House of Rumour, which is the house where all the rumors of the world gather before they are dispatched to other places and other people. So everything that is heard or said in the world passes through Rumour, the goddess. Then she decides who she is going to be distributing it on. The initial inspiration was that, and the inspiration for the choreography is a sculpture that was based on the story. It is the continuation of my interest for language, gestures, fragmentation of language, or basically for the inability of language to actually comunicate meaning anymore, but still for the intoxication and hypnosis that is generated by just talking.

MA: Why do you say that meaning can not be transferred through language anymore?
DA: Because there are a lot of conflicting paradigms that are always trying to come through language opposites. Of course, everything has been generated by postmodern practices, fragmentation, deconstruction or a play with temporality and all of that, but if we look at what happens on social media or in the newspaper or in talkshows or whatever, it is all about filling time with words. It is really not about generating any truth or reaching any conclusion, it is just about the production of language.

Sarah Abu Abdallah: The idea at the moment is to show a video mapping. It is an abstract video piece in the sense that it is trying to do those random associations, to reach a certain feeling or a poetic sensibility that touches on magical thinking. Magical thinking has a concealing in the working, so the process is not really visible, I am hiding these associations. For example, if there is a conversation I do not include the source, or I cut from different conversations and I make them into one. If I have been working with my family to make a work, I trend my siblings into a think-tank in the house. They have been giving me the most amazing ideas. I think there is something almost cinematic that I want to reach, but also fictional and very simple.

 

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