A flight of identity

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By Marriam Massalli  arabnews.com

The opening of the TERMINAL on March 14 coincided with the VIP opening night events of Art Dubai and marked the first major exhibition for the highly celebrated cultural initiative in the Gulf. Edge of Arabia, itself, is an experienced traveler, having previously visited London, Venice, Riyadh, Berlin and Istanbul. Now, in partnership with Art Dubai and under the sponsorship of Abdul Latif Jameel Initiatives International, Edge of Arabia arrived at its fifth destination — Dubai.

A flight of identity - Dubai International AirportCurated by Cuadro’s Bashar Al-Shroogi, TERMINAL is a highly conceptual exhibition that addresses the different dimensions of travel; from bureaucracy and privacy (or in this case, violation of), to the roles of identity through the eyes of both emerging and established Saudi contemporary artists.

Converting an abandoned warehouse space at the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC), TERMINAL re-enacted the airport experience for visitors, complete with “boarding pass” invitations and a visual tour of the exhibition through a catalogue fashioned to look like a passport.

The Edge of Arabia team, or cabin crew, were dressed in specially designed thobes by Saudi designer Omar Ashour, whose Azure brand has been gaining recognition among the men of Saudi and abroad, whose taste favor a more refined sophistication. Double-cuffs with yellow accents and bold linear lines made the uniforms walking works of art.

The interactive experience began with a “check-in” counter, in which invites were then ushered through security (thankfully, we weren’t asked to take off our shoes).

“Terminal is an exhibition of multiple installations,” explained Al-Shroogi. “The familiar setting of an airline terminal accentuates themes of travel, transportation, flux, and movement while the individual artworks refer to aspects of privacy, personal space, security, and identity.”

The travelers got stamped at each installation, or destination, they visited.

“The artworks, all commissioned for this exhibition, have traveled from all corners of the globe. They carry with them the stories and experiences of the artists themselves,” stated Al-Shroogi.

“Post 9-11, travels for people from this part of the world, and especially Saudi Arabia, changed dramatically,” said Director Stephen Stapleton. Many of the pieces in TERMINAL show the reaction of these artists toward such radical and overt changes. “Authorities looked desperately for dangerous ideology in people’s clothes, baggage and language. People traveling from designated countries were scanned and superficially judged at border crossings. Liquids and shoes became threatening objects with sinister potential,” explained Stapleton.

Security began with co-founder and artist Ahmed Mater’s “Boundary” (2011) — which took the form of a common security screen designed with Islamic archetypes, such as dome and cornice moldings — was inspired by a recent trip to Makkah. “I passed through the Haram ‘boundary,’” stated Mater, “protecting the regulated area that encompasses the holy sites, which only Muslims can traverse.”

Our belongings turned into instant art as they made their way on the conveyor belt through the authentic “X-Rayed” (2011) machine, by, Maha Malluh. “Traveling becomes an act of being probed, searched, having one’s privacy invaded by security checks at airport terminals,” stated Malluh in regard to her Tradition and Modernity series, “Through a series of checkpoints our baggage’s is screened, our passport photos scrutinized, and our identity searched.”

Edge of Arabia co-founder and artist, Abdulnasser Gharem’s “Pause” (2011) uses the rubber stamps that are synonymous with bureaucracy to create a controversial composition of the Twin Towers, while his “Desk” (2011) ironically acts as the first “immigration” counter upon entering the exhibition.

The Departure Lounge seemed more like domestic travel, with Hamza Serafi’s “Hijra” (2010) clocks and Sami Al-Turki’s “Constructakons” (2010) photography utilizing regional subjects to signify universal themes. Manal Al-Dowayan’s “Suspended Together” (2011) was an exhibition favorite, with white fiberglass doves stamped with the mandatory travel permission from a woman’s appointed guardian in order for her to be allowed to leave the country.

“In this installation of doves, I explore the concept of suspended movement,” stated Al-Dowayan, who believes Saudi Arabia is a land of contradictions. “Many leading women from Saudi, wonderful scientists, educators, engineers, artists and leaders, have donated their papers to be included in this artwork,” she continued. “These women are breaking new ground and achieving for their society, but when it comes to travel they are still treated ‘like a flock of suspended doves.’”

Aymen Yossri’s mix media installation “The Smoking Room (Door)” (2011) elicited contemplation on the awkward loathing for the transparent cages, which intentionally subjugate smokers to the scrutiny and judgment of nonsmoking passersby, while simultaneously inducing a self-hatred as thick as the smell of smoke and smoldering cigarettes left lingering even hours after takeoff. Yossri also included a work from his Subtitle series, which appropriately implemented a scene from the Tom Hanks film, “The Terminal.” The “Prayer Room” showed a filmed documentation of the performance of Abdulnasser Gharem’s famous 2007 work, “The Path (Al Siraat),” while Manal Al-Dowayan’s “I Need Pause to Decide Which Path to Take” (2011) in aluminum lettering with LED backlight, seemed to echo the same sense of existential travel.

Duty Free had many of Edge of Arabia’s impressive art books, while the Boarding sector, included two Gharem masterpieces, “Concrete Block VI” (2010) and “In Transit II” (2010), which consisted of rubber stamps on wood. An installation by 24-year-old Saudi artist, Hala Ali of Riyadh, entitled “Brainwash” (2011), comments “on the need to be critical regarding the dissemination of information, of which newspapers are one of the most traditional forms.” (Thankfully, Arab News was not included — I checked!)

Flying has drastically changed over the past decades. From the days when people still dressed up, to the preference of wearing flip-flops because it’s more convenient when going through security; traveling is no longer about the journey, but rather getting to the desired destination in the least amount of time, with least amount of hassle, and with the least expensive costs.

These Saudi artists react to the overt xenophobia that causes many to use a passport cover in order to conceal the flashes of green that now often solicit harsh looks and cold interactions upon arriving in JFK or Heathrow. With a giant rubber roadblock, their artwork speaks of the bureaucratic prejudice targeting their nation, while a series of suspended doves criticize a similarly inherent sexism internally. These pieces reflect a self-discovery beyond temporal travel, while others probe the dimensions of identity through a raised awareness that ultimately sees the downfall of the “Adnan Khashoggi” jetsetter, only to bear witness to the newest oxymoron of our time — the “Saudi jetsetter.”

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