Orientation trips
The Mondriaan Fund organises orientation trips for visual artists and mediators to Asia, Latin America and Africa since 2004. The trips are aimed at exchange and cooperation between visual art professionals.

The curator at the NYU had praised their work and claimed it would be the meeting of a century. Expectations high.
The bus stopped in a suburban area. Everything was pretty unassuming until the bus decelerates and we get a glimpse of an elephant-like sculpture. We had arrived. We are welcomed by the artist and enter the space, or rather the house/project.

It all started 10 years ago when the artists moved to Dubai, in what they term as a self-imposed exile from their native Iran. It is important to take a step back and revisit this term. Being Iranian artists “the exile” is a social condition they would naturally be associated with, in which immigrants maintain a distanced and often amplifier sense of identity, a nostalgic rendition of the self in a foreign context. Another more political and historical connotation would be Khomeini’s famous exiles, first in Iraq, then in France, only to return in full force. There seems to be no drive to return, for the trio, the momentum is forward-looking. Their exile in Dubai is grounds for producing an alternative ecology where work and life intermingle in a fundamentally collaborative practice. Working under their names, the artists bring in various individuals from and beyond the arts, allowing their process to be interrupted, faltered and shaped from within. They describe the outcomes of their practice almost as remnants that grow as part of an organic process. To this end, the artists extend their hospitality to the city, to delve into history not as archivists, but as botanists that create new life from a position that is normally seen as marginalized. This practice and this house are a set for diaspora not beholden by the nostalgic grip of exile but nurtured by an amalgamation of memory and the experience of the here and now. This practice is expansive and this blog too short to fully grasp its’ scope so we’ll stop and get back to it towards the end of this blog.

We are now at Al Serkal Avenue. It’s a redeveloped site of an old marble factory that is now home to galleries, project spaces and a variety of shops for the ‘creative’ citizen.
It is perhaps too much of a broad stroke or too eager to please, but retrospectively we feel there is a relationship Ishara between the house of the Exiled and the current show ‘Body Building’ at Ishara Art Foundation.

The Ishara Foundation is a new space focused on contemporary art from a South Asian context. The institute applies an expansive definition of the region, which includes the diaspora and overlapping histories of the region around India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. Nada Raza, previously South Asia curator at the Tate Modern London, is the current Artistic Director. She emphasizes the large South Asian diaspora population in Dubai and its reflection in the programming. In this exhibition, the focus is on historical urbanistic and architectural shifts. Spread over two levels the show consists of videos and photographs that deal with the urban experience in the region. One work, in particular, grasps the exhibition concept best. It is a video part of a sequence of historical moving image works from the ’60s. Two mimes enter a new high-rise development, the first of its kind in India. The new wonder and challenges that are introduced by this novel form of living are alluded to through a playful choreography of the mime couple, future tenants.
The works in the show express the various manifestations of change from political, social and technological perspectives in lens-based practices that defract the linear trajectory of modernity into different tangents.
The personal and political manifest in the work of Rajyashri Goody, who focuses on her family history. Descendants of a pariah cast in India, her family were subjected to strict dietary regimes. These included a list of forbidden ingredients and set procedures for cooking.
The installation consists of photographs of her family dining: one set is from India where she no longer lives and the other featuring herself, husband and children eating in the UK. The combination is both jarring and nostalgic.
Ishara expands the notion of the South East, allowing the institute to tap into a broader gamut of social life, demonstrated in this impressive exhibition.

Chicken, not so Swedish meatballs, flat whites and conversations with artists in residence at the Alserkal Foundation, Nada Raza (Artistic director Ishara Foundation), and Laura Metzler , Mrs. Roxana Calin (Cultural Development Executive Alserkal Avenue), Mrs. Fiza Akram (Cultural Development Director Al Serkal, Ester van Someren, Deputy Consul General NL, Eva Plumbridge- Schwietert, Project Officer – Creative NL embassy UAE, Wafae Jadallah (Jean-Paul Najar Foundation and Punam (Metasitu). Still in Serkal Avenue.

We visit several commercial galleries. All with gorgeous spaces, polished concrete, high ceilings and ambitions to match. The representation seemed very broad, both regional and international. The same goes for the type of work displayed: a range…

The Third Line is showing large-scale works by Farah Alqasimi. The walls were hung with photographs and a video dealing with different modes of self-presentation or decoration in the context of postcolonial power structures, gender, and taste in the Gulf region. The work evidenced sensitivity to aesthetics that can be too easily disregarded as kitsch, embracing it as a form of heritage and expression in its own right.

Our gallery tour ended with a rendezvous with the works of our Iranian hosts from earlier on, at the Isabel van den Eynde gallery. The works removed from their place of origin had another form of energy or immediacy. The individual works themselves still contained the layered approach the artists pursue, however, the exhibition had diluted their welcoming gestures. But then again, we might just be nostalgic for our welcoming hosts, missing the warmth of the domestic setting, cucumbers, sweats and all.

Finally, we arrived at the non-profit organization Concrete, an OMA masterpiece consisting of revolving walls on a galactic scale. Empty yet sublime, leaving us in awe. The brand new space houses exhibitions of contemporary art. Additionally, it has already attracted high profile brands such as Burberry and Rolls Royce for events that help fund artistic programming.

With our minds saturated with art, this empty space cleansed our pallet for the final stop at Jameel Art Centre.

This is the first independent non-governmental art center in the UAE, supported by the Jameel family. Their growing acquisition program comprises of over 700 pieces. Three times a year artists from the collection are selected for solo presentations in a large exhibition room. For this occasion, Prabhakar Pachpute made an impressive installation consisting of large wall drawings and one sculpture.

The current show Phantom Limbs includes works across media from 13 regional artists. We started with a work by Theo Mercier, Massacre 2019, a vitrine of African masks piled up.

A strong piece that illustrates the essence of a show that deals with the precarious states of memory, the writing of history and material heritage in the present. Many of the pieces utilized a form of reverse archaeology, retracing the past and rearticulating the present. Merciers’ work can be seen in another space where he has piled up eggs, vases, and stones, a humorous gesture that questions value attribution and hierarchies that are the basis for creating national identity and maintaining a hold on power.

Our guide mentioned the question of where a thing starts and when it ends. For a show that is dealing with the traces of time, that question is particularly poignant. It alludes to a transient notion of heritage, a concept that collective Decolonizing Architecture is pushing for within the context of Palestinian refugee camps in their long term work Daar, an endeavor to obtain UNESCO status for Palestinian refugee camps. Perhaps the project is doomed to fail, but the point is to pose a question: what is of value and when is it worth protecting?

We drove into the sunset

Johan Gustavsson, Patrizia Keller and Kianoossh Motallebi