The role of nostalgia in contemporary art practice in the UAE by Aliyah Alawadhi


Nostalgia plays an integral role in the contemporary art practice of the United Arab Emirates. Whether it is interpreted through a critical or escapist lens, the preservation, identification and/or critical analysis of collective memory and social histories through contemporary art-making in the UAE is telling of a collective priority. Following the practice of individual artists in an otherwise relatively fragmented community shows a grander, more communal intention. Creatives turn to investigation, documentation and archiving in the pursuit of understanding and deconstructing the effects of colonialism, mass economic development, urbanization and cosmopolitanism on the UAE’s cultural landscape. Not just in terms of traditional social cultures, but in contemporary art’s pursuit of authentic identity under global capitalism.

The financial opportunism of the post-oil economy in the 1970’s manifested into what is now symbolic of UAE architecture. The rise of modernist glass towers helped shape the country’s image as a business hub, much to the detriment of the pre-oil landscape, characterized by distinctly Bedouin structures whose materials and building methods were provided and influenced by the surrounding desert environment (Sindelar, 2017). Heritagization efforts of cultural practices such as camel rearing, pearl diving and coffee drinking among others has also bled into the largely state-guided art scene with many artists opting for Romantic glorification of cultural heritage and identity (Sindelar, 2017).

A different type of nostalgia was inspired by the post-oil cultural imports of the 80’s and 90’s, such as Japanese animation, Pan-Arabian music, Bollywood, international (often eclectic) architecture and more. This wave was also heavily influenced by a bustling expat population attracted to the country’s work prospects, hailing largely from South East Asia and constructing various cultural networks catering to that demographic, including the baqala or grocery store. These diminutive shops peppered all around the UAE are stacked wall to wall with regionally or internationally imported and colorfully packaged snacks, a theme that often finds its way into nostalgic odes of UAE creatives to the past. Often symbolic of this particular cultural denotation is Laban Up and Chips Oman, whose striking packaging has stood the test of time and are often caricaturized in a Warhol-esque fashion, much like the Coca Cola logo or Campbell soup cans. It must also be noted that these shops signs, diverse in size, font and name, were made uniform in accordance to government standard (The National, 2013), both a literal and metaphorical erasure of a vibrant “low culture” (Radoine, 2013).

Vectors and Stuff is the name of an Instagram page dedicated to conserving memories of old architectural locale with colorful 2D renditions. It is managed by Sultan Al Ramahi, a designer, a member of the Urban Planning Council (UPC) and an illustrator (Hawksley, 2019). Born in Abu Dhabi, Al Ramahi spent much of his childhood playing in and around various eclectic architectural structures, before departing the city at the age of 7. Upon receiving his degree in architecture and fine art from Washington State University, he returned to Abu Dhabi in 2013 and found that much of his childhood locales had been demolished or built over, rendering his birth city unrecognizable (Hawksley, 2019). Coincidentally, UPC had charged Al Ramahi with the task of recreating some of the old architecture through digital images using Adobe Illustrator, drafts that were eventually posted anonymously on his social media account, before gaining traction. He was encouraged to create a separate page for these digital recreations, with the tagline “Mapping Abu Dhabi's Architectural landscape from the nostalgic to the unnecessary” (Vectors and Stuff, n.d.). His images are often followed by captions detailing the histories of these structures, editing in crowdsourced knowledge on the provenance, designers and random factoids. His recreations range from well-known buildings, such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi, to obscure projects, like a large eggplant sculpture found in Dolphin Park on Al Saada Street (Vectors and Stuff, 2019).  Al Ramahi utilizes his desire for reclaiming older Abu Dhabi to create an accessible archive of the city’s architectural history, that not only details timely design choices, but the cultural significance of buildings in an ever-changing cityscape.

Al Maha Jaralla is a contemporary conceptual artist whose work deals with themes of social issues, women, architecture and cultural histories. Born into a Yemeni-Emirati family, Jaralla derives much influence from her isolated childhood in the conservative suburban areas of Al Shamkha. Her work “أنا” or “I” (2019) explores the architecture and desolate landscape of her neighborhood, documenting barren alleyways between villas reserved for sneaky getaways from the family home. According to Jaralla, she is influenced by the “strangeness” of her community, stating “I document changing entities, such as myself, neighborhood houses and alleyways as a form of extrospection. I want people to see the things I see, the way I see them, giving people a glimpse of my mindscape” (2020). To Jaralla, her nostalgia is seen through a veil of absurdity. She reconciles a dual past; her extremely conservative upbringing and the familial pressures of hypermodesty contrasted against the extravagance of Arab pop culture, with nods to flamboyant characters such as Fifi Abdou.

Within Jaralla’s work, nostalgia has the function of reference. The visceral recollections of low-quality footage of an aged mufti preaching to an audience about marriage sparks introspective thought about social pressures and the role of feminism within such communities (Jaralla, 2020). These themes manifest into work that is critical of the past, but also legitimizes and accepts it, initiating relevant discourse on collective memory and how nostalgia can also be used to understand childhood trauma.

Afra Al Dhaheri is an educator and visual artist. Her work examines her experiences growing up in the fast-paced environment of Abu Dhabi, utilizing various mediums to explore themes of fragility, memory and adaptation (Green Art Gallery, n.d.) Al Dhaheri’s work “Preserving Impatience I” (2017) consists of crystalized glass poured over a porcelain traditional teacup. The cup has broken due to contrasting temperatures, but its pieces are preserved by the glass, freezing the shattering motion (Green Art Gallery, n.d.). The work was inspired by a memory of a relative teaching her how to properly pour hot coffee into a cup; a reckless pour would shatter the fragile porcelain and was therefore meant to be done with patience and a steady hand. Al Dhaheri crystallizes this memory of an intangible tradition, but also with consideration to the individual; the impatience of the moment, the trial and error of customs and the deeper lessons within cultural practices.

Concepts of time and memory in Al Dhaheri’s work are derived from the rapid pace of Abu Dhabi in contrast to her time spent studying in the United States (Alserkal Avenue, 2020). Her use of glass as a central material is symbolic of pace; the temperamental nature of the medium compels the artist to contemplate fast work against slow work, crystallizing a fleeting moment of time (Alserkal Avenue, 2020).

This glorification of the past appears to be less about unquestioning nationalist loyalties to arguably antiquated cultural norms and traditions. Rather it seems that the preservation of memory is a means to piece together an identity outside the global view of a country often viewed through the lens of economic opportunism.

Concepts of nostalgia are interpreted by creatives perhaps in an attempt to de-Orientalize the global view of the UAE, through contemporary interpretations with new technologies and better understandings of social histories. Geers (2012) posits that the orientation of art toward nostalgia tends to be symptomatic of a larger problem of collective anxiety and escapism, typical of sociopolitical and economic shifts, stating “it represents a nostalgic retrenchment on the part of an world threatened by technological transformation and economic uncertainty that now undermine its hierarchies and claims of cultural precedence” (p. 9).

The role nostalgia plays in UAE art-making is complex. While some productions are arguably uncritical and play to an escapist desire, it is also used in anthropological analysis of communities, culture and how time and rapid pace affect the relationships (and in some cases, lack thereof) of many citizens to the past. This has manifested in a collective priority of the local contemporary art scene to examine the past. Whether that is through participation and glorification of local heritage or through the thoughtful analysis of the past, in a quest of a distinguishable identity in a globalized world.

Aliyah Alawadhi is an artist and writer based in Abu Dhabi. She received her BFA in Animation Design with a Minor in Curatorial Practices from Zayed University. She was an editor and member of the Banat Collective, a grassroots project aimed at representing female-centered artistry in the Middle East and North Africa and was a member of the 2020 Youth Assembly of Art Jameel. Her practice and research revolve around the subtleties of growing up in an ever-developing cultural and industrial landscape, communicated in her work through themes of nostalgia, gender, mysticism, globalization and internet culture.


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