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Transforming everyday materials into artworks

Alif Beh is a study in form, and is drawn from a reduction in geometric forms and letters to create two distinct perspectives: the cityscape and the mashrabiya

Image Credit: Supplied
Jameel Arts Centre, northside view, from the Creek, C Serie Architects
Gulf News

Art Jameel is presenting Alif Beh, a major work by well-known Egyptian artist, Hazem El Mestikawy in an exhibition at its Project Space in Alserkal Avenue. The show is part of the non-profit arts organisation’s Collection Focus Series, featuring important single works by renowned artists, drawn from the Jameel Art Collection.

Alif Beh is a sculptural installation, created by Mestikawy between 2006 and 2009, and beautifully depicts his ability to transform everyday materials into profound artworks. It comprises sixty pieces, handcrafted by the artist using cardboard, recycled paper and glue. Half the pieces represent the letters of the Arabic Alphabet, and the other half embody the space around the letters. Each precisely cut piece is a study in form, highlighting the beauty of the letters, and the negative space around them. While the thirty letters are suspended from the ceiling in five rows, the corresponding negative pieces are placed on the floor mirroring the vertical arrangement. With its interesting play between positive and negative space, light and shadows, external and internal, the work invites viewers to contemplate the dualities that are a part of our existence.

Alif Beh, a major work by Hazem El Mestikawy, was created by the Egyptian artist between 2006 and 2009.

“I love the forms of the Arabic letters, but I am also fascinated by the negative space around them, which actually allows us to see the forms. In this work, I have used the letters and their negative spaces to create a language of architecture. The vertical part of the work, and the shadows created by the pieces on the wall behind, are reminiscent of the traditional mashrabbiyyas or latticed balconies that were designed to let people see what is outside without being seen, and to allow light and breeze to flow into the house, while keeping the heat and noise out. The horizontal part looks like a cityscape, where the layout of the buildings and roads, and the shadows cast by the structures constitutes a language, which defines the city’s unique feel and character,” Mestikawy says.

The artist has been working with materials such as cardboard sheets and recycled paper since the 1990s, both for aesthetic and environmental reasons. “With cardboard, I can make strong, stable forms that are very light. They are easy to pack and carry, and I love the surprise on the faces of curators when I start pulling out the pieces for a huge exhibition from a small bag. My work is about dualities, and the fact that these pieces look solid but are so light, and they are precisely constructed but covered with bits of paper randomly glued on them, is part of the duality,” he says.

The show also includes a set of hieroglyph-like drawings that are part of the artist’s studies for this project; and a later work titled Viewpoint borrowed from a private collection. In this black and white lenticular work, the word ‘freedom’ appears to relate to men or women when seen from different angles.

“When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in my country I was afraid that women would lose the rights they had fought so hard for over centuries. Through this work, I wanted to convey the message that men and women are equal, and freedom for men cannot exist without freedom for women,” the artist says.

Art Jameel is a non-profit organisation that supports arts, education and heritage in the Middle East. It collaborates with prestigious arts institutions to develop innovative programmes, to raise the profile of Middle Eastern artists, and to facilitate cross-cultural dialogue.

Through its partnership with the Victoria & Albert Museum, Art Jameel supports the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art and the prestigious biennial Jameel Prize. It has collaborated with the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts to establish and develop co-managed heritage institutes in Cairo, Jeddah and Scotland. It runs many projects that support the arts across Saudi Arabia, including the open-air Jeddah Sculpture Museum. It is also collaborating with The Metropolitan Museum of Art to support activities related to the Museum’s Middle Eastern initiatives, including acquisition of works by artists from the region, global contemporary programming, and the Arabic translation of educational resources.

The organisation is set to open its first permanent space — the Jameel Arts Centre Dubai in Dubai’s Culture Village in late 2018. The centre, which is one of the first non-profit contemporary arts institutions in Dubai, is designed to be a hub for educational and research initiatives, and a diverse programme of exhibitions, events and cultural initiatives aimed at enriching the cultural scene in the region.

The multi-disciplinary space, spread over an area of 10,000 square metres, overlooking the Dubai Creek, will feature over 1000 square metres of dedicated gallery space for showcasing works from the Jameel Art Collection, and exhibitions organised in collaboration with artists, curators, and institutions around the world; a 300 sq metre open access research centre dedicated to artists and cultural movements of the GCC and wider Arab world; several multi-purpose events spaces; a roof terrace for film screenings and events; open courtyards inspired by different desert environments; an outdoor sculpture area; and a café, restaurant and bookshop.

Fady Mohammed Jameel, president of Art Jameel, says, “We are delighted to be embarking on a new phase of development for Art Jameel — strengthening our programmes in Saudi Arabia, across the Arab World and internationally, as well as founding our first permanent space, the Jameel Arts Centre Dubai. Our model is collaborative, and we are proud to work closely with our many partners to fulfill our vision to support contemporary artists from the region and share their work with a broad international public. Our programmes foster the role of the arts in building open, connected communities, and at a time of flux and dramatic societal shifts, this role is more crucial than ever.”

While the centre is under construction, Art Jameel is presenting its programme of exhibitions, events, research and educational projects at a temporary Project Space in Alserkal Avenue. Antonia Carver, Director of Art Jameel, says, “This is an exciting moment for Art Jameel, as we embark on a dynamic period of growth and renewal, expanding programmes and developing new partnerships. We are on a journey of supporting the arts and heritage as we develop new programmes of exhibition-making, and educational, research and publishing initiatives. Our inaugural show at the Project Space showcases important works from the Jameel Art Collection, and other shows will be developed in collaboration with our partner institutions. Our educational initiatives will focus on nurturing dialogue and a discursive approach to art and art-making across all ages.”

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.

Alif Beh will run at the Project Space Art Jameel, Alserkal Avenue until July 22.

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