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Installation view of Crude, curated by Murtaza Vali, at Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai; in the foreground, Rayyane Tabet’s installation, Steel Rings Image Credit: Mohamed Somji/Art Jameel

Jameel Arts Centre’s inaugural group exhibition titled Crude examines the complex theme of oil within both historic and contemporary contexts. Curated by Murtaza Vali, the show looks at the role of this valuable, finite natural resource as an agent of social, cultural and economic transformation in this region as well as a driver of geo-political upheaval and environmental disasters.

The show brings together works by 17 artists of various nationalities, who have dug deep into the archives to piece together the story of Petro-modernity and Petro-culture in the region. It looks back at the power struggles, nationalism, infrastructure development and prosperity connected with the discovery of oil; highlights our dependence on oil in contemporary life and its ecological consequences; and contemplates a post-oil future.

“This is a theme everybody in the region can relate to. The exhibition’s exploration of oil through the eyes of contemporary artists presents an innovative material reading of a substance so crucial in shaping local and regional histories and cultures. The artworks embrace the slipperiness and contradictions inherent not only in oil as a substance and harbinger of geo-political transformation, but also in life at large, thus affirming the capacity of contemporary art to unravel the complex conceptual, thematic and experiential ideas of our time,” Antonia Carver, director Art Jameel says.

The show is spread across five galleries and includes works from the Art Jameel Collection as well as loans and commissions.

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Michael John Whelan, Glass object hand blown from sand obtained from the bottom of the Arabian Gulf Image Credit: Supplied

It explores the early histories of oil exploration and Western ambitions in the region in various ways.

For example, Alessandro Balteo-Yazbek looks at histories of American interventions in the region with a large mobile comprising a finely balanced structure of biomorphic forms whose shadows on the floor create a map of the locations of oilfields in Southern Iraq.

The work, inspired by American artist Alexander Calder’s ‘mobiles’ comments on American cultural diplomacy during the Cold War era when the CIA promoted abstract expressionism and artists such as Calder to propagate American values of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’; and questions the motives of the US and UK in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The title of this work, UNstabile-Mobile references the bypassing of the United Nations in the lead up to the war, and the ongoing instability in the region resulting from the conflict.

Seep, a multimedia installation by Belgian-Iranian artists Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi includes archival photographs, letters, videos, film footage, objects, prints of oil seepage and a model of the Teheran Museum of Contemporary Art highlighting its collection of Western art, now hidden away in storage. The work tells the story of oil in Iran from the ancient natural seepages in waterways to failed Western bitions and the murky archives produced by oil revenues. It also reveals the intertwined histories of petroleum and art manifested even today in museums and strategies of cultural diplomacy across the region.

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A painting by Houshang Pezeshknia Image Credit: Supplied

The early impact of oil revenues in the region can be seen in a series of photographs by Latif Al Ani. Taken in the 1950s and 1960s in Baghdad, they document the appearance of new modernist buildings, big housing projects, public art and factories. But the fact that Al Ani worked for the British-controlled Iraq Petroleum Company and his photographs were published in the company’s magazines speaks about the company’s efforts to create a positive perception of its contribution to the country, especially after the nationalisation of oil in neighbouring Iran.

Aqualung by Michael John Whelan engages with the history of oil exploration in the UAE by referencing the commissioning of Jacques Cousteau in 1954 to conduct an oceanographic survey of the Arabian Gulf, which led to the discovery of Abu Dhabi’s offshore deposits.

Last year Whelan re-enacted Cousteau’s expedition with his own team of divers and brought back sand samples from some of those sites. He has transformed the sand into a series of handblown glass sculptures shaped like the aqualung underwater breathing apparatus developed by Cousteau to enable divers to obtain sand samples from the seabed. The fragile sculptures also speak about the marine environment and the need to protect it.

Many of the works focus on the people involved in the oil industry and its impact on their lives such as Houshang Pezeshknia’s paintings of oil workers. The artist, who worked in the publications department of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in Abadan, has portrayed the difficult conditions the men lived and worked in and the effect of the oil industry on the environment. His choice of subject also reflects the labour movement in the Iranian oil industry that led to its nationalisation in 1951.

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Raja’a Khalid, Desert Golf I 2014. Archival inkjet print Image Credit: Supplied

Raja’a Khalid’s collection of images of Western oil executives playing golf among the pipelines in the desert depict the expatriate lifestyle in the region; and Manal AlDowayan’s nostalgic photographs of her father’s colleagues at Aramco focus on the Saudi Arabian pioneers of the oil industry.

Hajra Waheed’s series of collages based on material from Aramco’s archives show how Aramco’s Arab Research Division and its Arabic speaking founder George Rentz contributed to the making of myths that were designed to expand and protect Aramco’s interests and position it as vital to the development and modernisation of Saudi Arabia.

In contrast, Al Bahithun, a project by Ala Younis investigates oil as an engine for knowledge production, exploring the impact of its nationalisation in Iraq on intellectual and academic life.

Rayyane Tabet’s installation, Steel Rings, highlights the infrastructure of oil, and the rivalries and cooperation between nations that were fuelled by oil. It comprises a series of steel rings placed to form a pipe, each engraved with latitude, longitude and elevation markings of specific locations on the Trans-Arabian Pipeline.

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Babak Afrassiabi and Nasrin Tabatabai; Seep # 1, video still, 2012, part of the installation Seep Image Credit: Supplied

The work represents the pipeline connecting Saudi Arabia to Lebanon via Jordan and Syria that was built to bypass the Suez Canal and provide a faster, cheaper and safer way to export oil.

The exhibition highlights the impact of oil on the environment through collages and films showing oil plumes and oil fires during the Gulf War. And it looks to the future with Monira Al Qadiri’s dichromatic sculptures made from drill heads, which link the pearl diving heritage of the region with the current oil economy and a future when oil drilling equipment will become relics of the past in museums.

Other works by Lydia Ourahmane, Hassan Sharif, Wael Shawky, GCC collective and Lantian Xie playfully comment on how oil has led to our contemporary consumerist culture, modern lifestyle, increased mobility and ecological damage.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.

Crude will run at Jameel Arts Centre, Jaddaf Waterfront until March 30. The exhibition is accompanied by a well-researched book and a programme of talks, workshops and archival films.