Meet Martin Giesen. He came to the UAE in 1997 as the founding Dean of the School of Architecture & Design at the American University of Sharjah, where he still teaches. He is an accomplished watercolourist known for capturing the ethos and culture of a place in his paintings. Over the last two decades he has spent a lot of time around the Creek in Dubai, painting the dhows, the traditional architecture and scenes of daily life and commercial activity in the area.

German artist Martin Giesen painting at the Dubai Creek Image Credit: Supplied

Giesen’s paintings celebrate the Creek, reminding us of its role in Dubai’s economic development, and also documenting the changes in the area such as the recently opened Al Seef Waterfront project featuring a hotel and other tourist sites disguised as an old fishing village. He is presenting a selection of these paintings in an exhibition at the Majlis Gallery, titled Seeking Al Seef.Martin Giesen, Shindagah Morning

Martin Giesen, Shindagah Morning Image Credit: Supplied

Giesen’s paintings capture the beauty and energy of the Creekside and tell stories about the commercial activity in the area, the multicultural community that has developed here organically, and the history of Dubai’s dynamic growth, evolution and indomitable spirit.

They depict interesting details such as the special parking spaces for the hand trolleys used for transporting goods in the area, the colour coded system used for marking individual trolleys, the different types of cargo in the dhows, restaurants offering a variety of cuisines, and misspelt words on shop signs that are all part of the city’s identity.

Trolley Parking Image Credit: Supplied

Alison Collins, founder of Majlis Gallery says, “I have admired Dr Giesen’s work since I saw one of his paintings of Beirut in an arts magazine in the 1970s and was very happy when he walked into my gallery 10 years ago and introduced himself. He has done great service to the arts community in the UAE and the region. With the rapid changes happening around the Creek, his paintings beautifully preserve the past while compelling viewers to contemplate the future. This show is a celebration of the Creek, which is an example of an economic system that fosters commerce, engages in human dignity and tolerant diversity, and presents to the world a microcosm of a sustainable lifestyle with remarkable efficiency.”

The German artist and art historian spoke to the Weekend Review about his work and fascination with the creek.

Dhow Gathering Image Credit: Supplied

Why did you decide to showcase your paintings of the creek now?

Over the last two decades I have seen this area changing, but the recent opening of the Al Seef Waterfront has transformed it dramatically. This extraordinary development creates the illusion of being a traditional Emirati fishing village but behind this artificial aged façade is in fact a hotel constructed with contemporary materials, complete with hidden underground parking. This is an indication that life in this historic area is going to change rapidly.

At this point of transition, I want to show viewers how this area was and make them think about how it will be in the future.

Majlis Gallery, located in a wind tower house in this area is the perfect location to present this celebration of the creek.

Why do you like to paint the creek?

I am drawn to the creek because it has been the backbone of Dubai’s economic development and I am interested in seeing and documenting the remaining historical infrastructure here that continues to be operational. I have spent hours by the Creekside or in a boat painting the dhows carrying goods from different corners of the world, the cruise boats with tourists, the heritage buildings and the hustle and bustle of daily life in the area.

I am fascinated with water because it is like a magician. It provides you with illusions of light and movement, but when you try to capture the ripples and reflections they are gone. In some of my paintings, the reflections you see in the water are not of the boats but of the buildings behind them. The buildings evoke a sense of stability and solidity and the water tells you that these are all illusions that will soon be replaced by something else.

With all the activity on the Creekside, how do you choose what you want to paint?

The initial spark that ignites my wish to paint is visual. Rather than the context or narrative, the desire to paint a specific scene is triggered by an unusual colour accord, an unexpected emergence of a rhythmic order, a compulsive pattern or an evocative texture. But if I only did this my work would be totally abstract.

For me memorable art always serves at least two masters — the master of form that controls pictorial elements such as composition, colour, value and space; and the master of content that controls the narrative, the recognition of reality and the emotional response to a given image. If I slavishly recreate a visual reality, I would just be doing something that can be better captured in a photograph; and if I radically cleanse the narrative from reality leaving only the abstract morsels of formalism, I lose the emotional engagement that links the viewer, the painter and the object in a triangle of shared experience. So, I combine content and form in my paintings.

For example, in Shindagah Morning I used the pattern of the railings of a cruise boat to frame the architecture behind it. In Wrapped for Rain the faded lettering on the old advertising banners used for covering the cargo in a dhow give a post-modernist touch to the painting. In the context of the new Al Seef Waterfront the content story of Dubai reflects our contemporary dilemma. We demand universality and equality but insist that identity is a treasure. We seek global integration and witness a shrinking planet but aim to safeguard cultural authenticity.

How do you feel about being described as a ‘contemporary Orientalist’?

I began my teaching career at the American University of Beirut in 1973 and later taught in Saudi Arabia before coming to the UAE. So I have spent most of my professional life in this region and have fallen in love with the Arab world. My aim is to capture the reality around me in my paintings and I prefer to call myself a visual archivist trying to draw attention to and preserve things that are endangered.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.

Seeking Al Seef will run at the Majlis Gallery, Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood until February 28.