Dubai: Look in any direction and there is just one word that you will see on the white walls of Tashkeel, an art center in Nad Al Sheba for the next few weeks – the word “Sah,” or “correct” in the Arabic language. Walk in and you will find this word framed in different colours, carved on wood, bent in metal, and more.
Sah is what Emirati artist, Shamma Al Amri, is exploring in her latest exhibition ‘So to Speak’, which opened to the public on Tuesday, September 13, at 6pm.
Al Amri, who is an active member of the UAE cultural scene combines her love for art and focuses on the Arabic language to deconstruct the various meanings of the word, in this exhibition that art lovers can visit for free until October 18.
Explaining why she chose Arabic for her artworks, the 37-year-old artist told Gulf News: “The global landscape of contemporary art is predominantly English speaking, so I wanted to escape to my mother tongue and really explore where it sits in the contemporary art conversation.”
The exhibition is a result of the artist’s recent journey on the Critical Practice Program of Tashkeel, an art organisation that was established by Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Chairperson of Dubai Culture and Arts Authority (Dubai Culture) and Member of the Dubai Council, in 2008.
The program offers sustained studio support, critique, and production for one year, for contemporary artists living and practising in the UAE. Al Amri’s solo exhibition is the first public outcome by a participant of the Critical Practice Programme 2022.
Explaining her work during the program, the multidisciplinary artist said: “During my time on this program, I continued my ongoing research into the Arabic language…. that's mainly what I've been invested in for the past few years. The Arabic language is considered very sacred to our history and our identity. It affects us and how we function in society. Words dictate how we behave. Some words exist in one language, but don’t exist in another… and that tells you a lot about the effect of language on one’s identity.”
The Arabic language is considered very sacred to our history and our identity. It affects us and how we function in society. Words dictate how we behave. Some words exist in one language, but don’t exist in another… and that tells you a lot about the effect of language on one’s identity.
For the program, Al Amri examined the specific use of language in oaths and took this as a starting point to develop her own ‘artist’s oath’. She said: “Oaths are used for professions that are considered very civil – like a doctor or a lawyer; they have the oath to perform in society. I asked myself, as an artist, what is my oath and how should I perform in society? What is the correct way to perform in society? So one of the first pieces that triggered this whole body of work, took all my research and understanding to recreate an oath for artists.
“I took all my research of many pages and my understanding of the words loyalty and truth, and what my bigger purpose is, and what systems I should not change, and then presented everything in this transparent format. The artwork is like a big block of glass, where all the words become like X-rays, and although it is almost transparent, it creates a counter effect where you can't read anything because all the words get overlaid over each other and it becomes hard to dismantle…. It shows you this network when language becomes something else. Language is not just a way of communicating but a way of dictating the way we see the world and how we function in society.”
During the process, Shamma Al Amri honed in on the root of a single Arabic word that dictates correctness, exploring how its meaning changes in different contexts. She was mentored by the renowned typographer, writer, and graphic designer Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès from Beirut, Lebanon, and acclaimed contemporary Emirati artist Mohammed Kazem.
Talking about her favourite work at the exhibition, Al Amri added: “I usually focus on conceptual artwork. One of my favourite works is probably even the simplest, but it took time to conceptualise.”
It’s the artwork titled Blue and Yellow: 9 from 3, that leaves the exhibition visitors perplexed and second-guessing. “How many colours do you see in it?” she asks. Most visitors, if not all, see nine colours, but there are only three.
“… the visitors are convinced that they see nine colours, and I have to convince them that these are purely three colors and that it is their eye that is mixing the colours. This also exposes this idea of narrative and perspective and how one thing could be right for someone and could be different for the other and it's really hard to kind of establish that ground.”
To create another one of her artworks, which visitors stop to admire, she said she sat in her studio to practise the “correct way” to write the word ‘sah’. Using a marker on workbook sheets, she wrote the word repeatedly.
She then took the word outside her studio, to explore it in a social context. Al Amri visited a correctional facility, where she collaborated with inmates incarcerated for “doing something wrong”, and had them carve out the word ‘sah’ in wood.
She approached construction workers working with metal rods and asked them to bend the rods in the shape of the word.
These artworks are also a part of the exhibition.
Al Amri, who holds two master's degrees, one in Culture and Creative Industries and the second in Contemporary Art Practice from the Royal College of Art in London, spoke about her journey as an artist. She said: “Being an artist didn't come to me naturally. I have to be honest…. I was interested in concepts and our understanding of the world. I love reading, I love researching. And somehow I found myself in the medium of art, because of its capacity to pose such questions, analyse and be able to unpack concepts that sometimes seem very black and white or very binary.”
Al Amri feels that the UAE is very supportive of artists. She said: “The art scene in the UAE is growing quite fast. There are amazing programs that encourage art to be seen as an investment of research rather than an outcome or an aesthetic object. Art is supposed to present you with concepts and ideas. Once you see it as an object, it loses value.”
Al Amri has founded several cultural projects such as The Nomad Box, which presented contemporary local arts to the public in a renovated shipping container that toured Dubai, Majhool, and bleep in the UAE. She is also a co-founder and a member of The Arab Art Saloon in London.
Previously, she has participated in many exhibitions both locally and internationally including in the US and UK. Her works have also been displayed at the United Nations office in China, and in the UAE; Art Dubai, Sikka Art Fair, and Third Line gallery. Her last show Everything You Can Think of is True, was a solo Exhibition at Al Serkal Avenue.
During the exhibition, visitors will also get a chance to meet Al Amri during guided tours, a poetry evening, a risograph (a digital screen printing technique) workshop, and a talk. All of these are free to attend, except the risograph workshop, which will cost Dh300 per person. More information and booking details are available on tashkeel.org.
Gallery hours: Sunday to Thursday, 10 am to 10 pm; and Friday 9am to 12 noon.