Zemanna exhibtion in Abu Dhabi 2022
The Zemanna exhibition running at Manarat Al Saadiyat will wrap up on June 13 Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: A unique exhibition in Abu Dhabi has been evoking much nostalgia with its imaginative reconstruction of life in the 1990s in UAE.

With artworks and installations by 10 artists, all of whom recall the decade as the period of their childhood, the separate ‘rooms’ at the Zemanna exhibition hark back to a simpler time that was only beginning to see the technological invasion that dominates life at present.

The exhibition running at Manarat Al Saadiyat will wrap up on June 13.

Decade of flux

The impact of technology, globalisation and migration are presented as key topics and the exhibition at Manarat Al Saadiyat, therefore, ultimately allows for a moment of reflection on the repercussions, changes and impact that the 1990s had on the social, cultural and urban fabric.

Volcano fountain exhibit

Drawing visitors in at the very start is Al Burkan, a volcano-like structure that is modelled on Abu Dhabi’s iconic Volcano Fountain. Emirati filmmaker Fadel Al Mheiri built the structure with everyday items dating back to the 1990s and the piece immediately encourages a closer look at the many items that populate the volcano model: From cassette tapes to floppy discs, from poster of pop stars to cartoon-themed lunchboxes.

“I was asked to present a design that represented the UAE of the 1990s. The Volcano Fountain was a place that held a special relevance for every child who grew up in Abu Dhabi and I settled upon this the idea of this structure as the base of my exhibit,” Al Mheiri told Gulf News.

Al Mheiri said he wanted his installation to be filled with items and themes that resonated with the children of the ‘90s. To do this, he connected with UAE residents on social media pages and then drew up a list of items that were best related to the era.

“It was certainly nice to hear from people about what they remembered about the 1990s. I also wanted to present exclusive pictures as part of my piece, so I visited the National Archives to source these,” he said. He then collected the items that would fill his structure from various residents.

Pre-loved items

“The items are all used pieces and I was able to get them at a steal,” Al Mheiri said, sounding almost rueful that many residents perhaps value the era and its treasures less than they deserve. He also went on to use many things from his own home, including compact discs, video tapes, cameras, early Apple computers and school lunchboxes.

“This curation of specific objects transports us back to the space of our childhood and allows us to reflect on our relationships with these objects that, at one point, were the physical foundations of our lives,” Al Mheiri explained.

Revisiting childhoods

The result is a captivating structure that has been sparking conversations about what visitors remember of the ‘90s — from an evening at the Corniche that culminated at the Volcano Fountain, to holidays spent gaming on Atari consoles.

“I invite everyone to revisit their childhoods when they come to see my work. We all had Gameboys and grey keyboards back in those days, so I hope seeing all of this again will help us reconnect,” Al Mheiri commented.

Simpler times

A few doors down, another interactive installation by an Emirati artist is also taking people back into the past. Titled ‘Fwalet Al Aser’, which translates into ‘afternoon tea’, it is made of ‘takya’ pillows and encourages play and redesign with an object that was common across homes of the time. Artist Afra Al Dhaheri said this was her intention when she conceptualised her piece.

“Playing with cushions is a universal childhood pastime and when our parents would take their afternoon naps — because the 1990s were indeed an era that allowed for these naps and pauses — we would set up these temporal assemblages in our living rooms with the ‘takya’ pillows. So, as the UAE developed rapidly on the exterior, we too were building things in our homes. And when our parents would awaken for afternoon tea, they would see these structures, and this is what prompted the name,” Al Dhaheri said.

Interactive display

Within her installation, visitors can pick up pillows and set up their own forts or homes.

“I want visitors to remember and appreciate the simplicity of the 90s, which had a slowness that allowed people to experience and take in their surroundings. Today’s children get bored with this slow pace, but for us, it had a lot of value,” Al Dhaheri said.

Zemanna features works by eight other artists, including an inside-out football field and various renderings of a room from the 1990s. There are bulky televisions, clunky pieces of early technology and the mass of colour that dominated the decade.

Unique exhibition

“Zemanna is an exciting and unique exhibition, utilising the power of art alongside immersive and interactive experiences to reflect on and reminisce about a foundational decade. Featuring works by established UAE artists, plus an array of inventive cultural activations, this exhibition serves both the purposes, support local creatives and explore our past with pride and introspection. I invite visitors to join us in stepping back in time to better understand our present and look forward to our future.”

How to visit

Venue: Zemanna can be experienced at Manarat Al Saadiyat until June 13.

Tickets: Dh35

Timings: 10am-8pm