Most definitions of the word “border” describe it as a line or plane that demarcates two or more physical spaces. Regularly used to define a geographical boundary, a border can be much more than that; figuratively speaking, it can imply political, cultural and even psychological delineations between entities. To regard a border is to examine it closely – to consider it in a focused, inquisitive way. In the context of this exhibition, to regard a border is to delve into its multiplicity of meanings.
Regarding Borders is the culmination of a call for entries to artists residing in the GCC. They were asked to interpret the title’s two words in the context of their local environment through the medium of photography. A panel of selectors chose works by thirteen artists who proposed all of the aforementioned iterations, and more.
Indicative of the peripatetic nature of the region’s inhabitants, high net migration rates and prevalence of foreign-born residents, the artists chosen for Regarding Borders originate from ten different countries, only two of which are within the present-day geographical boundaries of the GCC. While their images transcend their nationalistic origins, the artists’ backgrounds invariably reflect their diverse experiences with contemporary life in the region. They show a region historically identified by its trading posts that grew its economies and population following the discovery of vast petroleum reserves, and later established sites for international tourism. They describe a secular environment governed by Islamic Law, a site of increased transnational, cross-cultural and ideological interactions, where new infrastructure sprawls across the landscape. They situate the GCC as a site where borders – both literally and figuratively – are contemporarily drawn and re-drawn.
The work of Sema Orouk graphically introduces the exhibition’s concept. Through performative intervention, the artist layers torn, folded and crumpled paper to sculpt a series of borders. These photographic studies in structure and form are uniquely constructed landscapes in their own right; created through a slow, meticulous process that acts as a foil to the rapid firing of change in the artist’s surrounding environment.
Several artists express in their images their complex emotional engagement with the changing physicality of the region. In Petra Matar’s Foreign Landscape, colorfully repeating shapes hover over construction sites, their façade-like function to decorate rather than support the structures lying beneath. Kevin Mitchell’s typology of UAE warehouses portrays another incarnation of the façade as border. Enlivening what are typically perceived as generic constructional forms designed to mask an array of activities behind their walls, Mitchell posits these exoskeletons as a visual, vernacular vocabulary for the growth of trade endemic in the region.
The detritus of recently spawned manufacturing environments is evidenced in Sharmeen Syed’s triptychs that depict close-ups of fences along roads near the Jebel Ali industrial estate. The artist collapses time and place into the sequence to denote the impermanence of such borderland demarcations. Creating images in a similar geographical area, Lana Abu Qulbain compresses these records by layering her photographs to form familiar yet discordant realities of industrial settings.
Shifting to the human beings who labor in these surroundings, Mona Ayyash uses a mirror as a device to reflect the characters of Dubai’s working class. Seating her subjects amongst worn props found in their locales, Ayyash constructs dignified portraits of men whose individual identities are often overlooked by other societal cohorts. Building a story from laundry lines found in the same subjects’ neighborhoods, Alaa Edris celebrates the diverse cultural makeup of the UAE with the intent of eliciting diverse semiotic reads from her viewers.
The psychology of border can manifest in the form of metaphysical dialogue, as demonstrated in Hala Al-Ani’s personal narrative set within the confinement of a room. Likewise, Shereena Lootah proposes a tension between the internal workings of one’s mind and the outward presentation of the self. Raju Alexis sees the border as a precipice, with an individual observing the edge. Examining the landscape of change in a different way, Raji Al-Sharif mediates on a verse from the holy Qura’an about the cycle of life; the occurrence of life’s end can only lead to its beginning.
Using photography as a record of his performances, Mark Pilkington stages a series of dynamic interactions amidst an environment in continual flux. Set in unpopulated landscapes, the photographs evidence spontaneous moments where the artist cyclically joins and separates his physical – and perhaps emotional – being from it.
Competing economies, ruling systems, religious forces and cultural differences lead to the continual drawing of borders. Sami Al-Turki leaves us with a powerful message in his series Washaeg about how the acceleration of life coincides with changing borders and the growth of global culture. The photographs created by these artists working in the GCC not only index this remarkable period of transition, these tangible objects become part of the very situations they may reflect, serving as documents for contemporary and future cultural encounters.
Yale, Madeline (2010) Regarding Borders. Sharjah: Maraya.
For further reading: Mirzoeff, Nicolas. 2005. Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture. New York and London: Routledge.