Profile: Alaa Edris
This profile was originally published in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of Canvas Magazine
In fifth grade, Alaa Edris found herself alone in the yard behind her school with a box of fluorescent striplights. Twenty-one years later, she unleashes the memory of shattering them, one by one, against the building. She’s methodical, her actions controlled and the emotion of memory absent. Not an attempt to invoke any personal or sentimental past, this ceremony of smashing disrupts as it reconstitutes.
The resulting film, photographs and glass shards became School (2017), a work made in the context of Is Old Gold, an exhibition exploring transmissions between the UAE’s first generations of contemporary artists and those emerging today. “I wasn’t only thinking about my own memories, but also inherited ideas from older generations, about the dual meanings of ‘school’ – a place, a collective – and how that influence might exist within my own practice,” explains the artist. The desire to break and remake is played off against the impossibility of doing so, betraying the generational, spatial and temporal disquiet that lingers through her practice.
The film stages two of her main preoccupations: repetitive physical actions become choreographies that destroy prescribed identities; manipulations of architecture and environmental details compose uncanny sets, revealing urban landscapes as a conditioning force. By performing the experience of her lived reality, she takes the appropriation of recent social and urban histories further into distortion.
Edris’ architectural photographs look like sci-fi movie dioramas. Reem Dream (2015) depicts contorted echoes of the neighbourhood where she lives – a semi-developed residential island off the main peninsula of the UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi. Recognisable urban elements are mirrored and collapsed claustrophobically – the ground, elongated, rises up to meet a sky that stretches away in a skid of gravel; streetlights tilt and cower away from noxious red clouds. The scenes are empty and beneath skies that are inverted and unleashed from gravity, we find ourselves in the permanent limbo of ‘under construction’. “Some of them are spaces I see almost every day, some are spaces that trigger buried memories, some of them give a sense of home,” she explains, of these eerie vistas. “Maybe this is my way of pausing, of trying to stop, trying to create a status quo – things are always changing”.
In State (2016) she locates urban anchors in buildings that existed before the UAE’s unification, rendering them extravagantly into projections of swarming new architectural forms. “I am reconstructing them to imagine a futuristic architectural space,” she explains. Beginning with the raw material of her immediate surroundings, which are documented through photographs – her first medium is analogue and digital photography – she evolves the past along imagined continuums, as if to map a future archaeology in which the seismic changes of the present could be traced. That these distortions are rooted in physical urban structures introduces a strange familiarity in that although the scenes do not cohere with any lived reality, the urge to locate the present persists.
Edris is always on the cusp between construct and reality, and ever-conscious of the different modes that have shaped the UAE – whether its urban environment or cultural heritage. Whereas State (2016) suggests the fantastic imaginings of speculative real estate developers, Kharareef (2011) remixes the documentary tradition. Taking archival footage shot by British filmmakers, she shuffles and cuts, piecing together a visual narrative suggestive of the fairy tales that she heard while growing up. The work is composed of the imposed and ‘othering’ gaze of foreign filmmakers, yet its reading demands the intimate and inimitable knowledge of a child’s lived experience, conjuring oral traditions that are the preserve of the initiated.
That same year, Edris approached these myths performatively in The Seven Jinnat of the Trucial States (2011). Revisits to source material are characteristic of her work. Preoccupations are worked out in multiple mediums and formats – the idea is a kernel that she synthesizes into a single image or motif, with each work layered to offer new perspectives. In this photographic treatment of Emirati oral traditions, disjunction is witnessed – creature-like features are projected onto her own face, the djinn and the self, present and absent. Like a rabbit-duck optical illusion, both exist and do not, shaping and effacing.
Alaa Edris. Deskinning. 2009. Digital C-print. 150 x 150 cm