Ports are anticipated as places of profusion, spaces of sound and scent where cultures collide. That hackneyed cliché is a distorted image cobbled together from a procession of Dutch Old Masters, traditional textbooks and a roll call of noisy movie sets. The thing about these fragmented, circulated memories is that they’re detached from reality. It’s certainly not an image that applies to the quiet expanse of Mina Zayed, home to Warehouse421, the setting for the second iteration of Letters: Fragments of a Memory. If you take a leaf from those half-remembered history books, Jeddah – the site of the first exhibition in summer 2017 – should be a busy, noisy scene where the world meets in the midst of change and migration. Instead, my first encounter with the city was stunned by the heat and humidity of summer. In a quiet office building, part of the Serafi Mega Mall complex, Athr Gallery is secreted away. Occupying two floors, it presents a roster of contemporary (and mostly Saudi) artists who have shaped, and been shaped, by this rapidly transforming country.
Positioned as the Red Sea gateway to the vibrant Hejaz – the Arabian Peninsula’s most culturally diverse region – Jeddah has a long history of exchange and change. Ports are unpredictable openings; accessible, they turn outwards, purposeless without the trade they invite. Letters profess a similar sort of openness as committed and considered acts of presence, hopeful to be linked to another person and another time, yet incomplete without reciprocity.
The exhibition began with an everyday exchange: a conversation over lunch about a series of letters and a book. The men having lunch were Omar Saif Ghobash – then UAE Ambassador to Russia – and Mohammed Hafiz, co-founder of Athr Gallery. The book was Ghobash’s acclaimed Letters to a Young Muslim (Picador, 2017); a series of open missives to his son, it contends with the challenges of an ever-complex world, particularly the violence and prejudice that has wrought a difficult path for many young people growing up in the region.
“What Saif was writing to his son resonated with me – it touched on the same questions we were all thinking about, things we all want to find ways to explain,” says Mohammed Hafiz, who curated the exhibition with the Athr Gallery team. The two men shared common ground in their own lives, both having lived through the tumult of rapid transformation in the Gulf; both also felt the generational anxiety of further change, wanting to communicate and connect with their children.
While the exhibition uses personal perspectives to contend with sociocultural paradigm shifts, structuring cultural moments around intimate vignettes, the move from Jeddah to Abu Dhabi introduces new contexts. It was a personal connection that drew Dyala Nusseibeh, Director of Abu Dhabi Art, to stage the exhibition. “I had of course read the book and was very familiar with the artists proposed – that was our starting point,” she says. The exhibition launches the fair’s new year-round programme of travelling exhibitions. Nusseibeh continues, “We’re offering galleries a month-long platform in Abu Dhabi with our partner Warehouse421. The idea is to allow galleries to build closer ties to existing networks in the city, away from the faster pace of our November event.” Presenting 14 artists, it is a smaller instalment of the original exhibition that has journeyed to Abu Dhabi.
Like ports, letters yoke together places and times, and Rayyane Tabet’s Letterhead (2012) deals with both. Comprising a mute line-up of unused paper carrying the Trans-Arabian Pipeline company logo, the blank expanses suggest histories circumvented and unwritten. Opposite, his Steel Rings (2013) draw together Dhahran and Haifa. The neat collection and organisation of the ephemera of the oil industry is an act of narrowing and focus. The gesture makes the subjective – the impossible-to-contain expanse of our social, cultural experiences – into the objective. Our attention concentrates on facts to locate a still point, from which the many complex regional narratives radiate.
Works from Nadine Kanso’s Future of Yesterday (2016) series also use structural elements from a shifting urban landscape, attempting to find cohesion between time and lived experience. Though not possessed of Jeddah’s own cosmopolitan history, a clamouring last century makes the UAE’s development a cacophony of its own. Fretted scenes of construction, where the stark contrast of black and white is interrupted by strident lines of collaged colour to suggest an amalgam of past, present and future. “In these layers, we see time capturing the memory of a place,” Kanso explains. “This frames the landscape of cities around the world. Our relationship to places and cities are layered. Ever-changing, this is an even more intense experience in Dubai. I am amazed at how we adapt to change – how it becomes interwoven in our social fabric.”
But sometimes cohesion is an artificial construct. The letters in Ghobash’s book suggest interludes, thoughts attached to specific times, directed to his son at intervals. Yet, to resist cohesion is to risk fragmentation – a tension apparent in Manal Al Dowayan’s Solitary Car (2016). “I was literally playing with how a memory develops and evolves in the mind through repetition, the introduction of slight changes to the image, the form,” Al Dowayan says. The framing device is an act of preservation and memorialisation, yet it introduces significant tension too, as if a memory is refusing to settle. “I have struggled with the idea of the frame for many years,” she continues. “In this series, almost all the works are unframed, raw, and falling apart at the seams... I used the glass and black duct tape as a tool that allows the construction of a visual from different elements. This simple framing fights ideas of preciousness in memory and art.” Hazem Harb’s TAG (2015) collates archival images too, layering the past with contemporary digital vernaculars to hone in on faces – as if assembling the images in this way could identify and catalogue the memories. Instead, the images are dispersed with the same frustrated fragmentation that refuses to settle.
Ahmed Mater deals with the construction from memories that have become bereft of reality – attached to places that are gone, or which were never experienced. His Viewmaster (2014) offers windows onto Mecca, a city that has changed beyond recognition. These found objects, showing restricted scenes, were keepsakes given by returning pilgrims to their families. They are ubiquitous across the Arab world, and Mater suggests that the shared, collective impression of the place is as much constructed by fragments such as these as it is by physical encounter and experience.
These multi-perspectives resist a linear historical narrative. Mohammed Hafiz is clear in what the book provides – not answers, but questions. “The book is not about statements, but instead poses questions and many observations.” This multiplicity carries through the exhibition, in works of many parts which deny any tidy completion, instead professing many perspectives. They will continue with another iteration of the exhibition, an expanded version set to take place during Abu Dhabi Art later this year, this time encompassing more chapters of the book and setting up further dialogues with key UAE-based artists. Like Ghobash’s letters, these are vignettes that suggest the interpretation of the fervent histories that are shaping this present moment, and which demand our attention.