The following is an excerpt from our forthcoming book, a retrospective look at the founding and first six years of the NYUAD exhibition program, The NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery: 2014-2020. The below excerpt is by Maya Allison, the gallery’s founder, and curator of this inaugural exhibition:
At the time of this writing, I look back at six years of exhibitions since we opened in the Fall of 2014. The Art Gallery team has produced roughly 100 exhibitions (11 in our main gallery, more than 80 in the Project Space, 7 Christo Awards, plus a host of additional projects). These have rehearsed a range of possible answers to our founding questions. Each exhibition yields new knowledge, greater nuance in our understanding of what is needed, possible, and meaningful, as we deepen our roots as a resource for the university and the community.
We opened our doors to the public on November 1, 2014, with On Site: The Inaugural Exhibition. With that show we set out the terms and tone of our heterogenous exhibition program. It centered specifically on our location, and spoke to the theme of “landscape, built and natural” through the work of six artists from five countries (the UAE, Egypt, Pakistan, Kuwait, and the US), in as many media and materials.
The curatorial theme playfully elaborated on the concept of “site.” Our new campus had just opened its doors. Other than the important exhibition venue at Manarat Al Saadiyat (host of Abu Dhabi Art), and two beach-front hotels, we were alone on the island, except for the construction sites, including that of Louvre Abu Dhabi.
The final checklist of artworks would amplify and illuminate the intersection of “natural” and “built” on the island, specifically. When does nature become culture? Tarek Al-Ghoussein’s (In) Beautification series of photographs document the original and developed terrain of Saadiyat, during the early phases of landscaping we see thriving here now. Rashid Rana’s A Room from TATE Modern spoke to the materializing of future museums. I first saw it at the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh: with scaffolding designed as an homage to Sol Lewitt wrapping the installation’s exterior, the interior’s low-resolution, pixelated wallpaper recreated a room at the Tate, scaled 1:1 to the gallery. In the context of Dhaka’s lively, rough-edged art scene, this piece seemed to reflect a longing for, and the impossibility of access to, the Tate’s museum spaces. In that moment the impact of context on the reading of a work crystallized: if Rana’s installation was viewed on Saadiyat Island, its meaning would change to reflect the in-between-ness of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s site, a hugely important European museum name that was now here, but not yet arrived.
This exhibition also featured two legendary Emirati artists, Ebtisam Abdulaziz and Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, both of whom I’d work with multiple times in the coming years. Abdulaziz’s paintings of Dubai’s historic Al Fahidi district captured her disorientation when its name was changed. Ibrahim’s installation of copper-wrapped rocks sprawled across the floor outside of A Room from TATE Modern. Of all the works in the show, Ibrahim’s captured the moment when nature becomes culture most literally, and poignantly, in an ode to the rocks of his home mountains of Khor Fakkan, and the copper they hold in their veins, now enshrined in an art gallery.
A white-on-white mural by North American artist Mary Temple wrapped the walls, creating an illusion of sunlight dappling through the leaves of nonexistent trees. Egyptian artist Basim Magdy’s film slides clicked through a carousel, projecting altered images of a volcanic landscape, ancient and never-inhabited by humans. What is real, what is natural and untouched, what is science fiction in our landscapes here?
To see the exhibition, the visitor would have had to encounter the physical site of Saadiyat Island, to walk through the doors of our gallery from its landscape. I hoped, as the exhibition website announced, that viewing the work would conjure “the experience of walking through NYUAD’s new Saadiyat campus, a multifaceted site that is itself a garden in a desert, a cultural center among new developments, on an island that is both a repository of significant local memories and a key player in a vision of the city’s future.”
Read the essay
Curator’s essay, excerpt:
This exhibition takes Saadiyat Island as its starting point, to consider how we know, or interpret, where we are, physically and culturally. What suggests a “desert island” or a “lush garden”? How do we understand a place as part of a cultural past or future? The work on display invites us to contemplate the essence and appearance of a location, whether natural or artificial, real or illusory. How do the cues that create a site tell its story?
Viewing the work conjures the experience of walking through NYUAD’s new Saadiyat campus, a multifaceted site that is itself a garden in a desert, a cultural center among new developments, on an island that is both a repository of significant local memories and a key player in a vision of the city’s future.
The exhibition begins with Saadiyat Island itself, in Tarek Al-Ghoussein’s series (In) Beautification (2012). The artist composed photographs using the materials available for the landscaping of Saadiyat Island, on and around construction sites. The images contribute to his ongoing photographic project of capturing epic scenes in which his lone figure acts, contemplates, or seems to disappear.
In this series of landscaping a desert island tell a story of nature (plants) taming nature (desert). Each composition foregrounds the abstract geometric quality of the landscape-in-progress, until the new flora spills over the sharp edges, engulfing Tarek’s figure, and a sea of leafy tendrils reaches toward the buildings in the distance. While other series in Al-Ghoussein’s oeuvre render his figure menacing, lonely, or political, in (In) Beautification his figure is more analogous to that of a landscaper, and sometimes to that of the plants themselves.
A freestanding building within the gallery, Rashid Rana’s massive installation looks, at first, like a remarkably clean construction site. The raw wood grid exterior is a dual visual reference: inspired by the inexpensive scaffolding prevalent in South Asian construction sites, it also pays homage to the famous modular cube grids of Sol LeWitt. When the viewer reaches the far side of the structure, a door leads to the room inside. There the reason for the title, A Room from TATE Modern, becomes clear. Inside the grid is another cube: the cube of a typical museum gallery space, in this case one that is the precise height, width, and depth of the gallery room at TATE Modern for which the piece is named.
The walls and the ceiling are wallpapered with a 1:1 scale photograph of the museum room itself. In another layer of gridding, the image on the walls is pixilated. Seen from a distance – or through a smartphone camera – the room looks blurrily perfect. But as the viewer moves towards any detail, the image disappears into abstract blocks of pale color. The artist has made the pixels of the original photograph so large as to now be a series of single-color squares. This reproduction of a museum interior that exists in London thus dissolves upon closer inspection. Rana’s piece recalls Saadiyat Island, where museums are being built, but are not yet here, and can still only be seen from a distance. However, this work will always resonate differently, heavily affected by its cultural context, as it was when the work premiered in Bangladesh at the Dhaka Art Summit last February, and as it would yet again if it were shown in London, home of TATE Modern.
In the heart of the exhibition looms a mountain of rocks. The artist, Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, has wrapped each rock individually with a few thick strands of copper wire, for over one thousand rocks. Copper occurs naturally in these rocks, which the artist has gathered from his home in Khorfakkan, located in the far east of the UAE. Contemporary art has an estimable history of artists working directly with the land. For Ibrahim, it is a very specific land: his land, in a country where the land itself is a critical player in its history.
The piece invites various interpretations: does wrapping thousands of individual rocks in their own copper imply industrial development, drawing from the land to create the man-made? Is it an act of love, to save and protect each individual rock? Is it a form of beautification, to adorn them in the very semi-precious metal that they contain? Above all, this work communicates the artist’s intense, direct relationship to his home landscape. The rawness of the rocks against the gallery floors highlights their dislocation from Khorfakkan, drawing the gallery space itself into direct dialogue with the physical landscape of the UAE.
The corner of the gallery reserved for Mary Temple appears empty, except for fragments of dappling light, like afternoon sun casting shadows of trees outside. However, the work has no such light source. Diagonal Light is a very subtle, labor-intensive mural, for which the artist paints bright white on light white, tracing foliage silhouettes across the different planes of the gallery walls and pillars. The resulting illusion belongs to a long tradition of painting known as trompe-l’oeil (literally, “trick the eye”).
Ebtisam Abdulaziz (b. 1975, UAE) is a multidisciplinary artist based in Washington DC, USA.Read more
Abdulaziz earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Science and Mathematics. She incorporates her unique perspective on mathematics and the structures of systems to explore issues of identity and culture through installations, performance pieces and works on paper.
Her work has been included in landmark exhibitions including: Love 4 Immigrants, Virtual Art Healing Speaker Series and Exhibition (Washington DC, US, 2020); The By the People X Monochrome Collective Art Fair (Washington DC, US, 2020); From Barcelona to Abu Dhabi: work from the MACBA art collection in Dialogue with the Emirates, Manarat Al Saadiyat (Abu Dhabi, UAE, 2018); Gateway, Manarat Al Saadiyat (Abu Dhabi, UAE, 2018); UPROOT, Smack Mellon Gallery (New York, NY, 2017); The Creative Act, Exhibition of works from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Collection, Manarat Sal Saadiyat (Abu Dhabi, UAE, 2017); But We Cannot See Them: Tracing a UAE Art Community, 1988-2008, NYUAD Art Gallery (Abu Dhabi, UAE, 2017); VIEW FROM INSIDE: Contemporary Arab Video, Photography and Mixed Media Art, FotoFest Biennial (Houston, TX, US, 2014); Emirati Expressions, Manarat Al Saadiyat (Abu Dhabi, UAE, 2013); and 25 Years of Arab Creativity, Institute du Monde Arabe (Paris, France, 2012). Abdulaziz participated in the Benin Biennial (Kora Centre, Benin, 2012); the 10th Sharjah Biennial, Sharjah Art Museum (Sharjah, UAE, 2011); and the inaugural UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (Venice, Italy, 2009).
Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim (b. 1962, UAE) is part of the UAE’s first generation of contemporary artists from the late 1980s, an avant-garde scene that included Hassan Sharif, Abdullah Al Saadi, Hussein Sharif, and Mohammed Kazem.Read more
Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim came of age as an artist in the UAE in an era in which the visual arts were not yet valued culturally or taught in university degree programs. In 1986, when he met the late artist Hassan Sharif (a founding member of the influential Emirates Fine Art Society), Ibrahim was pulled out of a secluded practice and carved out unshakable friendships and collaborations that have formed the foundation for the creative community that defines the UAE today.
He received the first prize for sculpture at the Sharjah Biennial in 1999 and 2001 and has been a member of the Emirates Fine Arts Society since 1986, founding Art Atelier at the Khor Fakkan Art Centre in 1997. He has participated in artist residencies at Trans Indian Ocean Artist Exchange, Kochi Murzi Biennale, India (2016); A.i.R Dubai (2015); Le Consortium, Dijon, France (2009) and Kunstcentrum Sittard, the Netherlands (1994-1996, 1998-2000).
His works have been acquired by significant international collections, including Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah; Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah; Art Jameel Collection, Dubai; Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah; Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha; Kunstcentrum Sittard, Sittard; The British Museum, London; and Le Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
Ibrahim works and lives in Khor Fakkan, United Arab Emirates.
Tarek Al-Ghoussein (b. 1962, Kuwait) is an artist and Professor of Visual Art at NYU Abu Dhabi.Read more
His work explores the boundaries between landscape photography, self-portraiture and performance art. Al-Ghoussein has exhibited extensively in Europe, the United States and The Middle East and has participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions in prominent venues such as the 53rd and 55th Venice Biennales; the Singapore Biennale; the 6th and 7th Sharjah Biennales; Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art, Korea; and Kunstmuseum Bochum, Germany and Aperture Gallery, NYC, USA. Al-Ghoussein’s work has been acquired by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York; the British and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London; the Sharjah Art Foundations; the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo; the Royal Photography Museum in Copenhagen; and the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, among several others.
Basim Magdy (b. 1977, Egypt) lives and works in Basel, Switzerland.Read more
Magdy conceives his work in drawing, sculpture, video, and installation, with a taste for the absurd. Through his work, he subjects the audience to the world through a satirical eye.
His work has been included in major museum exhibitions, most recently including MCA Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (Chicago, IL, US, 2020); Royal Academy (London, UK, 2019); MAAT Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (Lisbon, Portugal, 2019); La Kunsthalle Mulhouse (Mulhouse, France, 2019); Gypsum Gallery (Cairo, Egypt, 2018); South London Gallery (SLG) (London, UK, 2018); Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt (Berlin, Germany, 2012); Kunsthalle Wien (Vienna, Austria, 2011); Institut Mathildenhöhe (Darmstadt, Germany, 2011); Mass MOCA (North Adams, MA, US, 2011); and MARCO (Vigo, Spain, 2008).
Magdy was selected for the 3rd Industrial Biennial (Labin, Croatia, 2020); Athens Biennial (Athens, Greece, 2018); Palais de Tokyo Triennale (Paris, France, 2012), the Sharjah Biennial (Sharjah, UAE, 2017, 2013), and the Istanbul Biennial (Istanbul, Turkey, 2013). Selected film screenings include the International Film Festival Rotterdam (Rotterdam, the Netherlands, 2020, 2017, 2015); TATE Modern (London, UK, 2013); and the Museum of Contemporary Photography (Chicago, IL, US, 2014).
Magdy won several awards, including the Deutsche Bank “Artist of the Year 2016” (Berlin, Germany, 2016); Experimental Award, International FilmFestival (Lisbon, Portugal, 2015); and the Abraaj Art Prize (Dubai, UAE, 2014).
Rashid Rana (b. 1969, Pakistan) lives and works in Lahore, Pakistan.Read more
Through his photography, sculpture, and digital printmaking, Rana transposes imagery from one time and place to another, through manipulation, repetition and rearrangement.
Recent solo exhibitions include Leila Heller Gallery (Dubai, UAE, 2017); Lisson Gallery (Milan, Italy, 2014); Mohatta Palace Museum (Karachi, Pakistan, 2013); Cornerhouse (Manchester, UK, 2011); and Musée Guimet (Paris, France, 2010). Participation in major group exhibitions includes Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst (Aachen, Germany, 2018-2019); FOR-SITE Foundation (San Francisco, CA, US, 2017-2018); Arnolfini (Bristol, UK, 2016); Contemporary Art Museum Kumamoto (CAMK) (Kumamoto, Japan, 2016); the 56th Venice Biennale (Venice, Italy, 2015); Sammlung Anne & Wolfgang Titze, 21er Haus (Vienna, Austria, 2014); and Arsenal Biennial (Kiev, Ukraine, 2012).
His work is part of various public and private collections including Asia Society, New York, NY; Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, UK; Dairy Art Center, Wolverhampton, UK; Queensland Gallery of Art, Brisbane, Australia; Fukuoka Museum of Art, Japan; Saatchi Gallery, London, UK; Frank Cohen Collection, UK; National Gallery of Art, Islamabad, Pakistan; and Devi Foundation, Delhi, India. He is the founding faculty member and currently the Dean of the School of Visual Arts and Design at BNU, Lahore.
Mary Temple (b. 1957, USA) lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.Read more
She is best known for her immersive trompe l’oeil installations that consist of subtle room-sized paintings of light and shadow.
Temple is the recipient of the MacDowell Colony Fellowship (Peterborough, UK, 2019); the NYC Mayoral 35th Annual Award for Excellence in Design (New York, NY, US, 2017); the Saint-Gaudens Memorial Fellowship (Ossining, NY, US, 2010); the Basil Alkazzi Award for Excellence in Painting (New York, NY, US, 2010); NYFA Fellowship in Painting (New York, NY, US, 2010, 2007); and was NYFA’S Lily Auchincloss Fellow in Painting (New York, NY, US, 2007). She has had recent solo projects at the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs (New York, NY, US, 2017); Brigham And Women’s Hospital (Boston, MA, US, 2016); Mixed Greens (New York, NY, US, 2014); Mission Bay Medical Center (San Francisco, CA, US, 2014); and Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas (Austin, TX, US, 2013). Temple’s group exhibits include the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery (Washington, DC, US, 2019); The Louise McCagg Gallery, Barnard College (New York, NY, US, 2019); Dieu Donne (New York, NY, US, 2018); SPACE (Pittsburgh, PA, US, 2017); The Drawing Center (New York, NY, US, 2011); Museum of Modern Art (San Francisco, CA, US, 2008); MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA (2008); and the Sculpture Center, LIC, NY (2006).
In 2010, Temple was commissioned to do a permanent installation for the Manhattan Transit Authority for a Brooklyn subway station in NYC. In 2014, she installed a large public commission for the Lobby of the Mickey Leland Federal Building, in Houston, TX.