• Summary

    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”).

    [the essay continues, read the full essay here]