killing denouement

livin’ in al thamaneenat [updated]

“Dihn 3oud no. 5″ by Leila Al Marashi

Back in Dubai, then. Back in my childhood bedroom, after a somewhat unceremonious ejection from Brooklyn. Back among the scorching heat and bougainvillea and saffron tea and—what a blessed luxury—24/7 AC. Back to being surrounded by canvasses filled with teenage angst that seem doubly more baleful when turned to face the wall. Unlike 7-8 years ago, I’m no longer surrounded by construction sites, with scrap materials free for the scrounging. Wouldn’t mind being back in the cradle of A-Level art—all free time and freer materials—either, for that matter.

One personal emergency upon arrival later, the dust is finally beginning to settle. Around the world, the present still looks pretty dire. Japan, Syria, and karmic punchlines from the Arab Spring; not to mention the the jobless recovery that sees McDonalds turn away nearly a million applicants for (mostly) part-time minimum wage jobs. And to adopt the Coming Insurrection‘s painfully cogent phrase, “Le futur n’a pas d’avenir”. What a month—a spot of nostalgic indulgence feels about right.

So let’s go back even further, then. I can never really settle on a decade to fetishise above all, but the 1980s comes pretty close. The ‘al thamaneenat’ in the title, for the Zero Boys fans among you, does translate as ‘the eighties’. It’s also the title of a pretty great project celebrating growing up in 1980s UAE. Curated by Alia Al Shamsi, its first stage was an exhibition—”Archive80“—that ran from April 18-29 at Dar Ibn Haytham in Bastakiya.

Khawla Al-Marri

Me, I only got here in 1990, but there’s certainly a lot of resonances. The Safa Park playground, and very occasionally, Sinbad’s Wonderland at Al-Ghurair, Al Hili Fun City in Al Ain, and Al Buraimi just over the Omani border. Days off school when it rained and invariably flooded, and even more days off when a neighbouring sheikh died. Laban-Up, Vimto, Tang, Capri-Sonne, Quality Street, Oman Chips, Safari Grills. The sickly sweet fruity Shani, too. Apparently it wasn’t just me—”Real Somaliz Drink Shani too!”

And yes, it’s odd to realise that my memories of growing up in the UAE are anchored, in large part, by products and packaging. Not much has changed then. But really, thinking about it, these products aren’t anchors so much as common visual denominators. As artist Rooda al Neama—who put forth a fantastic ode to Atari, “Boom Box Pixelated Explosion”—suggests in The National:

“What’s so special about the ’80s is that, no matter who you talk to, we all experienced the same things. Once you start talking about the 80s a lot of people join in because they remember the same things, they experienced the same things.. It was a much simpler time here and most of the families and households experienced the same shows, the same foods, the same patterns and dresses and furniture and designs.”

Khawla Al-Marri

On to the work itself, which was a fairly mixed bag. There were an unfortunate lot of awkward photoshop-to-canvas pastiches that didn’t shuffle far enough into kitsch for my taste. You know the kind: collages carefully angled just-so; may or may not have graced the covers of your regulation mottled grey ringbinders. These aside, there were definitely some highlights, which I’ll focus on. Khawla Al Marri‘s acid-poppy prints, which depicted old regional TV shows like ‘Darb el Zalag‘ and ‘Khalti Gmasha‘ were a clear favourite. I also liked the sentiment of Alaa Edris’ marker drawings with anime stickered backgrounds, which featured a range of shinies from Michael Jackson to Amitabh Bachchan. At that, Archive80 might be read as a sort of unaware paean to consumerism globalization—yet even this feels like an imposition. Wanting to over-editorialise; wanting this exhibition to open up avenues that it really isn’t.

Alaa Edris – “Esh7fan elGa60″

Still, there’s a value in an apoliticised nostalgia-for-nostalgia’s-sake. Is nostalgia an articulated temporal site (“cite”) or a process? Jury’s still out on that one. From Esra Özyürek’s wonderful Nostalgia for the Modern:

According to Andreas Husseyn (1995), modernity ended with the end of hope for tomorrow. Since then, people have looked for their utopias in the past rather than in the future. Another popular explanation for the new orientation towards the past holds the modern age’s rapid social and technological transformations responsible. According to Pierre Nora (1996), modern people have lost an embodied sense of the past, so that their only access to earlier periods occurs through archived, alienated, or dutifully fullowed histories. In his words, ‘Memory is constantly on our lips because it no longer exists.’

Postmodernity? Also see: globalisation, cosmopolitanism, and neoliberal capital. The above is especially poignant and relevant in a society defined, above all, by its transience. Bedu through to global nomad in a matter of decades, retaining only a skeuomorphic sense of bidoun. Memory can and will not exist until it is consciously produced, given bulk, re-membered as it were. It’s both fragile and fickle and is regularly remade in the image of the hegemon du jour.

I’m most interested, however, in ‘dutifully followed’ memory making. “Nostalgia”. The kind that’s produced from given cues—an old photograph; a “you were too young to remember, but …” It was the 80s, and you were a small girl. You posed for photos in pigtails and did your best meringue impression. Don’t you remember?

Leila Al Marashi Alia Lootah

Some of the more successful pieces worked with these disembodied fuzzy prompts. Alia Lootah, born in the decade’s last years, only has the faintest tactile memories of fabric paterns and upholstery. This translated well to her 4×4 acrylic painting, shown above. I was particularly taken with Leila Al Marashi‘s very lovely installation with the mixed media ‘Dihn 3ood no. 5′. The piece was flanked by two white stands covered with the artist’s mother’s vintage jewelry and perfumes: YSL’s Paris, Chanel no. 5, Anais Anais, Dior’s Poison, and Guerlain’s Shalimar. Not much to look at, but surprisingly effective as a whole. Perhaps it’s because my own mother wore almsot the exact same perfumes (swapping out the Chanel for Paloma Picasso’s eponymous black ovoid ). Or that the bottles were almost empty, in that way some women will keep a beautiful bottle forever, with just the faintest amounts left at the bottom. Just enough for one very final spritz—or so it’s always seemed to me.

The exhibit closed today, and will be turned into some sort of online archive. It’ll be interesting to see how highly edited/curated this will be—whether the public can, for example, upload their own mediated memories. Also worth noting that the artists were almost all Emirati and female. Perhaps even an oral history archive of some sort?

And, while on the general subject, why has no one made an Arab art parody of Rebecca Black’s Friday yet? As in ‹‹ فن‎ فن‎ فن‎ فن‎ ›› ? Jack Persekian could feature prominently. Autotune’s not really my jam, but once I sort out the last few bits of doom, I’ll be well underemployed. Trying to get a sense of the local art/mediascape, which has changed immensely since I left—any leads much appreciated! Finally, as nostalgia goes, a piece I edited for a friend—Jordan “Schadenfraade” Fraade—Play Fair, Run Fast, and Smile for the Camera is currently making its rounds on the Internet. Baseball’s not my favourite bat-sport either: blame a yes, nostalgic (read: colonialised) preference for rounders and cricket, but it’s rather quietly lovely. Give it a read!

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