Elemental Relations

Elemental Relations Exhibit

European Cultural Centre – Italy’s Personal Structures
Palazzo Mora, 20 April–24 November 2024

Supported by the Abu Dhabi Festival, Elemental Relations is part of the European Cultural Centre — Italy’s seventh edition of Personal Structures whose guiding title for 2024 is Beyond Boundaries. The exhibition presents “a journey that will cross multiple boundaries — geographic, political, religious, cultural, and artistic” with works by artists, collective, studios, and universities from around the planet that “extend beyond the conventional and open pathways to new conversations.” 

Elemental Relations considers these underexamined boundaries by looking to familiar ones that separate the nonhuman, including animals and plants, and the nonliving, including air and soil, from humans. The work offers a variety of different methods for refocusing from human-centered perspectives, which have dominated arts and sciences for centuries and culminated in a humanism that drives colonialism and capitalism, to a multitude of other perspectives that might help redirect thinking about the place of humans within the planet’s complex and often fragile ecosystems. 

Curated by a team of NYUAD faculty Dale Hudson, Tina Sherwell, Terri Geis, Katia Arfara, and Sheetal Majithia, Elemental Relations demonstrates that art is not limited to illustrating knowledge, particularly modern scientific knowledge, but can itself open new ways of understanding the human world as one element of a larger planet. As always, students and recent graduates are leading the way, but they are doing as much by drawing upon the wisdom of local, indigenous, and traditional knowledge. The exhibit reflects NYUAD’s approach to teaching the arts at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Artists will participate in artists panels on their work in the exhibition and arts practice. Artists will participate in artists panels on their work in the exhibition and arts practice.

Work examines particulate matter that becomes visible to many of us in dazzling sunsets but is caused by human activity, notably the burning of fossil fuels for electricity and global trade in Dubai. Other work considers sinkholes that result from settler-colonial land grabs in occupied Palestine. Other work examines how mangrove trees on the Arabian Peninsula have adapted to global warming by increasing the amount of salt they remove from the water of the Gulf to survive while also removing carbon dioxide from the air, so that other mammals, including the humans can survive. 

Works by other artists examines historical relationships between Arabic music and the Mediterranean Sea’s waves that crash against Lebanon’s coast, the limitations of human empirical knowledge to anticipate how chia plants grow, ways to recover elements of traditional knowledge to reframe television media on mountainous villages in the northern emirates, human intrusions into the UAE’s fragile ecosystems, ways that tropical fish and undocumented migrant women are captives together in a shared space in Abu Dhabi, and uncanny resemblances between the patterns on tiger’s coat and human development on the planet’s skin in Malaysia.

The exhibition and artist panels were supported by the Abu Dhabi Festival, NYUAD Division of Arts and Humanities, and NYUAD Office of Student Research.

Noticing Elements in Elemental Relations

The exhibition and its work instruct visitors to see, hear, and feel the world anew by noticing the nonhuman and nonliving at the level of elements, which is something that most humans tend either to overlook or not know how to sense.

Whether natural ones from classical mythologies or indigenous cosmologies — air, earth, fire, water — or chemical ones from modern science — aluminum, iron, oxygen, silicon — elements index relations between human and nonhuman, living and nonliving, animate and inanimate. They offer ways to imagine personal structures beyond human conceit. 

Elemental Relations invites us to acknowledge consequences of our anthropocentric behaviors — consumerism, extractivism — that reap irreversible damage on the planet. By recognizing interconnections and interdependencies, we can imagine alternative behaviors.

The exhibition underscores the urgency in making distinctions between global and planetary. Planetary recognizes relations at the elemental level. Our skin is not an impermeable boundary, but a porous one. By contrast, global simplifies to human understandings of the planet, largely based on trade.

To Breathe — with (and Because of) Nonhumans

Elemental Relations includes documentation and prototypes of Shaheeq (“To Breathe”) a collaborative work by Majd Alloush (Class of 2023, MFA in Art and Media), Hala El Aboura (Class of 2025, MFA in Art and Media), and Vivi Zhu (Class of 2023, MFA in Art and Art History/Film and New Media) that won the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award in 2023. Under the patronage of Her Highness Sheikha Shamsa bint Hamdan Al Nahyan, the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award is presented by NYU Abu Dhabi in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (ADMAF). 

Shaheeq exemplifies elemental relations by considering mangrove trees, not as nature or landscape, but as cohabitants of a shared planet. The work focuses on mangrove ecosystems that protect coastlines from sea-level rise, shelter marine species, and sequester carbon dioxide in striations that visualize beyond human perception. Made of rammed earth and organic mineral dyes, it recuperates traditional knowledge yet is designed to decompose, rejecting expectations that human structures are permanent. 

The work visualizes our elemental relations with mangroves outside the limitations of human vision and human perspectives. It invites us to think beyond planting mangroves as one-time environmental interventions, and it also invites us to reflect upon the short lifespans of humans in relation to other living and nonliving cohabitants. Installed now at Al Jubail Mangrove Park in Abu Dhabi, the three pillars will disintegrate back into the waters of the mangrove forest, near where the sand was once extracted by humans.

Moving Beyond Boundaries

Other work in the exhibition considers comparable ways to see, hear, and feel the world anew and reimagine our place as one species that shares the planet. To do as much, the artists engaged in tears of research and experimentation across the traditional boundaries in art schools and universities. 

The Secrets of Salvia Hispanica by Farah Elmowafy (Class of 2023, BA in Film and New Media) shows how human knowledge cannot anticipate plant behavior. Recorded data on how seeds grow into plants on canvases, inscribed with scientific texts, offers no conclusions. Xylophone by Elizabeth Dorazio (Class of 2023, MFA in Art and Media) brings discarded scrap-wood back to life in pyro-engraved images, evoking the forest’s music and helping us see trees, whose lives were taken to create objects, whose usefulness was lost. 

at the border of the sea by Dima Abou Zannad (Class of 2025, MFA in Art and Media) explores the Mediterranean Sea’s rhythms against Lebanon’s coastline in Marcel Khalife’s songs. Arabic poetry’s sixteen meters are called buḥūr: each meter, a sea (baḥr). Remote Landscapes by Majd Alloush locates human and nonhuman cohabitation in flamingos, mangroves, and other lifeforms coexist in remarkably close proximity to the urban built environments in the northern emirates of UAE.

Graphite and pastel drawings by Zara Mahmoud (Class of 2024, MFA in Art and Media) examine atmospheric particulate matter in Dubai’s skies. From a distance, it catches light in dazzling sunsets. Under a microscopic, it becomes discernable as individual particles that can seem menacing. In Echo, Roudhah Al Mazrouei (Class of 2024, BA in Art and Art History) draws in sikham, a charcoal specific to Siji village, over images from archival television footage to convey Siji’s identity as relations between animals, humans, mountains, rocks, soil, and trees. Experiments in Reterritorialization by Hala El Abora considers sinkholes around the Dead Sea as physical manifestations of mental collapse after decades of emotional and physical stress in Jordan and Palestine. 

My Stripes by Shumin Tan (Class of 2024, BA in Literature and Creative Writing) considers uncanny resemblances between a tiger’s unique striped pattern for camouflage and designs carved into the earth by humans when constructing buildings and roads. Tan’s poem “Tiger Mom” celebrates Malayan Tigers as national heritage, while exploring their sacrifice for resource exploitation. Fish Tank by Vivi Zhu looks at the contained lives of exotic fish. The parallel lives of undocumented migrant women from East Asia and Southeast Asia, working as masseuses, becomes audible. 

Alloush, El Aboura, and Zhu’s Shaheeq consists of three rammed-earth structures that visualize different strata of the earth ecosystems from below the earth’s surface through water and into the air. Rather than a human-defined landscape, the work invites us to consider alternative perspectives. After its debut at Abu Dhabi Art in November 2023, Shaheeq was exhibited on the NYU Abu Dhabi campus and in Um Al Emarat Park before being installed in Al Jubail Mangrove Park.

The work in Elemental Relations bridges personal and planetary experiences. It demonstrates how artists bring their perspectives to notice what other might overlook as part of a shared experience in living on the planet with nonhuman and nonliving cohabitants who have few, if any, legal rights.

Acknowledging Relations and Interrelations

As a group exhibition, the curatorial team emphasizes the importance in on-going research and collaboration as part of the artistic and curatorial process. Such an emphasis challenges the legacies of simplistic characterizations of art as the work of geniuses that emerges as masterpieces that often appear in discussions on art. 

One effect of such simplified thinking is that it detracts for the actual work of making art. Elemental Relations foregrounds relations and relationships, whether intentional, such as collaborations by artists or scholars, or accidental, such as our human interdependencies with the nonhuman and nonliving.

Relations are also needed to mount the exhibition. which would not have been possible without the support of the Abu Dhabi Festival. Alloush, El Aboura, and Vivi Zhu’s Shaheeq would not have been possible without the support of ADMAF on the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award and also the support of the NYUAD Art Gallery. Abou Zannad’s at the border of the sea benefited from a grant from the Elements pod in the NYUAD Arts and Humanities’ Research Kitchen on the Anthropocene. 

The work and exhibition develop from years of work by the artists with their faculty mentors and peers, reflecting NYUAD’s emphasis on research-based arts practice, and work by faculty in academic programs and research clusters. The work rejects a certain tendency to import foreign artists for short visits to make art here or anywhere, either alone or with residents. Ongoing relations and interrelations are key to moving beyond inherited boundaries, whether academic disciplines or social structures.

The artists and curators are incredibly grateful for the support that they have received over the years that culminates in this exhibition from Laurene Manaa Abdallah, Nisrin Abdulkhadir, Layla Alsawan, Awam Amkpa, Julie Cedo, Theresa Dabla, Tina Galanopoulos, Anna Kurkova,  Safa Mahmoud, Tucker Russell, and Jesusita Santillan in the NYUAD Division of Arts and Humanities; Emily Doherty at the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award; Maya Allison, Melroy Dsouza, Samuel Faix, Dustin Foster, Michael Leo, and Tala Nassar in the NYUAD Art Gallery; Mariam Al Shehhi, Karno Dasgupta, George Jose, Sarah Paul, and Nashwa Salem in the Anthropocene Research Kitchen; Arianna Grosso, Tala Al Sayyed, Abdelwahab Benabdallah, and Daad El Mkahal at ADMAF; Farhana Goha in the NYUAD Office of Student Research; Maisoon Mubarak in Media Relations and Communications; Carly Mortiboys, Maheen Pfeffer, and Melody Jane Pino the Office of General Counsel; James Campbell, Jenneth Francisco, Barry Stevens at Crowne Fina Art; Sara Volani at Züst & Bachmayer; Adnan Mukadam, Kenneth Fernandes, Melvin John Lopes, Martha, Alpesh Rathod, and Rishi Ramachandran at Nirvana Travel. The exhibition would not have been possible without the expertise and assistance of everyone at the European Cultural Centre–Italy, including Lilia Andreotti, Marco Fontichiari, Miguel Núñez, Lucia Trevisan, Lucia Pedrana, Luigi Riccardini, and Katerina Zachou.