The blocks of bright color, ragged at the edges, reveal their meaning only after some study. The subtlety of the works by Ebtisam Abdulaziz, now exhibited at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery, demands attention.
Slowly, a viewer comes to understand that the focus is on what's absent from these acrylic-on-canvas works: the "empty" white spaces between the colors stand in for the rooflines, buildings, trees, and courtyards of Bastikiya.
This neighborhood, one of Dubai's oldest, has in recent decades been much altered by development, and even the district's name, never quite official, has been changed. In 2012 the area was formally named Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood, in honor of the Al Fahidi Fort, Dubai's oldest surviving building and now the home of the Dubai Museum.
Abdulaziz, one of the most internationally-prominent of Emirati national artists, presents a series called Re-mapping Al Fahidi, as part of the NYUAD art gallery's inaugural On Site exhibition, featuring the work of six artists. Her contribution is "related to the identity that we're all missing these days," she says. Change can erode or erase "the feeling of the historical identity of a place … the human life that used to be (in Bastikiya) is kind of disappearing" under the pressures of tourism and development.
"I wanted to draw attention to what's missing," said the artist. "If you go there now, you see tourists busy taking pictures of the architecture that remains, wind towers and so on. But the story that's behind the place is not there anymore."
Reflecting on this change–so symbolic of all the rapid development in the UAE–led Abdulaziz not only to the easel but also into the realm of performance art, already familiar to her from previous projects. In this case, she explained, she chose to move to the district, living in an artists' residence there for three months in 2013.
There she asked passers-by "Emiratis, tourists, Indians, everyone" to speak the name Al Fahidi into the microphone of her tape recorder. Later she played the recordings, loudly, while "sitting at a desk, alone, listening and trying to concentrate on writing the word Bastikiya, over and over."
"As I did this," she continues, "the fight within me between the two names was pushing me hard to think about it." Filling 10 pages with the word Bastikiya, she says, was "documenting the fight within me."
"When I was a child in school, the teacher would punish us by making is write something 100 times over," says Abdulaziz, who grew up in Sharjah. "Not me," she adds with a laugh, "I was a good student. But my friends got it. So now I was punishing myself by making myself write Bastikiya."
Abdulaziz, like many Emirati nationals, has mixed feelings about the pace of change in her country. The Re-mapping Al Fahidi project, paintings and performance alike, is she says "not a political thing, it's just me as one human being accepting and dealing with change."
"For my generation," she adds, "the Arab world interacting with the West, and all the change that is bringing, is mostly fine. But for my father's generation it's a bit scary."
"From an artist's point of view, though, it's amazing, whether you're for or against it or in between. It's a lot of inspiration. But for serious artists it's a lot of responsibility, too. As artists we are responsible for writing the history of our time."