Gulf PhotoPlus and Warehouse 421 mentorship Programme
This February, I was lucky enough to be one of the ten artists and photographers selected to join the mentorship programme at Warehouse 421. Our brief is to find and explore narratives around Mina Port, using any medium, including photography, drawing, interviews and mapping. This journey and the outcomes (whatever they are) will be exhibited at Warehouse 421 later on in the year. We had already met several times, been out photographing, made presentations to each other, when Covid hit, and of course, the project is on hold for a while.
I was interviewed by the lovely Rupert Hawksley from The National about my Abu Dhabi project. Here's the link if you want to find out what he thought.
I spent a fab day being interviewed by Gulf news. I dragged the talented pair, writer Sangeetha Swaroop and photographer Anas Thacharpadikkal to many of the locations I drew in Abu Dhabi. We saw that the port area had really begun to change with some of the buildings now in the middle of demolition. The Eldorado cinema too has disappeared, and has been replaced by a Gym and supermarket. Anas photographed the places and my drawings illustrated the before and after in this rapidly changing neighbourhood.
I spent a fabulous week at the International book fair.
Dr Talal Aljunaibi and myself interviewed by Abu Dhabi TV
I was very excited to win the professional Illustration prize at the International book fair in Abu Dhabi. The brief was to draw inspiration from Arabic poetry, to celebrate the year of Tolerance and to portray the cultural heritage of the UAE. I selected a poem by Dr Talal Aljunaibi and was honoured to meet with him afterwards.
Calligraphy workshop and Sheikh portrait commission
There's been a bit of trial and error in selecting the best way to draw onsite. In a perfect world I would have a beautiful set of matching sketchbooks, different sizes and paper, but in reality, different situations required different approaches and so I am left with a mixture.
I began with moleskins, A6 and A5. Light and transportable, they are excellent for carrying all the time. The drawback is the paper has a yellow cast and is slightly translucent, great for authenticity, but not so good for scanning.
Muji (the light brown and red-edged) make a really broad range of size and they are really thin, perfect for filling a sketchbook in a morning, so I thought I could make each one location specific. However the paper is absorbent and seems to suck up graphite and colour. It's hard to get a strong tonal contrast with them.
I tried A3 photocopy paper, which is actually excellent for scanning pencil drawings - who'd have thought, but obviously too thin for any rough treatment.
The white spiral bound book has no provenance I'm afraid, it's white paper is just a bit thicker than photocopy paper and it's great. Small enough to take out for serious drawing, it lays flat and scans beautifully.
The very best sketchbooks I have found, I bought in the London Graphic Centre (you can get them online too). These are Leichturm1917 series. Flat, opaque white, smooth paper and the right thickness. I think they are just about perfect - I wish they made spiral bound versions.
Stall 51, the plant market. Procreate Ipad
It's sometimes necessary to work either swiftly or discreetly and I've discovered that recording colour with my IPad and Procreate is a really good way to get information down. There have been a couple of drawbacks however. The pencil, a '53', has a squashy tip, and although quite responsive, does feel like i'm drawing with my thumbs, so I don't think there is any subtlety of line. The other thing is that my colour palette is huge and so the work I have made digitally doesn't sit with my sketchbook drawing - paint and coloured pencils. To get round this, I have made a palette from existing work and sampled it into Procreate - an easy solution I hope.
Between 1940 and 1943, a project was begun with the aim to record a 'vanishing Britain'. The project (which was commissioned by the Ministry of Labour and National Service)also kept artists in employ and the resulting exhibitions acted as morale boosting propaganda as it toured the country. Sir Kenneth Clark began the scheme, which was inspired by the Federal Art project run in the States after the Great Depression. He forsaw big changes, not just with the War, but as a result of suburban expansion, and new road building programmes and saw the need to record places which captured a 'National Identity" The collection (over 1500 works by 97 artists is now in the care of the V&A).
It's significant that photographs weren't used. Paintings and drawings are emotive and personal, demonstrating as they do the position, physically and conceptually, of the artist in that place. I wonder whether the artists were briefed to make 'idealised' visions of the country?
Barbara Jones (1943) The Euston Arch. The V&A collection
Mariko Kuroda,2015: New York University library
I was accepted as a visiting scholar to New York University today. No more sneaking about or trying to cobble together ebook excerpts! My induction is on Monday, so some serious essay writing now.
Men on chairs in Tanker Mai. Sketchbook
Places may be private to the individual. My favorite rocking chair, wedged between the fireplace and the curtained window, is my special place within the house. It has a specific location, it has special meaning for me, and this bond between the rocker and me is recognized by other members of the family. I have a prior claim to it, and its location cannot be changed without disturbing, how ever slightly, the focus of my world
Yi Fu Tuan
Yi Fu Tuan (1975) 'Place: An experiential perspective' in The Geographic Review, Vol LXV (2) p153.
My initial idea was to map and walk areas in the city. It's a big place and so I have picked half a dozen areas, most of which are adjoining each other in the oldest and busiest parts of the city. The problems I have faced are these:
How do I choose what to draw? I don't want to impose my ideas before I have learnt anything, but I have to start somewhere. An unexpected side effect of drawing is that by concentrating on whatever is in front of me, makes me miss the quick actions right and left. Each image is by nature composed of incidents that happen over a period of time. People are rarely in the same place together and so it demands a leap of faith in the viewer that what I am drawing, happened. I have got round this by drawing the buildings first, which frames the action/interaction of the people. In some places, I began to see connections; the same people would appear in different places and this has linked some of the drawings together.
I haven't had as much meaningful conversations as I'd hoped. I hadn't anticipated the language barriers would be so great. I've been met with suspicion occasionally, but I've been very open about what I am drawing and always show what I am doing. I'm met with bemusement sometimes, but almost always a positive reaction. People call all their friends over and take photos of the drawings. I have wondered if this public display could affect what I choose to draw, and how I draw it. Would I offend someone if I depicted their washing strung out on the balcony, or the rubbish at the door? This is a much more personal censorship than the government constraints I had anticipated. This is a problem encountered by Mitch Miller, in his Red Road Flats project, making decisions about content that may not have been intended for inclusion, and torn between the honesty of his work and his loyalty to the community he portrayed.
I am now at the stage where the structure and relationship between the drawings is important. It seemed easy at first -it was a geographic decision, but the more images I am making, the more tenuous the links seem to be. It's time to re evaluate.
The drawn line, in Ingold's view, becomes the 'ontology for the production of anthropological knowledge'. Is this only for observational drawing? What it does do, is firmly situate the drawer in the place, in terms of scale, viewpoint, and in skill and the orthodoxies of representation.
"Sketching is not just an immediate, relatively unmediated documen- tary practice but is both a medium of visual orthodoxy and a cultural practice inflected with multiple visual genres--an embodied dialogue with multiple knowl- edge and aesthetic systems."
'Is it possible to draw potential things" ? This was a question raised recently at a conference led by Tim Ingold. The question is about time and drawing as process, but for me it also raises questions about situation and the decision of where to draw. How can I know that what I am going to draw is significant given that the subject isn't news journalism - this isn't a protest, a war. It's a quiet normality that's as much about inaction. Drawing is life unfolding, so the choice of viewpoint is literally that, my view of the world
Stallholder sitting quietly: Abu Dhabi fruit and veg market, Thursday 10.30 a.m
The workshop was held at the Meeting Room of the King’s Museum, Old Aberdeen Town House, University of Aberdeen on 22nd and 23rd October 2015, under the umbrella of the ERC project Knowing from the Inside: Anthropology, Art, Architecture and Design, led by anthropologist Tim Ingold
Guy Debord 1957: Psychogeographic Guide of Paris. Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit, Penguin Books (June 1, 2001)
Wandering Abu Dhabi streets, each of which can have several names and no name, or be known by a reference which doesn't exist (the Fish market, isn't the fish market, that's somewhere else), means that unless you are 'there', you're never sure where you are.
In 1955, Situationist, Guy Debord coined the term 'Psychogeography' to describe the effect a geographic location has on emotion and behaviour. It's an playful anti-map, alternative map way to discover a city.
It seems to be the way my locations have been chosen, although I did definitely begin with a map. Once in a location, I followed the stories, the ones I could see and the ones I have been told and this has defined the places and neighbourhoods for me. Coupled with the absence of street names on google maps (although they are there on-site) and no streetview, it was often difficult to pinpoint exactly where I had been,
Every single day I am out drawing I am met with kindness, interest and generosity. Today was no exception, sitting outside the Liwa centre, I drew some of the Textile shops. Safe Lady is a great name, and I was invited in for sweet tea and a chat. I left with an unexpected Abaya. This is a relaxed and friendly street and the men wander up and down to talk to each other. It's clearly a tight community. My surprise is always how drawing breaks the barrier between the drawer and the drawn. Berger's description of the act of drawing as a conversation or dialogue seems apt.
" The encounter of these two energies, their dialogue, does not have the form of question and answer. It is a ferocious and unarticulated dialogue" (Berger, 2007, p.77).
This conversation, initiated by the drawer, allows for a quick familiarity between strangers that is impossible with photography.
Berger, J. (2007) Berger on Drawing. Occasional Press, Aghabullogue, Cork.
He was smiling when he spotted me drawing, and let me know he saw me. I'm glad he took the chance - it's big trouble if you're caught offending someone with a hand gesture here.
A neighbourhood can be thought of in a couple of ways. First as a planner of cities, divided on socio-political lines, by type of housing or land use. Objective and mapped.
A neighbourhood is also understood by it's inhabitants in a different way, and is defined by direct experience of place. Your neighbourhood is where you walk the dog, buy your bread and milk.It's a common place place which nevertheless is emotionally imprinted, It's intimate enough to be known by all the senses, and in that way is an extension of your home. it's boundaries change depending on who you are and how you use the space. It may even be that the pavement over there, isn't in your neighbourhood if you never walk that way.
Joyce Lankester Brisley, 1928, Milly Molly Mandy
One of my earliest memories of solo reading was this map at the back of a Milly Molly Mandy book. Not essential to the stories, but for me, an essential place maker. It was really important to know precisely where to imagine all her adventures in context. Where did Billy Blunt live? how far from Susan's house? How did they get to the village fete? I suspect that some of this compulsion has informed my project. I've mapped the places I've been and marked exactly where each image has been drawn, so I know where they all fit in relation to each other. Lots of mini-stories waiting to interact with each other.
Yasser Elsheshtawy, 2013, Mapping behind Marks and Spencers and Airport Road
This is a research project undertaken by Professor Elsheshtawy for New York University, to discover how migrant communities inhabit formal city spaces. He used architectural plans, motion capture photography and video to record an urban space over a period of time. Abu Dhabi seems car-centric with 6 lane highways and 10 inch kerbs, but behind the skyscrapers, life goes on. The study shows the Bangladeshi community congregating around a supermarket hub and a single tree in the middle of the square. They are one of the poorer communities and so don't frequent the shopping malls. Elsheshtawy's work examines the way this community circumvents city planning and make the space their own. He coined the term 'transcienceis' to describe this phenomenon (Elsheshtawy, 2008). His blog Dubaization records the process of his research both here and in Dubai.
Observe the street from time to time, with some concern for system perhaps.
Apply yourself. Take your time.
Note down the place: The terrace of a cafe near the junction of
The Rue de Bac and the Boulevarde
The Time: Seven o'clock in the evening
The Date: 15th May 1973
The weather: Set fair
Note down what you can see. Anything worthy of note going on.
Do you know how to see what's worthy of note? Is there anything
that strikes you?
Nothing strikes you. You don't know how to see.
Georges Perec, Species of Spaces, 1974
I mapped as I walked, marking the building sites, businesses and people I met. The thing about Abu Dhabi addresses is that names can be a bit fluid. Some roads have three names, and a number, and these change now and again. It's on a grid, so you won't get lost, but you usually have to wayfind by landmarks - especially with packages and cabs. Memory maps are important here, addresses can be described by things which don't exist any more. The Tanker Mai area to the east of the city is named for the water tank which used to stand here, and often an address will finish with a landmark, 'behind the pink building, or 'by the green souk'' for example.
Airport Road cuts through the city. As far as I can tell, It's also called,'Sultan Bin Zayed the first', 'East Road, and 4th Street.
The 'East coast road', or 'Eastern ring road', is also called, Sheik Zayed Bin Sultan Street (don't confuse it with 'Sultan Bin Zayed"),'8th Street, or 'Al Salam street'
'Al Bateen street' is now 'Sultan Bin Zayed Street' (don't confuse it with the others), and 32nd Street.
It's actually quite an organic way to locate places and makes for a lot of conversations on the way.
See http://www.dubaifaqs.com/street-names-abu-dhabi.php for more information
One of the reasons for beginning this project was the realisation that, for many people, there is a genuine misconception about life in this part of the world.This is in part due to western media and a portrayal of an intolerant middle east, war torn and Sharia law scary. I collected some comments from a public forum social media site which highlight some of the questions that expats get asked:
Do you have any electricity dear?
How do you cope with not being able to drive?
Do they have normal toilets or a hole in the ground?
You can't drink or wear a bikini?
You must be very rich?
No one speaks English?
What are you going to eat?
Can you go out without your husband?
Do you have to wear a headscarfe?
Where's chop chop square?
Aren't you scared?
The idea is to record 'normal' life, not the glamorous, elitism of the tourist adverts, but real life on the streets. I began with mapping and walking the city.
I have been reading about chance and serendipity in relation to wandering about and drawing, but it has occurred to me that one of the things I am learning about this city, is how to read and write a bit of Arabic. My first attempts didn't always make sense, and this was pointed out to me, and so I'm looking carefully, recognising letter shapes and the corresponding english. Today I delighted the Arabic men in the market with my attempts.
I would just love this 1961 book, but it costs between 60 and 258 American dollars. 50 taxonomic tales - this is an excerpt about cats....
"When street traffic dwindles and most people are sleeping, some New York neighborhoods begin to crawl with cats. They move quickly through the shadows of building; night watchmen, policemen, garbage collectors and other nocturnal wanderers see them — but never for very long. A majority of them hang around the fish markets, in Greenwich Village and in the East and West Side neighborhoods where garbage can abound. No part of the city is without its strays, however, and all-night garage attendants in such busy neighborhood as Fifty-fourth Street have counted as many as twenty of then around the Ziegfeld Theatre early in the morning. Troops of cats patrol the waterfront piers at night searching for rats. Subway trackwalkers have discovered cats living in the darkness. They seem never to get hit by trains, though some are occasionally liquidated by the third Rail. About twenty-five cats live 75 feet below the west end of Grand Central Terminal, are fed by the underground workers, and never wander up into the daylight."
Gay Talese 1961
Serendipity hasn't always meant 'luck and good chance'. In 1754, Horace Walpole was reading a fairy tale about three Persian princes from the Island of Serendip who were constantly making surprise discoveries through their wisdom and observation. In a letter to Horace Mann he coined the term Serendipity to describe this 'accidental sagacity'.