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Colours of a city: An artist’s walk through vibrant Abu Dhabi

Colours of a city: An artist’s walk through vibrant Abu Dhabi
18 June 2024 08:52

ISIDORA CIRIC (ABU DHABI)

Emirati artist Sara Alahbabi finds her muse in the pulse of Abu Dhabi, a city dotted with diverse neighbourhoods, nationalities, and stories from all continents and walks of life. Her love of the city and its medley of cultures is precisely what inspired her artwork, which she presented at the 2024 MFA Graduate Show at 421 Arts Campus.

Through the intuitive and intimate practice of walking, Alahbabi’s exhibition explores neighbourhoods in downtown Abu Dhabi and her relationship to the city and its communities. It features a variety of glowing neon light installations, each unique in its configuration and colour, set against dark contrasting walls.

  • Colours of a city: An artist’s walk through vibrant Abu Dhabi

But this exhibition is unlike anything Alahbabi has done before. Although she’s well-versed in many techniques and styles, this time she decided to focus on the unknown and test her capabilities as an artist, rejecting reliance upon the familiar and venturing on a journey of self-exploration.

“I’m a planner. And as a mother, planning is my best skill,” Alahbabi told Aletihad on the sidelines of her exhibition.

However, this project was not planned. Instead, it happened spontaneously, driven by Alahbabi’s intuition and desire to do something outside her comfort zone.

“This time, I wanted to let the mistakes lead the way, let the stories lead the way, and let the disruption lead the way, which was very uncomfortable for me as an artist and an introvert. I didn’t know what would come out of that,” she admitted.

That is why last winter, she decided to transform her routine walks through Abu Dhabi into radiant visual narratives, steering away from conventional choices like paintbrush strokes and photographs.

“I would walk around downtown Abu Dhabi, through neighbourhoods like Al Khaldiyah and Al Zahiyah, and experience the practice of walking and observing, and document it through photography and recordings,” she said.

“The walks would last for hours. I talked to shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and many others. They would share many stories with me that were very intimate and beautiful.”

Alahbabi took hundreds of photographs of moments and spaces “curated by the diversity of communities in downtown Abu Dhabi”, she explained.

Instead of just using the photographs for her graduation project, she decided to challenge herself and use them only as a reference, instead allowing her final project to evolve into something more conceptual and immersive.

“I decided to use the photos and my memory to try to figure out where I walked. Then I would get Google Earth images of the different blocks that I visited and map them out,” she explained.

Each of the mapped routes created a unique shape, which she used as an outline for her neon light pieces, an electrifying medium that mirrors the vibrancy of the city. These glowing paths are not mere representations of her path, but are vivid intersections of her personal explorations and the urban landscape, showcasing the city’s essence through the eyes of an Emirati woman.

In addition to mapping her routes, Alahbabi wanted to share the sounds and voices of the city by creating a separate piece that amalgamates various words and phrases she overheard while interacting with locals and residents.

Minimalism, a concept she was deeply fascinated with during her studies, inspired her to opt for a gallery free of distractions.

Her strategic decision to use minimalist black walls as the background for her artwork created a quiet, contemplative setting. Walking through her exhibition space, a visitor’s attention is entirely focused on the glowing forms, making each viewing a unique encounter dependent on one’s movement and perspective within the space.

“I explored what it means to embrace minimalism and light, and how, when explored through a female lens, it transforms the discipline. I believe women redefined post-minimalism by infusing it with layers that are not only nuanced but also have deeper, more resonant meanings,” Alahbabi explained, expressing joy that 421 Art Campus’ Spring programme features an exclusively female lineup.

Alahbabi’s career has been marked by a journey across diverse cultural landscapes, from the art galleries of Dubai to the exhibition spaces of Berlin. In her artistic endeavours, whether past, present, or future, she remains deeply connected to her Emirati roots. Her work consistently weaves in elements of her home country’s culture and tradition, not only as a nod to her identity, but also as a lens through which she views her surroundings.

“You cannot escape who you are, and your cultural heritage always influences your creative expression - it’s crucial for artists to contextualise their identity in their work. This authenticity resonates with audiences,” she said.

“As an Emirati, I think it’s important to acknowledge and incorporate my heritage in every artistic venture I undertake.”

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