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Unsettling aura: Nujoom Alghanem’s focus on faces in full flow at Maraya Art Centre

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Art lovers in the UAE will be stunned and transfixed while visiting this unusual exhibition by the Emirati artist Nujoom Alghanem at Sharjah’s Maraya Art Centre titled ‘Malamih – Faces, Phantoms, Expressions.’

Dr. Nina Heydemann, Director of Maraya Art Center and 1971 – Design Space, who has curated this show that includes a sheer quantity of artworks in various mediums that focus on human faces and their expressions – 2,000 or more displayed in an interactive format and with a breathtaking finesse across three floors.

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Nujoom Alghanem is a force to reckon within the UAE art firmament and is known as a prolific poet, artist, scriptwriter, and award-winning film director. Two years ago, she represented the UAE in the 58th edition of the Venice Biennale with her video installation ‘Passage.’

Installation view of ‘Malamih – Faces, Phantoms, Expressions' at Maraya Art Centre.
Installation view of ‘Malamih – Faces, Phantoms, Expressions' at Maraya Art Centre.

Although the genesis of this show started long back, the process was set in motion in 2016 and the whole project was finished in the last two years, the artist said.

Speaking to Al Arabiya English, Alghanem recalled she had participated in a group show with the Emirates Fine Arts Society in Sharjah at the Expo Centre in the 80s. She is pleased that Sharjah, known as a center for art and culture, is now hosting her first solo show.

Emirati artist Nujoom Alghanem. (Courtesy of the UAE National Pavilion)
Emirati artist Nujoom Alghanem. (Courtesy of the UAE National Pavilion)

As a longstanding art practitioner, she knows the many impediments to showcase art before audiences.

“Access to art is not available universally. Art always needs special support. At Maraya, I feel at home. I feel there is appreciation and big support for my work,” Alghanem, who has screened two of her early films here, said.

'The Burlap Bazar'.
'The Burlap Bazar'.

In 2019, her multimedia installation with ink on paper ‘Around Us’ was exhibited here in her role as mentor and guest artist for UAE Unlimited’s ‘Tashweesh: Material Noise’ exhibition.

Heydemann on the other hand, said that she was very privileged that Alghanem opened up her studio and mind towards Maraya Art Centre as a host for this show.

Hanging in swirls and waves on the walls of the second floor are 3D art works and sculptural pieces made of clay reliefs.
Hanging in swirls and waves on the walls of the second floor are 3D art works and sculptural pieces made of clay reliefs.

Regarding the theme of ‘Faces,’ the artist cited personal curiosity at the beginning, besides the enjoyment she gets when engaging with people, hearing their stories, studying their expressions.

That also explains the fact during her entire career, individuals have been at the center of attention in her work.

“When you look at someone, you are captivated by their emotions and expressions, and then you go from there and reflect that on burlap or whatever material. And then it starts to repeat itself… I would say curiosity and interest in looking at people’s emotions kept me going. That was the essence of this whole project: their emotions, their expressions, their features, their gazes,” Alghanem told Al Arabiya English.

The present exhibition, as Heydemann points out, is “also strongly influenced by [Alghanem’s] interest in spirits in different cultures.”

“The ambient sounds of whispers filling the gallery space underline this,” the curator said.

The exhibition is an outstanding example of the collaborative effort between the artist and the curator. In this case, it was the sheer amount of artworks, the variety of materials and techniques used, along with multimedia elements, that needed to be structured in an exhibition space to make sense to the viewer.

Dr. Nina Heydemann, Director of Maraya Art Center and 1971 – Design Space.
Dr. Nina Heydemann, Director of Maraya Art Center and 1971 – Design Space.

Visitors should begin the tour at the third floor of Maraya Art Centre, where they are confronted with a tightly arranged display titled ‘The Cathedral of Faces’ of works mainly on canvas that have various formats – from small to large, rectangular, square, oval, and circular-shaped.

This array of around 1,000 faces fully engulfs viewers and invites them to take it all in while sitting in the center of the room, thereby also becoming part of it -- mirroring themselves in the faces and using the suspended frames to see themselves in others. Because the opposite wall is filled with mirrors, the 360-degree viewing experience is complete.

Viewers are also aided by the titles as they progress through the show.

Visitors exit the top gallery through the staircase titled the ‘The Burlap Bazar’ and on the staircase landing wall there are black and white works titled ‘The Library of Faces.’

‘The Burlap Bazar’ has been populated with faces on burlap and jute – the very first material that the artist, harking back to her university days -- used to create this new body of work.

The exhibition continues on the second floor of Maraya Art Centre, in which there will be a change in terms of materials that the artist has explored and experimented with.

There is a sense of place here. These materials whether created with burlap, wooden crates, nails, nuts, bolts, pipes, tiles, stones, glass, paint, and concrete, and even the butcher’s chopping boards, are not randomly chosen but innate to the bazaars, construction sites, and industrial zones of the UAE.

The wooden crates painted with acrylic, mixed media, and illuminated from within are titled ‘Forsaken Spirits’ – in a playful reference to the fact that these crates that used to be so common in the city’s bazaars have given way to plastic ones now.

Hanging in swirls and waves on the walls of the second floor are 3D art works and sculptural pieces made of clay reliefs.

At the far end of the gallery, a winding string of ceramic, concrete, and resin-based works encompass the viewer and show the variety of industrial objects and materials that the artist has experimented with to create these individual expressions.

The viewer will also see on the second floor a hanging array of chopping boards that have faces painted on them, reminiscent of pieces of meat hanging in a butcher’s shop.

A hanging array of chopping boards that have faces painted on them.
A hanging array of chopping boards that have faces painted on them.

Adding to this haunting atmosphere, at either end of the hall are two dark rooms that have decidedly theatrical elements to them offering an insight into the artist’s work on faces with fluorescent light as well as digitally animated faces inspired by the realm of selfie-culture that speak to the viewers.

The darkroom called ‘The Cemetery' is another place where you will be confronted with the notion of the spirit. The clay faces glow with fluorescent colors. Smoke machines and whispers coming from the back, as well as a water fountain combine to create a spooky, haunting atmosphere.

The darkroom called ‘The Cemetery' is another place where you will be confronted with the notion of the spirit.
The darkroom called ‘The Cemetery' is another place where you will be confronted with the notion of the spirit.

‘The Cemetery’ allows the viewer to follow a pathway into an imaginative underworld with an altar-like arrangement of faces where the lighting makes them glow from inside.

An altar-like arrangement of faces where the lighting makes them glow from inside.
An altar-like arrangement of faces where the lighting makes them glow from inside.

“The haunting atmosphere is inspired by the Mexican culture of the ‘The Day of the Dead,’ that we are living with the spirits of those who have passed away,” says Alghanem.

“I feel even the normal faces…they are the spirits of themselves, and the spirits of their era, and the spirits of their culture. They are not only eyes, mouths, noses… they are beyond that.”

“In the other darkroom, we have digitally animated faces speaking to the viewer in a kind of annoying and hysterical way. It is a critical way of looking at how we project ourselves, inventing personalities. There is this symphony of sounds that are weird, overlapping, and distorted. Everybody, or something else, is trying to grab your attention.”

There are also screens that are replicating the number of faces you can see –- several TVs, iPads, and projections that are showing you digitally modified faces that are talking to the viewer.

An adjacent Artist’s Room is the most dynamic and purposefully openly held room of all. This is not an exhibition space, but an actual working place.

The Artist's Room.
The Artist's Room.

Here, the artist has been carrying out alterations to the room during the exhibition which started in February, by painting on the walls, adding objects, and displaying new work, thus giving it a different appearance at times, to illustrate the changing nature of the project, but also the change that life itself is always subjected to.

“The viewer can also see a lot of Alghanem’s work coming to life here,” says Heydemann. There are poems hanging here, new ceramics works, and canvases awaiting completion.

When exiting the gallery space, viewers are invited to share their impressions and thoughts on the ‘Faces’ on papers that can be attached to a magnetic board.

Digitally animated faces inspired by the realm of selfie-culture.
Digitally animated faces inspired by the realm of selfie-culture.

Heydemann sums up the show: “Nujoom Alghanem, in general, is a very experimental artist and that brings this whole body of work to life… that you see one subject mirrored in so many different materials, and giving it different expressions.”

‘Malamih – Faces, Phantoms, Expressions’ closes on August 31, 2021 (Tuesday) and is free and accessible to all.

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