20 January 2021

Art and Philosophy in “Grey Times”

A hammock made of barbed wire, rows of pillows, sand-based sculptures, natural pigments: alumni and faculty infuse color – and philosophy – into the Grey Times Artist in Residence exhibition at the Fire Station

If you were searching for a phrase that captures the process of discovery and introspection that artists – along with the wider community – experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than ‘Grey Times’, the name of the exhibition that recently opened at the Fire Station’s Garage Gallery.

The exhibition, which is running from January 20 to August 27, is a collective display of the works of artists who took part in Fire Station’s latest Artist in Residence program, and includes artwork created by alumni and faculty from VCUarts Qatar. 

Amena Al-Yousef, Ebtesam Al-Hothi, Hadeer Omar, Hind Al Saad, Latifa Al-Kuwari, Majdulin Nasrallah, Mariam Rafehi, Maysaa Almumin, Naila Al-Thani and Noor Alshebani used a variety of media platforms including paintings, etchings, sculptures, audio-visuals, augmented reality and installations to explore topics as diverse as identity, confinement, dreams, memories, the environment, displacement, and human responses – through the lens of the unprecedented changes that the pandemic has wrought on mankind.

A full-size hammock fashioned out of barbed wire, a walk-in booth that uses over 60 pillows and audio-visuals to re-create the immersive experience associated with dreams, sculptures incorporating sand collected from different locations in Qatar, a multimedia installation of naturally occurring pigments, and images that portray the transformation of suffering into power, are just a few of the artworks that bring the two conceptual strands of the exhibition – ‘A Look Inside’, and ‘A Look Outside’ – to life.

One of the exhibits, an interactive metal cage designed by artist and VCUarts Qatar instructor Majdulin Nasrallah, reflects the contrasting emotions of liberation and confinement that humans in different parts of the world face due to the transitory nature of political borders, and human migration or displacement. Nasrallah graduated from VCUarts Qatar in 2017 with a BFA in Interior Design and in 2019 with an MFA in Design Studies.   

‘Mohasir-Mohasar’, which translates as ‘Trapper-Trapped’ or ‘Besieger-Besieged’ can be interpreted in many ways,” says Nasrallah, as she explains her work. “It is a metaphor for a state of siege, with the bars of the cage protruding both outward and inward, allowing two people to have a seated conversation, but with the barrier of the metal bars separating them.

“The concept could relate to a host of real-life occurrences around us: migration, the pandemic, or the political blockade of a country. For some, it could symbolize the emotional barriers they feel with those around them – the emotional isolation they may have even when they are in the midst of a group of people. Additionally, in order to juxtapose the feeling of confinement with one of independence, I designed an opening on the roof of the installation to indicate that though one can be geographically stuck in a place, that person could be enjoying freedom of thought.”

For Alshebani, a VCUarts Qatar Painting + Printmaking alumna and multidisciplinary artist who draws inspiration from Islamic patterns and symbols, the uncertainty that the pandemic brought with it reminded her of a very personal journey – motherhood.

“My display, titled ‘Pages’, mirrors the feeling of ambiguity and concern that I experienced on becoming a mother,” says Alshebani, a mother of two. “When I knew I was pregnant, I was delighted; but I was also awash with doubt at my abilities to cope, and my future. To combat that feeling, I started journaling my thoughts, writing them down in scraps of paper. I wrote them in concentric circles, to show that by revolving around my faith – and not losing my focus on it – I could surmount any challenge. And rather than throw them away, I saved the pieces of paper, and fashioned them into this piece of art.”

The Fire Station’s nine-month Artist in Residence program provides artists residing in Qatar with an opportunity to develop their art practices. Participants are given studio space in the Fire Station building, in addition to mentorships, workshops with curators, open studios and access to the building’s facilities such as a fabrication lab, woodshop and exhibition spaces.

VCUarts Qatar alumni and faculty have been participating in the program since its launch. This year, the initial plan for the residency exhibition was to focus on the relationship between visual arts and literature. However, due to the pandemic, and the resulting limitations to accessibility of resources and supplies, the theme was reassessed and redesigned to the current theme.

‘Grey Times’ is curated by Dr. Bahaa Abudaya and Saida Al Khulaifi.

Photographs by Raviv Cohen.

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