East-East: UAE meets Japan explores the ways young voices of the Emirati art scene choose to regard cross-cultural contact with the arts of Japan. The exhibition aims to draw parallels between Japanese and Emirati culture as both traditional societies have moved rapidly into global capitalist postmodernism. The exhibition serves to show both cultures' attempts to keep a balance between heritage and futurism.

East-East also intends to challenge and expand the idea of what “global art” means to artists, curators, and viewers alike in our increasingly globalized world. As curator Sophie Mayuko Arni said: “I wanted to break the overused and overheard ‘East-West’ terminology by turning it on its head. Why always look to the West, when we can look Eastwards? I hope for East-East to contribute to the recent initiatives aiming to break geographical boundaries of contemporary art making and exhibition practices.”

With an opening reception on October 18th 2016, East-East: UAE meets Japan premieres specially commissioned works by 4 Emirati artists including the names of Khalid Mezaina and Al Anood Al Obaidly, both recent recipient of the prestigious The Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship. The 4 artists featured for the exhibition are: Khalid Mezaina, Al Anood al Obaidly, Amna al Maamari, Ahmed Alanzi.

Works explore the similarity in both countries’ fine balance between rooted tradition and expanding modernity. The four chosen themes read as follows: 'Images of a Floating World', 'Modernity and Materiality', 'Craft and Repetition' and 'Costume and Pride'. Themes as Nōh and Bedouin mythology, spirituality and repetition, weaving and knotting, Zen Buddhism and the desert’s connection to materiality, traditional and ceremonial dress, are contrasted to overwhelming consumption typified by plastic materials in such chain stores as Daiso. The exhibition as such combines the Emirati artist's established styles with Japanese stylistic elements. Four years ahead of Dubai and Tokyo hosting the Expo and Olympics respectively, the occasion seems fitting to celebrate these two cultures together to further solidify their place on the global art map.

Pictures of a Floating World

Khalid Mezaina (b. 1985, Dubai) is an Emirati designer and illustrator whose work for East-East: UAE meets Japan exudes a sense of playfulness and ease reminiscent of the ‘floating world’ of Japanese  ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the Edo period (1603-1868). The earliest of these prints were conceived in 18th century Edo, present-day Tokyo, as visual escape from everyday life in the new capital of the military  shogun regime. The emerging kabuki theater scene and the outfits of feminine bijin teahouse maids were the subjects of early ukiyo-e prints, as these iconic characters symbolized the new urban culture of Edo.

Mezaina took the challenge to export the spirit of Edo-period prints to a 21st century Emirati environment. One theme kept throughout his series is a notion of playfulness and theatricality. Maiden (2016) features a woman drawn in an ukiyo-e-inspired style wearing a kimono and the burqa. The soft pink color scheme and figure suspended against a blank background are reminiscent of early Edo style prints, such as Suzuki Harunobu’s Young Woman Jumping from the Kiyomizu Temple Balcony (1765), a great source of influence for Mezaina’s prints for this series. Myth (2016) features a mythical woman with the two indigenous fauna symbolically central to Emirati cultural traditions, the falcon and the gazelle. In the same way ukiyo-e artists created dreamy images of a new kind of urban Japanese society, Mezaina's prints stand as images of a world floating on top of current and past Emirati cultural icons.


Modernity and Materiality

Al Anood Al Obaidly (b. 1990, Abu Dhabi) tackles the issue of our lost relationship to overwhelming, mass-produced and mass-consumed materiality. Al Obaidly’s sources most of her materials from Daiso, a Japanese company specializing in cheaply made plastic goods with branches worldwide including in the UAE. Keeping in line with her practice as a found-object artist, she viewed this exhibition as an opportunity to work with plastic, a new medium for her. She also developed her works under with the Japanese aesthetic theory of  wabi-sabi, which emphasizes the ideals of imperfection and beauty in simplicity and incompleteness, over the perfection achieved with machine-made production.   

In Shelf (Daiso #1) (2016), Al Obaidly rejects the relationship to materiality prevalent in contemporary Japanese and Emirati societies by deconstructing and reconstructing objects ‘found’ in Daiso on Yas Mall, Abu Dhabi. The unproportioned and unfinished quality to some of these objects is presented in such a way to beautify their transience and imperfection. 3D collages (Daiso #2) (2016) also celebrates objects and materials’ beauty freed from their artificial branded make-up, using a minimalist approach to negative space for both the artist and the viewer. Al Obaidly’s process for East-East: UAE meets Japan is documented in her Process Book for the East-East Exhibition (2016) which provides the research and references to many Japanese postwar conceptual artists, including the likes of Yoko Ono (b. 1933) in advocating wabi-sabi ability to persist in tandem with global capitalism.


Craft and Repetition

Through knotting and mark-making, Amna Al Maamari (b. 1990, Abu Dhabi) utilizes the act of weaving threads in order to explore her own Emirati heritage, while adventuring into the theoretical territory of Zen Japanese philosophy. The repetition of knotting in Al Maamari’s work is influenced by the sadu weaving method, the traditional form of weaving practiced by Bedouin women in the long history of this region. In parallel to this influence, Al Maamari’s appreciation for presence and repetition was influenced by the compositions of Zen gardens.

Al Maamari’s work attempts to measure time and space through the knots she ties around each panel, as the artist hopes to paint a metaphor of stillness with the panels’ calculated positioning on the ground. Rhythm (2016), a floor installation in pink and green thread knotted around plaster panels, evokes a rock garden with its highly calculated yet minimal floor design. The o-mikuji culture of wrapping one’s wishes onto Shinto temples’ gridded walls also provided Al Maamari with a new perspective on mark-making immaterial thoughts onto physical space. Knots (2016), a series of canvases incorporating hand-tied knots on their surface, refers to the abstract shapes that can be obtained with elaborate weaving and knotting techniques on a two-dimensional surface. Using exclusively pink and green, she references the colors of early benizuri-e Japanese printmaking, with their natural beni pink and green pigments only available at the time.


Costume and Pride

Ahmed Alanzi’s (b. 1985, Abu Dhabi) singular work in this exhibition,  Kibimosht (2016), combines the ideas of national pride and traditional costume. The sculptural garment celebrates the craft and skillset required to make such fine garments. Kibimosht stands as a fusion between the bisht and the kimono: the former being the traditional long cloak, usually made of brown, beige or black wool, that men from the Arabian Gulf region and Iraq wear over their kandura for special occasions, the latter being still worn in Japan, both by men and women, only for special occasions such as weddings, formal traditional events and tea ceremonies.  

Kibimosht takes influence especially from the yukata, the more casual summer male kimono. Made of cotton rather than the traditional silk of finely-made kimonos, the yukata, dubbed the most affordable Japanese traditional costume, is argued to be a very practical option for those wishing to wear traditional dress in everyday life. It has been a great center of focus in contemporary debates on encouraging the Japanese population to start wearing more of their traditional dress. On the other hand, most factory-made wool bisht fabric available in the UAE for tailoring ministerial bishts carry the tag ‘Made in Japan’. The brown wool fabric used for Kibimosht, bought and tailored by the artist in Dubai, is thus interestingly also made in Japan which makes Kibimosht a piece made entirely of Japanese fabric. As a hybrid piece, it was sewed together with gold embroidery in the UAE combining the luxury and legacy of the bisht with the simplicity and eternal appeal of the yukata. One could understand this marriage between these two fabric styles as an alternative to counter the gradual Westernization or the underlying exotification of Japanese and Emirati traditional wear.





Selected press:
NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery official release
NYU Abu Dhabi Events official release
Abu Dhabi World, 20-26/10/2016, print and web
Al Ittihad,23/10/16, web and print
Magpie, 30/10/2016, web
Gulf News, 18/10/16, print
Buro 24/7, 21/10/2016, web
The National, event listings 23/10/2016, print
Abu Dhabi Events, 18/10/2016, web
Krossbreed by Khalid Mezaina, 21/10/2016, web

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Sophie Mayuko Arni, October 2016, Abu Dhabi.
Text written by Sophie Arni. Images and text copyrighted Global Art Daily, 2016.