For a city with so few dedicated art galleries, Abu Dhabi certainly has its fair share of respectable artists. It’d be too much to say there’s one under every bush, but more than one in every building? It’s certainly a possibility. This month Naz Shahrokh exhibits in the capital with her neighbour Cynthia Capriata, with each artist taking up a floor of Ghaf Gallery. They explain that the two exhibitions are linked by nothing more than friendship, but as Time Out chats with the easy-going Shahrokh, we begin to wonder if there’s more to this than the artists realise.
Indeed, these are exhibits that may chime with your own expat experience. Capriata’s collection is ‘reflective of different times, places and ethnicities’, while Shahrokh’s is a collection of installations that could only have sprung from a well-travelled mind. Both collections appear to deal with some form of journey, chronological or geographical, whether the artists intended it to or otherwise.
‘I was born in Iran,’ explains Shahrokh, ‘but I left when I was four and moved to Paris. At 11 I moved to Los Angeles and at 20 I moved to Brooklyn, New York. I worked for the American University in Cairo for two years, then I moved here in 2008.’ It’s hard to see how her nomadic nature could fail to influence her self-expression. She claims it’s all subconscious, but – on occasion – it’s there on the surface for all to see.
Take ‘Spice Wall’, for example: a key piece in her upcoming exhibition. ‘It’s a colour study,’ she tells me. ‘The spices will be in bands, from the whites to the creams to the yellows...you’re going to be enveloped by a vertical rainbow, extending from the ceiling to the floor.’ And its influence? ‘This came about in 1995. I was in a city called Rasht [Iran], which is where my mother’s from, and I was in the bazaar and it was the first time that I, as an Iranian, got to interact with that environment. I saw these mountains of spices and they were just so beautiful. I’ve been collecting spices for  years now. How did I know when I had enough spices?
I still don’t.’ In other words, the journey isn’t over yet. Another installation will involve a neatly stacked tower of newspapers piled in a corner of the room. As a Californian youth, Shahrokh was an early participant in the recycling movement. Travelling to New York, she found it had yet to catch on in the north. She explains: ‘In school I tended to focus on concepts. My main focus was recycling – giving new life to materials. I started working with paper, thinking about trees, thinking about materials and how to give them new life.’ Her train of thought eventually led her to exhibiting ‘Column’, a stack of New York Times sections collected over six months, intended to represent the tree that gave its life to produce it (‘multiply it by the amount of families who actually read the New York Times... something to think about’).
The version she intends to create in Abu Dhabi will be grown from copies of The National, though her intentions are different. ‘With The National, I’m trying to make something beautiful out of trash – it’s something that’s disregarded,’ she says. ‘It’s really quite beautiful, just the colour. It’s a corner piece, but eventually by next year or the year after, I hope to find a space where I can actually take over the entire room.’ Needless to say, none of this could have come about without the relocation she experienced in her early life.
The most intricate pieces in the exhibition are part of ‘Leaf Horizon’, miniature landscapes painted on a set of unexpected canvases. ‘I started painting on leaves when I was in Fiji, many years ago’ she explains. ‘When I returned to New York I found these silver maple leaves, which are super hardy – waxy on one side and velvety on the other. It’s like watercolour paper. It’s a natural canvas.’ They look like snapshots taken from a speeding car. The jagged edges of the leaves look torn, as if the images were ripped from a fleeting memory.
Almost inevitably, her meeting with her co-exhibitor brings with it a sense of closure. ‘She’s this really colourful personality. You can’t miss her,’ she says of Cynthia. ‘We started speaking in an elevator and it turned out she’s from New York and we just happened to know the same people...’ The remainder of the story involves uncles, friends, and friends of uncles. Cynthia and Naz may not realise it yet, but this journey has only just begun.
The joint exhibition runs at Ghaf Gallery (02 665 5332) between April 25 and May 5.