A journey back in time

Multisensory exhibition takes us on a tour through UAE history

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As an inaugural and multisensory exhibition is hosted at Zayed University, visitors are invited on a tour through UAE history using captivating images and photo portraits of Emirati families.

Running until April 30, the exhibition Lest We Forget showcases a collection of family portraits and images taken by Emiratis between 1958 and 1999. Unlike other photography exhibitions, this one brings together old subject matters and modern techniques and programmes to enhance the visitors’ experience while travelling back in time. A large part of early Emirati history centred around oral tradition and this exhibition highlights the importance of not losing that thread. We spoke to project curator and art historian Dr Michele Bambling and exhibition designer Marco Sosa about the evocative exhibition.

The idea began two years ago, as Dr Bambling introduced it into her class on curatorial practise at the College of Arts and Creative Enterprises, Zayed University. She worked with four sets of students and each one added a personal element to the exhibition by bringing along old photographs and responding with various art pieces.

One of the most intriguing and unique aspects of this exhibition is that the photographs are complemented with sounds and wind. The entire ambiance is designed to really draw the spectator into the experience; blocking out the outside world and taking you back through time. Michele says: ‘From the start, we made the decision to steer away from producing a ‘traditional’ exhibition. We wanted to create an experience rather than a collection of objects or framed photographs. Interaction with the public was a priority. In addition, we wanted to have an ephemeral approach to the exhibition as we were dealing with memory. By mixing digital projections, sound, wind and objects we created an environment that plays with perception and understanding of the Emirati culture.’

The exhibition will culminate with a book that will describe every detailed step of the journey, as well as include images of the artworks that were used. In addition, the process of creation itself is described, so that the audience can fathom the undertaking in its entirety. For example, one installation shows the learning process encountered in using English and Arabic typewriters for the book, which is currently being published by Zayed University Press.

One of the biggest challenges faced in creating this show was collating all the material from the students, as they were grappling with heavy workloads at the same time. Nevertheless, the end result has been received positively by the public, prompting the possibility of a future exhibition. ‘The ambition, leadership and belief in the project by the students was vital as it allowed them to produce art that was directly connected to the subject and the process of documentation’ says Marco. ‘The involvement of Abu Dhabi Music and Art Foundation also proved invaluable in the development and funding of the project,’ he adds.

So far, audiences have reacted very well to the interactive elements of the exhibition. For example, some old photographs have been blown up as backdrops, where visitors can have their pictures taken. There is also a camera set up where a visitor can snap a self-portrait and place the image on a large map of the UAE; signifying the origin of their tribe or family.

We asked Marco about the design of the show. ‘This is the first exhibition and accompanying book which examines family photographs produced by Emiratis during the second half of the 20th century. The exhibition is designed with the theme of layers. One half is light, the other is shadows. On the second part, the visitor explores some of the photos and topics shown in the book such as men at weddings, the Emirati Na’ashat hair dance or stories told by elderly members of the community. The exhibition showcases the students’ strong initiatives, artistic talent and leadership through the use of different electronic or printed media.’

Although classified as a photography exhibition, Lest We Forget veers off from the norm by incorporating so many different elements and media. ‘Our exhibition is about Emirati photographs of their families taken by themselves or photo studios, between 1958 and 1999. The installations and exhibits are an artistic response to the project and the process of recollection of memories using various media,’ Michele explains.
Access to the exhibition is by appointment only, Mondays and Wednesdays 9am-1pm. CACE Gallery, Zayed University. www.zu.ac.ae (02 599 3111).

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