LAMYA GARGASH, C-prints from “Presence” series, 2006–2007, 60 × 60 cm. Courtesy the Third Line, Dubai.

Emirati Estrangements

Lamya Gargash

United Arab Emirates
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic
It was only when photographer Lamya Gargash moved to London for her master’s degree at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design that she recognized the velocity of change occurring in her home city of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Towards the end of her degree in 2007 was the peak of Dubai’s frenzied development, when whole neighborhoods seemed to come and go within months. Her photographic series from the time, “Presence” (2006–07), documented semi-abandoned and soon-to-be demolished interiors vacated by people moving to newer homes. The desolate mood of these pictures would come to seem strangely prescient, particularly after the economic crisis of 2008–09, when fleeing expatriates abandoned their luxury cars in the city’s streets.

Although the financial crash killed off some of Dubai’s more fanciful projects, the city is still characterized by its accelerated development, ambitious culture of appropriation and a desire for constant renewal. Born in 1982, Gargash has lived through many of the UAE’s boom years, its first major bust and now its recovery. Along the way, her photographs of interiors in the series “Presence,” “Familial” (2009) and “Majlis” (2008–09) have addressed the recent seismic changes taking place in the country.

In “Presence,” Gargash focuses on the walls and furniture of domestic interiors from the 1980s and 1990s—characterized by an outmoded décor of ostentatious chandeliers, matching wallpaper and upholstery, and decorative tiles—that represent a culture that came to life during an oil-boom 30 years ago. In one picture, a chair in a decaying room stares out to sea, deserted by its owner. In another, intrusive blue wallpaper patterned with spotted dogs and paw prints is the only trace of the juvenile occupant of the room, who will grow up elsewhere. Cupboard doors and bedroom drawers are often left open, suggestive of a rushed or forced departure.

Gargash is almost alone among UAE residents with her interest in unearthing the suppressed anxiety of such rapid change. Emiratis tend to move house without bothering to take their out-of-date fittings and appliances with them. With the advent of what Gargash terms “conformative consumerism,” these spaces have swiftly disappeared, leaving little time for their owners to remark on the transition, let alone mourn it. As she has written about her photographs, “I came to see how this generation’s abandonment of, and estrangement from, these spaces seemed to be an almost inevitable cultural extinction: a by-product of modernity, but the passing of an era that would be lost without documentation.” Such frequent relocation indicates a decadent affluence, but does it also suggest a crisis of identity or a deep-rooted culture of nomadism? Many young Emiratis refer to their cars as their homes.

On the strength of “Presence,” Gargash was selected to represent the UAE in its inaugural pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2009. There she presented “Familial,” photographs of the interiors of one-star hotels. Although Dubai is more famous for its seven-star resorts, Gargash finds a richer hunting ground in the city’s cheap lodgings, which have ironically grandiose names such as Royal Prince, Blue Diamond and Golden Palace. Gargash enjoyed the performative element of shooting in these establishments, run by immigrants (who form 80 percent of the country’s population), and where few women of her privileged class and background have ever ventured.

In “Familial,” Gargash has created a fascinating taxonomy, feeding a curiosity to see behind closed doors and capturing the hotels’ postmodern cacophony of styles. One finds oneself deconstructing every design decision: Where did the fashion for tasseled canopies over the bed originate? What is behind the preference for the frilled, color-coordinated curtains and coverlets, paintings of Alpine scenes and chintzy bedside lamps that wouldn’t look out of place in an English bed-and-breakfast? In one hotel lobby, several clocks and an abundance of plastic flowers morbidly evoke the passing of time; beside them—the ubiquitous portraits of sheikhs and UAE flags serve as talismans, expressing the owner’s loyalty to an adopted country from which he is excluded from ever becoming a citizen. Gargash has inserted family portraits onto the bedside tables in some of the anonymous rooms, to remind us of the myriad human narratives that unfold in such buildings.

Continuing her examination of space and taste, in the UAE in her “Majlis” series, Gargash focuses her anthropological eye on the traditional reception rooms in Emirati houses, the air lock between the strictly defined public and private spheres of society. She records how each family negotiates its own ground between “tradition,” with wall hangings and floor seating, and “modernity,” with sofas, air-conditioning and televisions. In these photographs, the viewer is again drawn to remark on the inbuilt obsolescence of popular taste when presented with vivid color schemes of blue and yellow or outlandish features, such as a lace tissue box.

In person, Gargash’s modesty belies the fact that she is a trailblazer, as she manages to combine a successful artistic career with marriage and motherhood in a society dominated by family life and rigidly defined gender roles. Recently, Gargash has been teaching at the American University of Sharjah, where she herself studied under Tarek al-Ghoussein. She credits his formally precise photographs, which suggest narratives of abandonment, as an important influence on her practice.

One continuing theme of Gargash’s work is the psychological effect of society’s pressure on the individual to conform. Before her series of interiors exploring the poetics of space, Gargash’s student work explored the psychology of the veil. She also enjoyed early success with her short film Wet Tiles (2003), an engrossing study of an unexplained scenario of coercion involving two women, one obviously distressed by a man hovering at the edge of the frame.

In her latest project, presented at her solo show at the Third Line gallery in Dubai, in April, Gargash displayed diptychs of men and women from various cultural backgrounds. Beside a straight portrait of her subjects she has created a psychological one, in which their most disliked physical feature is exaggerated by the addition of a prosthesis, reflecting how they view themselves. In an age when extreme makeovers have even become popular as television entertainment, Gargash traces how the societal pressure to conform and renew extends from the walls of the home to the frontier of the body.