Installation view of RAJA’A KHALID’s “Solar Flare, Always Red” at Grey Noise, Dubai, 2016–17. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise.
Installation view of RAJA’A KHALID’s “Solar Flare, Always Red” at Grey Noise, Dubai, 2016–17. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise.

Solar Flare, Always Red

Raja’a Khalid

Grey Noise
United Arab Emirates

For Saudi-born Raja’a Khalid, her birthplace does not play a part in her work—she is based in the luxurious Emirate of Dubai, which she has called home from a young age. Khalid, however, does use her birth year, 1984, as the basis of her solo exhibition “Solar Flare, Always Red” at Grey Noise. It was that year the world saw an X-class solar flare, one of the largest of explosions on the sun’s surface that heave energy into space. The materialistic mid-80s also saw an eruption of wealth in the Emirate, including the conception of Emirates airline, which introduced their unmissable hostesses to airport terminals around the globe, their lips a uniform shade thanks to Sephora’s Always Red lip stain. The sunlit coastline of the Gulf country concurrently experienced the initial stages of development that has raised the tallest structure ever built by mankind, reclaimed palm-tree-shaped islands, inaugurated a seven-star hotel, and allowed the unfinished real estate archipelago known as The World to sink back into the sea. “Solar Flare, Always Red” comments on the Gulf’s skyward wealth boom; Khalid’s experiences give an insider’s critique of the consumerist, power-driven, male-dominated society where many will always desire to truly belong, even though the United Arab Emirates refuses citizenship to “expats” who have lived amongst the skyscrapers and sand dunes for decades.

Potted plants led the way in Grey Noise gallery—the installation xxx, xx, x  (all works 2016) consisted of agave, aloe vera, cacti and other plants alien to the Arabian Desert. The flora’s round ceramic containers lined an unseen path near one gallery wall, forming a barrier to guide the audience’s footsteps. Popular fixtures in malls and homes, the foreign foliage served as a reminder that most things in the city are from elsewhere, including the bulk of its population—immigrants make up nearly 85 percent of the UAE. Some of the plants were wilted, the succulents can survive harsh, arid conditions, but could not surmount the dimly lit interior; this evokes thoughts of sustainability in the region, and suggests that those who seek wealth under the desert sun—transplants, mostly—may eventually burn out. 

RAJA’A KHALID, Santa Barbara, 2016, automotive paint, steel, MDF and rubber, 5 panels: 60 × 76 cm each. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

Leaning against two walls, the five-panel High Noon demanded attention with its loud sun-burnt hue. The panels are coated in a bright orange-red that shifted to a green shimmer at different viewing angles and lighting conditions. These colors reference the solar flare of Khalid’s fixation, which disrupted radar and caused radio blackouts. The warm-tone painted panels were created by an automobile body shop with color-shift paint popular amongst young men in flashy cars. Producing them allowed Khalid to join their exclusive social circle. A shorter set of panels, Santa Barbara, was made using the same process. Its blue and green tones cool down the solar-inspired High Noon; together, they symbolize popular motifs of Dubai’s tourism trade, the sun and sea. Santa Barbara’s title is taken from a popular soap opera shown in the country, first aired in 1984, that follows the lives of a wealthy family living on the Californian coast, alluding to the lifestyle goals shared by many of Dubai’s residents.

Cars are an emblem of Dubai’s fast-paced lifestyle and excessive spending, a sign of personality ornamented in bright colors and decorative decals. Buraq is a custom-designed Swarvoski crystal car sticker depicting a legendary steed that transported Prophet Muhammad during the Night Journey, which took him from Mecca to Jerusalem and heaven. The creature is said to have the body of a horse, wings, a peacock’s tail and the head of a human. Its name is meant to evoke the notion of speed, and has been appropriated by transport companies from Libya to Indonesia. Over the centuries, the figure’s face has become feminized and is now a popular consumer symbol as seen in the ostentatious vehicle adornment.

RAJA’A KHALID, Buraq, 2016, custom-made Swarovski crystal car decal and acrylic, 25 × 25 cm. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

Nearby, the smell of Tom Ford Oud Wood permeated the room. It consisted of a single industrial scent diffuser pumping out an odor bearing the same name. Those who know Dubai are familiar with this smell as it is worn by the elite class and privileged young men—or those attempting to simulate prestige. The strong fragrance forces an encounter and an acknowledged presence of the individual, before they arrive and long after they have gone. The traditional fragrance comes from a resin that develops inside Southeast Asian agar trees in a rare natural occurrence of a mold infection in the bark, sometimes taking over 40 years to produce in roughly two percent of the trees. The “wood of the gods” has become scarce with its use in perfumes, elevating its price above gold. With a dwindling number of trees, synthetic Oud has been created to fulfill demand. The believable faux aroma allows for deception of wealth, and questions truth in appearances. Palm Leaves comments on the same notion via 12 preserved palm leaves laid unassumingly on the floor. Here, the vegetation is trapped in an in-between state, neither alive nor truly dead. Fresh leaves are soaked in a formula and forced to absorb the deadly concoction to preserve their appearance and structure. The zombie plants fill public spaces and hospitality locations to give the illusion of authenticity, though their leaves are even colored and altered after the preservation process to appear more real than nature.

Aspirations for wealth are a global phenomenon. Humanity strives for new achievements, which are typically paired with ambitions and insatiable desires. As a transplant to Dubai, Khalid counters this consumerist nature and societal vanity. At first, her creations may seem unconnected, but they tell a story of the current climate of a fast-growing nation where many are blinded by money, chrome rims, and darkly tinted windows. 

RAJA’A KHALID, Palm Leaves, 2016, 12 preserved palm leaves, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.
RAJA’A KHALID, Palm Leaves, 2016, 12 preserved palm leaves, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

Raja’a Khalid’s “Solar Flare, Always Red” was on view at Grey Noise, Dubai, until January 7, 2017.

Katherine Volk is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific. 

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