DUBAI: “I love responding to things that I love,” says the Saudi artist Manal Al-Dowayan. “It challenges you, because it takes you out of your own everyday world and you have to respond to something, but within your own context as an artist.”
We are at La Mer in Dubai, touring the fifth edition of the Nobel Exhibition, which celebrates the work of a selection of Nobel Laureates under the banner “The Nobel Prize in Literature – Sharing Worlds.” Among them is the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz.
It is for Mahfouz’s 1947 novel “Midaq Alley” that Al-Dowayan has produced one of her two commissioned artworks for the exhibition, creating what she describes as a “microcosm of Mahfouz’s many microcosms.” She has done this by incorporating snippets of Hasan El-Emam’s 1963 film version of the novel into a series of glass spheres, all of which are stacked next to each like candelabras on a traditional Egyptian foyer table.
“The natural instinct is to take the story and interpret it literally, but I tried to avoid that,” says Al-Dowayan, a contemporary artist perhaps best known for her 2011 installation piece “Suspended Together.” “I wanted to add a little bit of conceptuality to it.”
Custom-made in London, the orbs are of various designs and sizes and show short sequences of film in a loop on small screens built into the glass. Some shots are of the main female protagonist, Hamida, played by the Egyptian actress and singer Shadia, while another features a dance sequence performed by Samia Gamal. There are shots of mashrabiyas and windows, too, with Al-Dowayan “examining the image of the woman through the eyes of a male author.”
“Mahfouz addressed really sensitive issues through simple stories,” says Al-Dowayan. “‘Midaq Alley’ is about a very tiny neighborhood, a few meters wide, with a few shops. It’s very poor, and he was able to encompass what his country and his people were going through under colonial power. And I think it was the first moments of resistance. And this is what art is all about, right? It expresses the moment in all its entirety, and he did it through this little microcosm.”
Consisting of eight sections, each of which focuses on a specific theme, the exhibition has been designed to promote the production and transfer of knowledge, with themes covering everything from tolerance, peace, life, love and family, to fairytales, the city and the human condition. It is slated to tour other venues around the region over the coming months, particularly schools and universities.
It is under the theme of peace that Al-Dowayan’s other artwork — an interpretation of Svetlana Alexievich’s “The Unwomanly Face of War” — falls. The groundbreaking oral history of female soldiers who fought for the Red Army during the Second World War was not an easy read for Al-Dowayan.
“Her book is intense, man,” she says. “I couldn’t read it, physically. It’s very sad, it’s very loving, it’s very feminine and very anti-feminine, so you have to deal with these ideas. So I listened to the audio and I started thinking about the words that are in the book.”
Al-Dowayan discovered that, in the book, the words ‘love,’ ‘fear’ and ‘sadness’ were used signifcantly more frequently than the word ‘hate,’ shifting the perspective of how the history of a war is told. Even the word ‘happiness’ appears frequently. “Happiness is very strange, right?” she says. “To have it appear so many times in the book. There was no anger involved. Fear and love were the main emotions.”
The artist had 900 female toy soldiers made in Spain, each painted in a certain color (based on those used in propaganda posters of the time) and representing a particular word. Red is for love, for example, and blue is for sadness. They are all jumbled up as a “pile of nothing.”
“I made sure that they looked very feminine, because the image of the feminine in this context is very jarring for a lot of us,” says Al-Dowayan. “We do not accept it, and it shows you that there is something wrong with what happened.”
Artworks are central to the exhibition, which has been organized by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Knowledge Foundation in collaboration with the Nobel Foundation. They are also interactive, helping to bring the exhibition’s selected novels to life.
A few meters away is the work of Brooklyn-based duo Nix + Gerber, who have produced two dioramas for the show — one a streetscape of the Algerian city of Oran for Albert Camus’ “The Plague,” the other an island model for William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” Together, the intricate and magical interpretations of the two novels represent the artists’ first ever commission.
“We started by re-reading each of the books, highlighting descriptive details that would help in constructing the scenes,” explains Kathleen Gerber, who has collaborated on dioramas and miniatures with Lori Nix for over 16 years. “We were provided size parameters set by the museum, so with this in mind we began with sketches.
“Once the basic design was set we made scale drawings, in effect blueprints to work from in construction. This was especially helpful with ‘The Plague,’ as it had actual buildings and streets. We split the work, Lori focusing on ‘The Plague’ and I working on ‘Lord of the Flies.’ Our concern was that they be dynamic in the full round, with each side offering an interesting viewpoint, as well as visual details and surprises.”
This meant focusing on groupings of characters for Camus’ highly allegorical tale of a bubonic plague ravaging the inhabitants of Oran. Figures were made of plastic and modified to resemble specific characters, rats were sculpted from an epoxy putty, and the buildings were constructed using a mix of foam board and chipboard. A rigid pink extruded foam board, normally used in home construction in the US, was used for the wall around the city. “It was labor-intensive, as Lori often needed to paint and add detail to layers before putting them all together,” adds Gerber.
Two other dioramas also feature in the exhibition. Created by the French artists Zim&Zou, they help bring to life Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and Sigrid Undset’s “Kristin Lavransdatter.” The latter was treated as a landscape by the artists, with Trondheim’s Nidaros Cathedral at the center.
“We wanted this landscape to be very intricate, with a lot of details and contrast between the small houses, the cathedral, the trees and the mountains,” says Thibault Zimmermann, the ‘Zim’ in Zim&Zou. “It is a representation of the society where Kristin is living, with its codes and the omnipresence of religion. The two characters facing each other at the top of the mountains are Kristin and Erlend Nikulausson, her lover.
“We wanted to show this pure love by placing them face to face, but far from each other, as if they were linked by the invisible power of love. Between them there’s the city and all the forces that make their relationship both complicated and beautiful.”