An unorthodox rule for visitors to “Negus” — an audio-visual installation at Dubai’s The Third Line in collaboration with festival operator Sole — is that you have to have your phone locked away in a small pouch. The intention is to allow you to be completely immersed in a space where music meets art for 28 minutes without distractions. Lights off, headphones on.
The eight-track recording — currently unavailable for download outside of the installation — was created by Brooklyn-born hip-hop artist Yasiin Bey (previously known as Mos Def), known for his hard-hitting tracks on topical concerns, including police brutality and racism.
“Negus” is making its Gulf debut here, having formerly been in installed in Marrakech, Hong Kong, and New York.
Accompanying the solid beat-driven music are artworks — selected by Bey in consultation with the artists — by The Third Line alumni Nima Nabavi, Laleh Khorramian, Ala Ebtekar, and Anuar Khalifi. Among some of the works is Nabavi’s high triangle-shaped formation of intricate geometrical drawings and Ebtekar’s magnetically deep-blue canvas of the cosmos. A pink-hued microbial landscape by Khorramian hangs near Khalifi’s spiritual painting of a white center, surrounded by an abundance of greens, pinks, trees and flowers, a detail that fits Bey’s brief whistling sounds in the 2015-produced recording.
A large video projection of changing images externalizes some of Bey’s inner thoughts regarding the state of the world, focusing particularly on materialism. A smaller screen shows his “Negus” lyric book, where he has written in markers and colored pencils: “Go there. Stay Fly. Dream Study. Dream. Dream. Dream / But wait concentrate. Concentrate. Concentrate. Focus.” As the minutes pass, Bey sings: “Lay world on fire/Human beings’ fascination with things/You know I won’t let you go/What do you mean by the term ‘modern’?/Modern world, it is a world beyond understanding.”
“Negus” is certainly a novel way of navigating an exhibition. It succeeds in encouraging you to experience the moment, rather than simply glance at the art for a few minutes. There is that little spark of anticipation as you grab a pair of headphones, not knowing what to expect. But while the music is lyrically thought-provoking, it is rarely complimented by the selected artworks and without that connection it’s questionable how effective the installation can be. I left feeling that I’d experienced something new, but wanted more out of it than I got.
Still, “Negus” is intended to be experimental so who knows? Perhaps it will inspire other Gulf galleries to try something different by pursuing the notion of experiencing art with senses other than just sight.