DUBAI: In the 1970s, a bold and adventurous young woman from Yemen named Shadia drove by herself across the Arabian Peninsula — from Aden to Kuwait and eventually to the UAE — seeking a better life.
Today, her granddaughter, the Emirati painter Almaha Jaralla, is telling Shadia’s story through a series of figurative paintings that were on display at the 2022 edition of Abu Dhabi Art in November.
“I wanted to go back to my past by looking at the family archives, not just to look at my family background, but also to understand the modern history of the Gulf,” Jaralla tells Arab News.
Jaralla scoured grainy old snapshots of Shadia — with her elegant frocks and striking jet-black hair — taken in several Gulf states, as well as in Cairo, where she studied at a time when her homeland was emerging from British occupation and moving toward becoming a socialist state.
“It’s, like, this lost history that no one talks about. It was so recent,” says Jaralla. “It can be a very heavy subject but talking about it can be a good introduction to have a bit of curiosity of how people lived through those days.”
Despite the political climate in the country, there were some liberties, socially. “When people hear about Yemen, they will have this idea that it’s conservative,” she says. “My grandmother studied outside — like lots of other women — and wore beautiful dresses. It was very normalized. To me, the pictures were shocking, but it was just a different time, that’s why I didn’t understand it.”
Some of Jaralla’s new paintings are based on the photographs, showing Shadia with family and strangers she encountered along her journey. “Even my mom was surprised that she used to go out and talk to people and have fun,” says Jaralla. “I feel that’s what started the whole show, seeing her in Kuwait having fun. She didn’t care if she was surrounded by men or women. She would talk to everyone.”
In one image, a group of people are huddled inside a lime green car. “That was from the Kuwait trip. She was there for work training. Seeing my grandmother driving men in the car was just surreal,” Jaralla says with a chuckle.
One of the show’s key works is “Al Dayan,” inspired by a photo of Jaralla’s grandparents and their children, their heads barely appearing over the bottom of the image. “Her kids’ faces are cropped (out of the photo) and I asked my grandmother why that was,” Jaralla says. “She said: ‘It’s because I got new curtains. I wanted them (in the picture).’ That says a lot about her personality. She has a strong personality. She overpowers everyone around her.”
The exhibition’s color palette is reminiscent of the greens and pinks of the Seventies. Some of them are patterned, a nod to traditional Yemeni embroidery. The faces are portrayed with unclear features, almost fading like a lost memory. “I didn’t focus on the features, so people can relate to it,” explains the artist. “It’s not only about the people in the picture, it’s a shared history.”
In a series she calls ‘City Studies,’ Jaralla depicts the old houses, vernacular architecture, and streets of Abu Dhabi. “I treat houses like portraits,” she says. “I’ll stand in front of a house and I imagine that architectural elements are like clothes. When a person builds his house, he thinks about how he (wants to) represent himself.”
Jaralla, now in her twenties, started painting when she was in engineering school. She was tutored by the Emirati conceptual artist Afra Al-Dhaheri, and is, she says, inspired by contemporary Arab art, particularly established UAE artists such as Mohammed Kazem and Farah Al-Qasimi.
This show was Jaralla’s first time participating at Abu Dhabi Art, which had a notable focus this year on female artists.
“I wanted to show how strong women are,” Jaralla says. “I would say women in the past had different challenges than we are dealing with right now. But I see a lot of strong women every day.”