“I thought ‘sah’ [‘correct’ in English] would be the best word to experiment with. I took my time, but it turned out to be the most messy and frustrating,” says Emirati artist Shamma Al Amri, showing a large framed paper with the Arabic word written in ink over and over. in asymmetrical rows. It is the opening piece of his new solo exhibition, So to Speak, at Tashkeel.
It is a word that has different meanings for native Arabic speakers. It is also a word that has consumed Al Amri entirely for most of this year. The one she has explored in all its facets in her new body of work, spanning a diversity of mediums, from metal and wood to paper, prints and layers of Plexiglas with raised writing on each.
Al Amri, who is the 14th participant to present a solo exhibition as part of Taskeel’s Critical Practice program, has focused her entire collection on the study of the Arabic language. By examining and analyzing texts found in her environment, she not only strives to extract their social, political and collective value, but sees in them a way to find the way back to her mother tongue.
So to Speak is based on its continuous exploration of the power that words have in different contexts and experimentation with the visual representation of language. While developing the works, she was mentored by typographer, writer and graphic designer Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares and Emirati artist Mohammed Kazem.
“I’m really interested in how language affects our function in society. Some languages have specific words that don’t exist in other languages, so we can only imagine their contribution to how a person interacts with the world,” she says.
“The other entry point of my work is the extraction of myself and the Arabic language from the contemporary artistic landscape, which is predominantly English-speaking and Western,” explains the multidisciplinary artist, who holds a master’s degree in culture. and Creative Industries, and a Masters in Contemporary Arts. artistic practice at the Royal College of Art in London.
But the fixation on the word “sah” started with the national oath of the United Arab Emirates, she said, pointing to a block of plexiglass on which Arabic phrases are superimposed, rendering them unreadable. This is The Artist’s Oatha condensed depiction of his two years of research into the country’s oath, and a distillation of defining words, such as correct, truth and loyalty, to which citizens pledge themselves.
“As an artist, I wanted to see where I fit in and if I’m bound by an oath. I started my research to understand how this affects my practice,” she says.
“I presented it transparently to say: here are all the ways I try to decipher the language and the meaning, but then you look closely and all you see is nothing but a network of words, flipping the whole thing on its head.”
There is an inherent conflict in what Al Amri is trying to achieve. She tries to impose self-discipline and “accuracy” in her method, while questioning what she gives in all her works. His To correct reed and ink calligraphy series on paper is an exercise in evoking emotion with each ‘sah’ she painstakingly engraves.
“I wanted to repeat the word perfectly on a plain sheet of paper without lines until the ink was dry, but each ‘sah’ created a different ‘sah’. It became meditative and turned into a psychological inquiry,” says Al Amri, who works primarily with root words in the Arabic language.
Root words, she says, create a whole web of meanings that feed into each other.
Take it Diction series, six pieces of dyed newspaper with the word ‘sah’ cut out of each to let the light through. It is a visual and metaphorical statement on the word indicating truth, which is supported by a sahifah (page/newspaper in Arabic) and a sahafiun (Arabic for journalist), the two words that have ‘sah’ in them.
She then applies her experience to a social setting by hiring inmates from Dubai’s Punitive and Correctional Institute to create hand-carved wooden sculptures of the word “sah” and construction workers to mold rebar into them. .
“With the inmates, I wanted to see how they would interpret it and create it in their own style,” she says. “What I discovered was that they couldn’t escape the prescribed pattern, or the right way to do it, and I ended up with very similar designs. They took an order and exercised no freedom.
With the construction workers, she found that every time they tried to mold the rods into a “sah,” the repetition only resulted in the accuracy collapsing.
“It’s a very telling result because in both cases, creators have to follow a standard in their day-to-day work, whereas as an artist you don’t,” she says.
As part of the exhibition program, Al Amri will lead tours, lectures, poetry evenings and workshops in Tashkeel to provide an in-depth perspective of his works.
Lisa Ball-Lechgar, Deputy Director of Tashkeel, says this exhibit highlights Al Amri’s commitment to learning and her extensive research into language and its expression through art.
“With such a powerful range of work produced during her year in Tashkeel’s Critical Practice Program, the impact of this kind of support for the creative community in the UAE is tangible,” she says.
So to Speak is featured at Taskheel until October 18. For more information, visit tashkeel.org
Updated: September 17, 2022, 2:18 p.m.