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Love, Labour and Leisure

By Nadine Khalil

Love, Labour, Leisure delves into the ethos of migrant communities in the UAE by reflecting on context, capital and cultural life. Through the lenses of art, performance and music, alternate ways of looking and mapping are presented from wide-ranging aerial views to forensic, facial close-ups.

Movement is understood in terms of the socioeconomic conditions and informal infrastructures that propel it. But these spatial geographies aren’t just emblematic of systemic structures of inequality, they also represent imaginary landscapes that stretch across borders, performative bodies that transgress them and personal portraits that excavate collective memories.

Saba Qizlbash’s detailed mountainous topographies in graphite are laid out as connective tissue, charting an impossible yet utopic land route from the Jebel Ali port in the UAE through Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran to Pakistan’s Gwadar port, part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Jebel Ali to Gwadar is both a comment on geopolitical demarcations and a zoomed-out regional perspective on a contiguous, otherworldly landscape. It indicates a visual language of interconnectivity despite being devoid of human presence. Mohammed Somji’s photographs on the other hand, take a ground-level viewpoint by mapping out bodies and architectures of play in spaces of recreation employed by South Asian communities in Dubai. The work features a badminton net set up in a public park and a cricket game in an empty sand lot as acts of congregation. By encapsulating these moments of leisure, Somji subverts and transforms the discourse that reduces migrants to their occupations or output.

For Amira Tajdin, the top-down drone image of a grand yet unfinished Emirati villa in the suburb of Khawaneej sets the stage for a couple hanging out, enjoying flamingo pastries, dancing and texting. Her musical video, Negotiating Liberation is a fictional sketch of estrangement, celebration and love. Text messages sent back home appear on the screen, along with music by the Kenyan band Lesasa Jocker & Bilenge Musica, as the recently reunited couple interact, alternating between movement and reflection, life’s pleasures and the ever-present longing for home. This yearning transmutes to desire, taking on a poetic form with Augustine Paredes’ photographic series, Slouching through Bed Spaces, where lyrical fragments are combined with a freeze frame of moments that evoke both an alienation and a coming together. The aftermath of intimate encounters and fluid relationships is implicit, marked by the cropped contours of an inner life: listings for shared rooms, private notes left in a restaurant, crumpled bedsheets, hazy, light-saturated self-portraits.

The act of portraiture is taken to another level in both Vikram Divecha’s and Riyas Komu’s work. While Komu documents the faces of migrant workers in the Gulf from Ethiopia, Kerala, Nepal, Nigeria, Philippines, Pakistan, Philippines and Syria, Divecha reverses the gaze, commissioning non-professional artists to paint his own portrait for a fixed fee equivalent to the amount of time it can buy in daily wages. The 2D results vary from undefined feature-less abstractions to illustrative detail of character and temperament - these diverge from Komu’s painterly expressions of ambition and the future, in which he sometimes splits the image, subtracting color from skin tone.

Both Anahita Razmi and Eisa Jocson present different vocabularies of the body, yet they both evoke modern-day heroines and domestic work, migrant bodies and resistance. Razmi features herself posing in shirts emblazoned with nonsensical phrases from the markets of Tehran, Tokyo, Beijing, Dubai and Istanbul in New Silk Road Patterns #02, a play on Oriental motif, logo mimicry and arbitrary copy. And Jocson performs feminized labour, hybrid oral traditions and karaoke culture in her Bidyoke project.

Jocson is also responding to the musical phenomenon of the ‘Overseas Filipino Musician’ in venues throughout the region. In fact, music threads through many of the works in Love, Labour, Leisure, culminating in Nadia Says’ curated selection, which includes two Iranian all-female groups with the Sufi-influenced goth-pop Mentrix and the rock band The Finches. Originating from other countries in the Middle East including Palestine, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE, some of these musicians are currently refugees in Berlin. Electronic musician Bana Haffar’s melancholic, modular beats and field recordings melds with Rasha Nahas’ brooding, jazzy vocals, Wizzy’s nostalgic tones of Arabic pop, the WYWY duo’s wistful lyrics and the classical strains of Zazuka’s chamber-pop music.

In an ode to diversity and disenfranchisement, Love, Labour, Leisure, which will travel to Berlin, Karachi, Mumbai and Manila, as soon as the pandemic allows, looks at what happens when the flow of bodies becomes a form of cultural exchange.

Nadine Khalil

Nadine Khalil is an independent arts writer, researcher, curator and content specialist. After a decade-long stint in art publishing, she is currently advising art institutions such as the Ishara Art Foundation, Goethe and the NYUAD Arts Center in editorial strategy and content development. She is former editor of Dubai-based contemporary art magazine, Canvas (2017-2020) and Beirut-based magazines A mag and Bespoke (2010-2016). Her writing can be found in Art Review, Ocula, Brooklyn Rail, Goethe’s Art and Thought journal and the Women’s Review of Books. She has authored a series of artist monographs (Paroles d'Artistes) on Lebanese artists Samir Sayegh, Hanibal Srouji and the late filmmaker Jocelyne Saab curated for film festivals such as MidEast Cut and the Arab Independent Film Festival.