Sabrina Amrani is pleased to present the first solo show in Spain by Manal Al Dowayan. The exhibition And I, Will I Forget? displays a selection of works from an eponymous series that delves into the transience of memory and the act of reappropriating narratives. The silkscreens on board, canvas, paper, aluminium and copper plates are inspired by her father's journey from Saudi Arabia to the USA in the 1960s-1970s.
An expansion of her former works, And I, Will I Forget? invites the viewer to explore the mechanisms of memory and the means to counter erasure and disappearance. These themes are dear to Al Dowayan, whose practice is marked by an eagerness to create pieces about formless and invisible phenomena: oblivion and its opposite, remembering.
When she was 12, her father gave her a tin box containing 1,000 Kodachrome slides that he had taken between 1962 -leaving Saudi Arabia to the USA- and 1973 when his daughter was born. He documented his new environment for his family and reciprocally took pictures of Saudi girls and boys dressed in their best attire to keep with him and share with his friends in the USA. For his daughter, they were simple toys she would play with and classify. At 19, understanding the images were an attempt to bridge the gap of a radical disconnection from home, Al Dowayan faced silence. Her father had started to deteriorate into Alzheimer and was not able to answer her questions. It became impossible to decipher the locations and identify the protagonists. Were the images developed at some point? The prints never survived. The slides remained as custodians of an enigmatic memory with no recorded history.
In 2015, during a residency at the Rauschenberg Foundation in Florida, the artist decided to reappropriate and transform the photographs by injecting a new narrative into them. The result is a body of works at the threshold of fact and fiction, of remembrance and invention: the collection gathered eventually reflects her own, personal, journey through the images of someone else. Her father's pictures now have an existence and a space to communicate from. The technique and medium chosen echo this quest: the works are accessible, unframed, open to the eye and to the senses -touchable, foldable, alive. The encounter is affected by the raw materiality of the silkscreens laid bare, challenging what we see.
And I, Will I Forget? is a tessellation of multilayered memories and stories as the use of copper and metal evokes. Inspired by Robert Rauschenberg, who extensively played with appropriation, the artist interestingly used the same copper stock as him - transferring some of his own memory into the pieces. Al Dowayan has printed some images repeatedly, almost obsessively, referencing the functioning of memory and its different intensities. Depending on the moment, we remember things with more or less details, lighter, darker, distinct or blurred. Memories evolve, navigating between ellipsis and sparkles. Sometimes we are unable to recall the past; conversely, unexpectedly and in a burst, flashes help us reassemble forgotten details. The materials used (copper, canvas, paper, aluminium) convey these ideas. The fact the same image is printed several times on multiple media offers different readings of the same memory. Depending on the tones and textures, the repeated, overlapping and re-looped photographs seem to be frozen images, moving images or almost anomalies. They can be seen from afar or disclosed in a close up. The exploration of memory's frailty is consistent with most of Al Dowayan's previous works such as "If I Forget You, Don't Forget Me" (2012). By way of portraits, she photographed objects that men and women from oil families kept throughout their whole life -objects that came to embody their energy, presence and aura. Her pieces remind us how frail we are as humans. No matter how much we collect and document, our memory is threatened with being lost at any moment.
One of the images in And I, Will I Forget? is a mermaid that evokes a kind of melancholy. The artist discovered a missing piece of the puzzle when she learned it was the Little Mermaid sculpture found in Copenhagen's port. Back in the 1960s, when young Saudis were sent out on scholarships to study in the USA they transited through Europe. Trying to understand what her father was feeling during that period, she realised in-betweenness is a crucial thread tying together the collection. Al Dowayan is fascinated by the high potentiality of liminality, in the sense of a space where we become neutral to our past and future. In Copenhagen, her father was probably in this transitory moment; he might have been scared or brave -a very human situation. Who hasn't felt so when moving from one country to another on a new adventure?
Her father's emotions resonate with contemporary migration movements and elicit reflection on the impact they have on memory, heritage and oral transmission. The first week he was in the USA, the artist's father was photographed as a cowboy. Immediately he was introduced to a new culture and needed to blend in. His past was forgotten, but as soon as he came back to Saudi Arabia he had to become fully Saudi again, prove his belonging to the land. He was part of the first generation to undertake that cross-cultural journey, which might explain the numerous photographs of monuments, cars and natural wonders such as forests, waterfalls and lakes. Coming from the desert, he could not fathom the idea of pools full of water with people swimming in them. These images and jazz and blues records are what he brought back home with him -tiny hints of how it felt to be in-between spaces and experiencing the joy, excitement, loss and alienation that come with migration.
Going beyond the generational gap, the delicate pieces of And I, Will I Forget? recover the emotions embedded in the photographs of Al Dowayan's father and offer to share a timeless human experience. They speak of the longevity of migratory movements and of humanity's attempts to archive memory. With time passing by, there is always uncertainty. Memories and stories are subjected to continuous changes and adjustments. Wisely, Al Dowayan embraces storytelling against vacuum, creation against forgetting and life against disappearance.
Text by Clelia Coussonnet
Press release courtesy Sabrina Amrani Gallery.