Ocula Magazine   |   Insights   |   Exhibition

Maitha Abdalla, who is about to begin her MFA in the U.S. at the highly esteemed CalArts, is having a productive year, with a solo exhibition at Dubai's Tabari Artspace (Scars by Daylight, 2 June–6 September 2021) following her participation at Abu Dhabi Art's group show Beyond: Emerging Artists at London's Cromwell Place (2–13 June 2021).

Maitha Abdalla's Storytelling Invokes Lynch, Dzama, and Emirati Folklore

Maitha Abdalla, The Silence in Carnivals (2021). Oil, acrylic, and pastel on canvas. 203 x 270 cm. Courtesy Tabari Artspace.

While the regulations around the pandemic prevented Abdalla from attending her London opening, she seized the opportunity to activate her latest body of work with a visceral performance that evoked pre-pandemic days.

Visitors lined up against the walls to watch the Emirati artist, sporting a grey featureless mask, engage with Dubai-based artist Camilla Singh in Tabari Artspace. Singh, wearing the sculptural head of an amber-coloured cow, writhed to an amplified hissing sound; whenever Abdalla played the flute, Singh would withdraw, breathing deeply. The atmosphere was primal.

Two white walls in the gallery space feature on the one side, a large canvas encompassing a figure sitting on the floor with their legs splayed against a red background, and three paintings in a line to the right featuring pigs, roosters, and figures engaged in ambiguous activities.

Exhibition view: Maitha Abdalla, Scars by Daylight, Tabari Artspace, Dubai (2 June–6 September 2021). Courtesy Tabari Artspace.

The performance's signifiers resonated with the painting The Silence in Carnivals (2021), which takes up a wall of the gallery. In it, the outlines of a naked woman crouching on baby pink tiles appear next to a squatting figure with a bright yellow cow mask, which occupies the centre of the painting. A green silhouette, perched on a small table, appears to play an unknown instrument.

A beaked human figure stands against a gestural, painterly background.

Maitha Abdalla, Tomorrow is Still Another Day (2020). Acrylic and pastel on canvas. 95.5 x 68 cm. Courtesy Tabari Artspace.

Pink tiles (in physical form) appear inside the gallery as well, in an installation comprising a bathroom wall and floor, a sink on legs, and a photograph of Abdalla, in a pig head this time, guiding a few roosters. The photograph is installed behind a transparent plastic shower curtain, completing the bathroom-like cutout.

The titles of Abdalla's theatrical vignettes point to the beginning of a narrative, yet they don't give everything away.

While Abdalla's filmic props are a gesture towards David Lynch, her paintings have a muted Marcel Dzama quality about them, replete with hybrid beings cavorting or engaging in secret rituals.

Two figures are staged in a pink-tiled room, one sitting on the floor to the left with a papier-mâché pig head, and the other to the right holding a long bird's beak to their face and with feet under her red dress that resemble those of a bird.

Maitha Abdalla, Between Daydreams and Nightmares (2020). Photography E3 + 2 Artist Proofs. 120 x 102.3 cm. Courtesy Tabari Artspace.

Abdalla's depictions of the pig and the rooster as symbols of filth/sin and purity, respectively, come from old folktales passed down from her grandmother. They originate from cultural understandings around Islamic practice.

'All these stories are attached to particular animals, which I find fascinating,' Abdalla says. 'For example, the rooster is said to see angels and the donkey, devils.'

A figure in a green dress sitting on a bench in a pink-tiled room sits with a papier-mache pig head. There are oranges placed on the bench next to her, and she sits with her hands on her knees.

Maitha Abdalla, The Beguiled Space (2020). Photography E3 + 2 Artist proofs. 80 x 74.48 cm. Courtesy Tabari Artspace.

There are allusions religious rituals, too—the sink references ablutions and the artist often wears prayer garments in her performances—but Abdalla's work pertains more to myth and the collective imaginary than religiosity. She also draws from a personal imaginary through a hauntology that expresses the dreams and confusions of childhood.

Scarred by Silenced Nightmares (2021) features a woman with a shaved head and splayed, slightly bloodied legs. One can barely discern the silhouettes of a rooster and dog in the background.

A figure sits on a cloth on a floor with their legs splayed.

Maitha Abdalla, Scarred by Silenced Nightmares (2021). Oil and pastel on canvas. 209 x 155 cm. Courtesy Tabari Artspace.

Dancing stills (2020), on the other hand, is one of two works without any characters. It depicts an empty forest on pale pink ground with faint outlines of the lines of a grid receding into the dark backdrop at an incline. They intimate bathroom tiles.

'I struggled not to add characters to this one... The forest gives you the illusion of the dream and the feeling of being lost and free. It has a sinister feeling to it,' Abdalla explains. 'It represents a moment of abandoning childhood dreams.'

A grouping of trees is painted with a pink ground, and the faint lines of a grid are drawn on top of the scene.

Maitha Abdalla, Dancing stills (2020). Oil on canvas. 155 x 212 cm. Courtesy Tabari Artspace.

There's something intriguing about the way in which Abdalla takes the private space of the bathroom and transposes it to an outdoor setting: a comment on the pangs of adulthood. Eluding Dreams (2021) takes this concept further by situating an abandoned, roofless arched structure around a water basin in the middle of the forest.

A painting by Maitha Abdalla situates an abandoned, roofless arched structure around a water basin in the middle of the forest.

Maitha Abdalla, Eluding Dreams (2021). Oil acrylic and pastel on canvas. 122 x 133 cm. Courtesy Tabari Artspace.

The titles of Abdalla's theatrical vignettes point to the beginning of a narrative, yet they don't give everything away. The surreal elements in her work—an oversized beak, animals' heads, oranges left for a rooster—demonstrate a part of her practice that moves from script to painting to sculpture.

Despite the sense of interiority they exude, her works are like stage sets, where different narrative possibilities arise. —[O]

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