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