Almost every Arab you will meet will have one jinn story or another. This is because folklore is deeply rooted in the Middle Eastern and North African culture, and has been told for centuries for both entertainment purposes and for teaching a valuable lesson to children. Drawing upon this idea is artist Debjani Bhardwaj, who is set to launch a solo exhibition at Tashkeel’s Nad Al Sheba space entitled “Telling Tales”, which serves to explore the fantasy universe rooted in traditional Omani and Emirati folklore. The event, which will take place from September 18 to October 30, will translate some of the most popular folktales from the Gulf by way of intricate drawings, paper-cuts, and installations, including the famous Omani story about a woman who married her daughter off to a palm tree, and the Emirati folktale of “Salama and her daughters”.
The exhibition is a part of the fourth edition of The Critical Practice Program, an annual initiative by Tashkeel that offers sustained support for practicing contemporary artists living and working in the UAE. The program generally culminates in an exhibition, thus how “Telling Tales” came to life.
Below, Bhardwaj, who splits her time between the UAE, Oman, and New Delhi, discusses the inspiration behind the ethereal exhibition, the works that will be on display, and shares some of her favorite folktales that informed the exhibition.
On the inspiration behind the exhibition
“I visited folktales from this region and found them intriguing. I hope that this exhibition would help to revive an interest in them. Folktales from the Middle East were not merely narrated to amuse and entertain but are also instructive moral tales, intended to teach important life lessons to the younger generation. Behind the shiny gorgeous surfaces of folktales we can glimpse an entire history of childhood, family, society, and cultural norms. The genre’s themes are real-life themes and the passions real-life passions: getting by and getting what you want, knowing the odds are stacked and that all might be lost. Luck is powerful but resourcefulness is praiseworthy. They also help to make sense of unexplained phenomena such as natural disasters and teach children to exercise caution.”
On some of her works in the exhibition
“There are primarily two types of works in this exhibition – tunnel books and kinetic toys. I have played with scale in the tunnel books which are miniature, medium, and large sized. They also involve the interplay of lights and shadows. The medium-sized tunnel books are laboriously cut by hand while for the miniature and large tunnel book, I found it necessary to transition to laser-cutting in order to cut minutely-detailed figures on thicker and sturdier sheets of plastic and paper. Making laser cuts involves drawing an image and digitizing it to send to the laser cutter; at that point the whole question of drawing and cutting came to full-circle. I started to play with that challenge. Some of the toys have old-fashioned hand drawn animation and all of them deal with a degree of audience interaction. The viewers are not simply passive observers but are intended to become integral part of the pieces.”
On some of the Emirati and Omani stories that inform her work
“The story of Salama and her daughters: a giant jinn is said to reside at the bottom of the Strait of Hormuz. Whenever a ship happened to pass by, Salama would start to dance, creating giant waves and deadly whirlpools designed to sink them. She and her daughters were then said to devour the drowning sailors. Seafarers passing the area kept stocks of dates, sheep, goats, and chickens to throw into any whirlpools they spotted as a sacrifice.
“Another tale is about a half-man half-donkey character called Hemrat al Ghailah. The vicious creature is said to devour little children who play in the heat of the afternoon sun. This story is told with an intention to ensure that children stay within the safety of their homes when temperatures are soaring in the afternoons.
“There is also a story about a lady jilted in love, who turns into an alluring jinn named Umm al Duwais, who takes grisly revenge by killing men who have been unfaithful to their wives; stories of small children being damaged; a mother who marries her daughter off to a palm tree; three sisters fall into a well for disrespecting their father, etcetera. Yes, these stories are unrealistic, but these situations are echoed even now in the news. Superstition, infanticide, and personal animosity are recurrent dangers and their victims devise ways of opposing them, avenging themselves on their perpetrators and of turning the status quo upside down. Women oppose male authority by being perseverant, strong, and wise.”
On the most challenging piece to create
“The most complex of the pieces I created is titled ‘Tricksters, Aliens, and Shape Shifters’. It is an interactive wooden toy inspired by a game I used to play as a child. It involved developing four characters from the folktales I researched . These characters are anthropomorphic jinns Umm Al Duwais, Umm Al Heilan, Baba Daryah, and Hemrat al Ghailah. The piece has 12 movable faces hand-drawn on wood, and each of the 12 faces fits into the others. Designing this piece was like making a puzzle and I had to solve the puzzle myself first. I had to draw the segments countless times before I got it right.”
On choosing paper-cut art to express the concept of folklore
“There’s an instinctive compatibility between folktales and paper-cut art. It seems like a medium particularly well-suited to folktales — folktales have elements of fantasy and imagination, the impossible becoming possible and paper-cutting is magical in itself. Perhaps it’s no coincidence Hans Christian Andersen was a paper-cutter himself. I am interested in the dichotomy between the beauty of the medium and the edginess of the message that fairytales convey. The initial impression of beauty conveyed by a delicate, lace-like cut paper piece is challenged the moment the viewer realizes what’s actually taking place in the scene. Moreover paper-cut art is and the shadows they generate are delicate and ephemeral. This is similar to folktales which are transient and might get altered slightly with every act of retelling, like a game of Chinese Whispers.”
“Telling Tales” will run from September 18 to October 30, from 10am to 10pm, Saturdays to Thursdays at Tashkeel, Nad Al Sheba, Dubai.