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Emirati Artist Zeinab Alhashemi Shares the Story Behind Her History-Making Installation

Conceptual Emirati artist Zeinab Alhashemi designs her installations as site-specific commentaries that focus on the cultural traditions of the Arabian Peninsula.

Zeinab Alhashemi

Zeinab Alhashemi. Photo: Saeed Khalifa

In a historic debut at the Theseus Temple in Vienna, Alhashemi became the first Emirati artist to showcase her work at the site. There May Exist is an enthralling installation crafted from oil barrels transformed into a striking pyramid. Through this evocative piece, Alhashemi delves into the profound metamorphosis that has swept through the United Arab Emirates since the revelation of oil. Viewers are invited to contemplate the shifting landscape of the region, and the enduring legacy of cultural traditions as they engage with the installation.

On display until October 13, 2024, There May Exist, will allow visitors to immerse themselves in Alhashemi’s thought-provoking installations and explore the enduring cultural significance of camels in the UAE.

What is the inspiration behind your installation, There May Exist?

My installation, There May Exist at the Theseus Temple, explores how humans and animals adapt together to their environment. It delves into the transformative impact of the oil boom in the Gulf region and the enduring significance of camels in local culture. The artwork is an evocative composition of oil barrels transformed into a pyramid, symbolizing the profound metamorphosis that has swept through the United Arab Emirates since the revelation of oil.

As the first Emirati artist to showcase her work at The Theseus Temple, tell us more about the experience.

The Theseus Temple is a classical building in the Volksgarten Wien, Vienna, built in the first half of the 19th century. The original sculpture is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM), and every year an artist is commissioned for a single artwork that is showcased as a part of the Public Art Program. Being the first Emirati artist to showcase my work at The Theseus Temple, was a monumental experience. It provided me with a platform to share insights into the cultural evolution of the UAE and its artistic expression on a global stage, fostering dialogue and understanding between different cultures. Being commissioned by the KHM, has been a year in planning and development. This is not my first international commission, but it’s a highlight in my art practice and growth.

Can you tell us more about the creative process of transforming oil barrels into a striking pyramid?

My creative process involved deconstructing and repurposing oil barrels into a striking pyramid using welding, shaping, and upholstery techniques. The textured surface of the pyramid, reminiscent of camel hide, serves as a metaphor for the resilience and adaptability of both Emiratis and camels, in response to surviving in the harsh environmental conditions of the past.

What were the challenges during the creation process?

Throughout the creation process, sourcing materials and ensuring structural integrity posed significant challenges. Additionally, I grappled with capturing the nuanced relationship between progress and decline, as reflected in the transformation of the oil barrels and their symbolism in the context of cultural evolution.

What is the message that you want to communicate through your artwork?

Through There May Exist, I aim to raise awareness about environmental sustainability and the impact of human activity on the planet which I call, Human Interference or Dominance on Nature. The pyramid symbolizes the ascent of progress fueled by the discovery of oil, while also prompting viewers to reflect on the cultural heritage of the UAE, and the ongoing quest for identity amidst industrialization. The link between progress and decline also reverberates through my work. As Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, founder of the Emirate of Dubai, explained: ‘My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel.’

Camel hide is central in your artistic exploration, can you tell us more about using this material in your artworks.

In my sculptural works, I utilize camel hides dyed in Al Ain, an oasis city in the UAE. The camel hides all come from the slaughter houses in the GCC. By mounting the leather on various surfaces, I create sculptural landscapes that blur the boundaries between disparate forms and objects, reflecting the interconnectedness of nature and human experience.

How does your installation reflect and honor the cultural and historical context of the UAE?

There May Exist, reflects and honors the cultural and historical context of the UAE by incorporating elements of traditional craftsmanship and symbolism. The camel hide sculptures serve as symbols of cultural continuity and resilience, inviting viewers to engage in a visual dialogue on the rich heritage of the Arabian Peninsula.

How important is it to preserve heritage and tradition through art?

Preserving heritage and tradition through art is paramount to maintaining cultural identity and fostering a sense of belonging. Through my artwork, I strive to preserve and celebrate the legacy of the UAE’s heritage, while also encouraging dialogue and reflection on its evolution in the modern era.

Originally published in the May 2024 issue of Vogue Arabia

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