Following his highly-successful Hammam Tomorrow installation showcased during last year’s edition of Sikka Art Fair, Sofiane Si Merabet— More commonly known as The Confused Arab— returns to the 10-day art event in Dubai’s historic Al Bastakiya neighborhood with a thought-provoking installation entitled Hawa City. An imaginary airport, Hawa City is a continuation of Hammam Tomorrow in that it continues to explore the complexity of Arab identity.
For the installation, the Algerian “cultural cartographer” was inspired by his countless travels. “I quickly realized how airports are to some extent very segmented places. You find yourself with thousands of people, all who are going in different directions, traveling for different reasons,” he says to Vogue.me. “So I started to wonder, who is this guy buying fragrance at the Duty Free and who is he buying it for? And who’s this girl wearing pink sweatpants, and why is she here? Airports show us alterity in a very straightforward way. Lounges versus waiting areas, or visa versus no visa.”
Hawa City is split into two rooms. The first room is called “Suspended Gate”, and contains walls plastered with posters of passports of countries with substantial Arab diasporas to symbolize the dual identities a lot of Arabs have. Here, Si Merabet holds out a row of cards, face down, which represent different passports. Each visitor is invited to randomly select a “nationality” to illustrate how we don’t get to choose our country of origin.
The room is split into two seated areas based on the “passport” that guests choose. For instance, those who select a nationality that doesn’t require a visa to travel around are made to sit on one side, meanwhile, those who pick a nationality that requires a visa to visit most destinations sit on the other.
“I am a French citizen, so every time I travel to Europe I use the European Union line, which is the quickest versus having to wait to go through customs, like many other people,” he says. He goes on to explain that his first reality check came when Britain unexpectedly decided to exit the European Union in 2016. “I immediately thought, will British nationals need a visa to travel around Europe now?”
Si Merabet, who also holds an Algerian passport, admits that he only uses it when he visits his family in the North African country. “At the custom border in Algiers, you don’t have an express line for Algerian citizens, but I find myself with two passports, French and Algerian, to justify my identity. I got inspired by this as it has always reminded me of a card game, depending on who you have in front of you, you have to use the right card,” he says nodding towards a castle of cards layered on top of each other to represent the fragility of identity.
Guests are asked to remove their shoes before they enter the second room, a prayer-like space. Dubbed “The Scanner,” visitors are invited to watch a wall projection of a number of objects, such as olive oil, symbolically seized from the Arab world. The space is littered with plastic-covered suit cases and airport scanner trays that read “work”, “love”, “security”, and “family” to depict the main reasons why people migrate to other parts of the world. “If the scanner is a reference to the physical scan and loss of intimacy we are facing in this common process in airports, the mosque carpet is an invitation to a personal scan and to find or share any emotional baggage we might have,” says the artist.
Hawa City is open to the public until March 26. Admission is free.