Over in Alserkal, artists seek to invert identity clichés

Two summer exhibitions in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue are seeking to turn preconceptions of identity on their head, says Georgina Lavers

Upending a fresh load of laundry onto your wife’s head in the pursuit of a new take on identity wouldn’t seem like the most husbandly of actions, but for Amir Fallah, needs must.

The Iranian-American artist was playing on the idea of capturing identity without using portraiture – that is, without using any of the normal identifying characteristics of a person like their age, gender, or race.

By throwing clothing over his wife’s face, he found that he could capture how she wished to present herself to the outside world, whilst also omitting any of her usual classifications.

Fallah started to commit these ideas to canvas, enlisting candidates that wear a sheet over their faces but have other markets of identity – physical objects – elsewhere in the frame. For his series ‘Almost Home’, currently exhibiting at the Third Line gallery in Alserkal Avenue, Fallah painted Iranian-American immigrants who have not returned to Iran since their departure several decades ago. Working deeply from his own experience, through abstraction and identity he sought to understand what it meant to exist outside one’s homeland.

There is still a persistent view that African art can be easily identified by way of a particular visual vocabulary

Dexter Wimberly, Curator

“What I’m doing is painting a 2D biography of someone,” says Fallah in a video of his work. “All these objects are charged with memories and histories and I’m trying to create a visual language for you to understand who these people are.”

The finished products are hyper-colourful caricatures, with jungles and exotic flowered borders loosely inspired by the Persian rugs that “an Iranian-American household can’t exist without”. Figures are not anatomically correct, and there is no suggestion of their gender – although some viewers, says Third Line PR manager Josephine Mees, assume the figures are female.

Memorabilia in the painting give clues as to the identity of the figure, such as the synthesizer that a film director holds in her hands, or nod to their ideas of the US. In one painting, Mickey Mouse is prominent – it was only when visiting Disneyland, said the sitter, that he felt truly American.

The skin tones, too, subvert the usual expectations of what an Iranian-American must look like, with Fallah making skin candy pink or yellow and thereby denying their identity as ‘other’.

From Iran to the African diaspora, themes of identity were also touched in the exhibition 'A Fast, Moving Sky', curated by Dexter Wimberly. Selecting four artists from vastly different parts of the world who are all in some way connected to the African diaspora, Wimberly sought to dispel the preconception of ‘African art’.

“Despite the number of exhibitions of contemporary African art that have been presented in galleries and museums around the world during the past decade, I believe that there is still a persistent view that African art can be easily identified by way of a particular visual vocabulary,” he says.

“As a curator, I am interested in how artists who are African, or of African descent, are asserting their creativity beyond the boundaries of geographical and ethnic categorisations.”

What I'm trying to do is to paint a 2D biography of someone

Amir Fallah, Artist

Rushern Baker IV, Leonardo Benzant, Andrew Lyght and Valerie Piraino were his chosen cultural hybrids whose works he thought exemplified the complexity of defining this phenomenon; aesthetically as well as geographically. All now reside in the US, emigrating from various countries in Africa.

Valerie Piraino, who was born in Rwanda before moving to the Congo and then to New York, uses fruits native to Rwanda, such as the papaya, as allegories to black bodies and the gold trade, commenting on the history of trade and migration.

Andrew Lyght, meanwhile, uses his experience in construction as well as early childhood memories of flying kites in Guyana to tests the limits of the conventional canvas.

'A Fast, Moving Sky' illustrates how ideas, aesthetics and people are constantly in flux; illustrating, as Wimberly says: “a diverse group of artists that are not following a prescribed African aesthetic, but rather, they are reflecting influences and modes of making that are internationally resonant.”

Both exhibitions can be seen at The Third Line gallery at Alserkal Avenue until 25 July