There's Clooney in a kandura, Dubai shot from the hip and a whole lot of enamelled wire on the walls this week. Take a look at what's caught our eye:
Billowy eyebrows and a defined jawline build to a voluminous beard: This man has a look of beatitude as he stares at the camera. His headdress is balanced without the black agal.
Wait now, those eyes are familiar. Yes, that's Russell Brand, the rakish comedian of British extraction. With just a bit of Photoshop wizardry, he's been done up all Khaleeji-style.
Brand is just one of a platoon of A-listers, scientist stars and business moguls that the Abu Dhabi-based artist Mohamed Kanoo has digitally garbed into the dishdasha. Some are more successful than others (Keanu Reeve looks the part, Pavarotti less so).
But while there's going off at a new, unusual tangent in your artwork, there's also taking a sharp handbrake turn. That's exactly what Kanoo has done in this latest exhibition.
Something's happened since last time he exhibited at Meem. Previously, Kanoo took 99 canvases garbed in a subverted version of the shemagh - the red-and-white patterned headscarf found throughout the region - and slotted them together into a cylindrical installation in the gallery. Removing the white pattern on the fabric, but retaining the pattern's texture, Kanoo turned these into an installation-mosaic of bold colours.
He tells us it was an attempt to get away from the "political connotations" that the garment has due to its association with the Arab liberation movements of the 1970s. The work was a focus on pure colour and pure form.
But now Kanoo has shot off in a whole other direction. The works in Fun With Fen ("Fen" meaning "art" in Arabic) are a giddy tangle of Kanoo's myriad interests. There's lots of Star Wars in here, a machine gun loaded with cigars (he puffs on a robust one throughout our interview) and a Red Baron-era plane flying over Abu Dhabi.
"You take all away all the trappings of celebrity and put them in the trappings of our culture and say: 'See, you look just like us,'" says Kanoo, of the stars and starlets mugshots that he's digitally altered. "There's a message in there." There's also a lot of Photoshop. Another work shows a dhow transplanted into The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by the 19th-century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. It struggles against the onslaught of a rough tide, and the vulnerable boat's plight is watched over by the Burj Al Arab in the background.
From the celebrity portraits to this (again) Photoshopped rendition of a Hokusai work, Kanoo's work seems to suggest that some cultural anchorage has been disturbed - everything is washing together, like the tidal wave, and pop culture is entwined with all that one once identified as cultural accumulation.
"A lot of it is just for fun," he suggests. Still, when we talk about his (again) Photoshopped image of a marching army of women, he's a little more open, describing the work as questioning the militarisation of the image of a woman in an abaya in certain countries in the region. "We need to communicate ourselves as Gulf Arabs," he says. "This show is a way of saying to young people here that it's about time we start communicating with the rest of the world. An image is a transmission of ideas without any need for translation."
But what then about the rack of head gear, from a Darth Vader mask to the colonial-era pith helmet, wrapped in regional headdress? Fathoming a coherent message from all this wildly different work is tough at the best of times. The works err on the side of illustration, rather than objects with multiplicity and presence. It'll be good to see where Kanoo develops these ideas from here.
By / The National