All too often, galleries stick to their geographic patches. It was once a quite prevalent practice in the UAE, where a new regional collector base develops patron-like connections with those that specialise in artists from their countries of origin – be it Iran, Arab or otherwise.
The 1x1 Art Gallery has long sat firmly in a niche that is still relatively underexplored here: contemporary Indian art.
Established five years ago by Malini Gulrajani, the gallery now has its centre of operations in Al Quoz, Dubai, in a dominating former warehouse with a black exterior. Since opening, 1x1 has brought some of the foremost names in India’s art scene to Dubai – the likes of Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, both artists and co-founders of Kerala’s forthcoming art biennial, which makes its debut this year, as well as other south Indian luminaries such as NN Rimzon, Vivek Vilasini and the Kolkata-based painter Chittrovanu Mazumdar.
But 1x1’s latest exhibition, Fragile – on show until Thursday – demonstrates a significant offshoot of interest. “I’m looking to expand my market,” says Gulrajani. “The market for Indian contemporary art here is extremely limited – there’s only x number of buyers in the UAE for that and I’m in contact with them.”
Fragile sees a mingling of Indian and Iranian artists at different stages in their careers. Pooja Iranna, for instance, has already had some success in India with her aggressive architectural monoliths built from staple pins – symbols of encroaching, fast-paced construction becoming hutch-like honeycombs of faceless buildings. She’s joined by one Pakistani and three other Indian artists, including excellent work by Parul Thacker, notable here for her Holy Ash, in which the artist uses nylon thread to weave a web around crystals on a canvas. In doing so, she creates a sort of cosmic map or a geography of glimmering inner landscapes.
Of the three Iranians that Gulrajani has included – scouted by the Tehran-based curator Vida Heydari, who will now work closely with 1x1 – Alireza Fani is the outstanding find.
The photographer evokes the patina of fashion imagery, and uses this to depict scenes of domestic humdrum among Iran’s middle class. A couple sit in a charcoal-grey room, on a bleak grey sofa before a blank television. In another, a woman is pensive in front of a stylishly rickety wood dining table. The curtains are drawn behind her, shielding her from the blinding daytime light beyond. In every image, Fani’s subjects have their heads slightly bowed, semi-mourning, semi-praying in a collection of images dubbed A Memorial for Today.
“This is the first time he’s worked with such colour,” says Gulrajani. “Yet they’re very sad and very captivating works.”
Employing the softened tones and clarity of fashion photography here, Fani tells us, is something of a strategy. “The first impression in visual art is more important than the idea that is behind it.
“Though the idea and concept is the final aim of an artwork, it would not be discovered if the image does not itself attract the viewer.”
In each scene, there’s a sense of normality forcing these individuals within themselves. Not simply a routine or a workaday world, but rather the trappings of comfort. All the figures and their environments are styled to appear remarkably familiar to much of Fani’s gallery-going audience: the anonymously international decor, subdued chic dress sense, the MacBook’s apple glowing in the corner of the room. Yet it’s as if, as the poet Philip Larkin once wrote, something is pushing them to the side of their own lives.
“A Memorial for Today is about immobility,” says Fani. “It’s a series representing the passivity that we have long ago accepted and is occupying our today. I tried to show these frizzed people to be like the other accessories and objects in these photographs. None of the characters have any advantage in terms of lighting and posing when I set up each shot. Instead they are presented as if they are just like other objects in the scene – a table, a bed, a glass or a dish.” Fani talks about a slumber that he feels has overtaken Iranians back home. “I think that we really need to change ourselves first, then we can see the changes in our homeland.”