Would we still recognise the Mona Lisa without her enigmatic gaze and alluringly ambiguous smile? This question, in part, drives Jalal Luqman's 2008 work The Hint of a Smile, in which the Abu Dhabi-based artist has subverted Leonardo da Vinci's iconic portrait with a digital fog of overlaid diagrams and inlaid texts.
"These colours tell you her hands are there but only because you rely on your references," says Luqman, gesturing towards a wheat-like glow across the centre of the work. "Imagination and the way we think plays a big role in how we perceive things. If you take any section of this work [in isolation] you wouldn't know it was the Mona Lisa."
The Hint of a Smile is being exhibited alongside works by 11 Emirati artists in Three Generations, which opened to the public on Tuesday in the auction house Sotheby's on New Bond Street in London.
UAE artists abroad
This is the first group show in the UK dedicated entirely to Emirati art. It has been assembled by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (Admaf), a non-profit organisation that nurtures and drives a number of major arts initiatives in the UAE including the Abu Dhabi Festival.
According to the Admaf founder Hoda Al Khamis Kanoo, the assembled works "traverse the four decades of the UAE's existence".
"As the country's visual arts sector continues to mature, this snapshot highlights the determination of three talented generations of artists to explore and express divergent ideas."
Kanoo says that this show fulfils one of Admaf's major objectives to create opportunities for UAE artists to exhibit both at home and abroad. After London, Three Generations will tour to the Arts and Medicine Institute at the Cleveland Clinic in the US before it is shown in Al Dhafra, the UAE's Western Region. Visitors interested in purchasing works on show in Sotheby's will be put in touch with the artist by gallery staff.
What's on show?
All of the 12 pieces have been created in the past decade - from an excellent 2011 collage by the veteran painter Dr Najat Makki, depicting a veiled figure standing before a pharaonic, statuesque form to a graphite and acrylic triptych by Shamsa Al Omaira, who had her first solo show only last year.
This is also a show that highlights a noticeable trajectory of change in the mediums with which artists in the country are working. We see painters such as Makki and sculptors such as Mattar bin Lahej (whose work Depth and Speed dominates the gallery floor in a steeplechase of stainless steel that gives expressionistic form to kinetic movement) alongside the wealth of artists working in new media forms today. Sumayyah Al Suwaidi's portrait has been coquettishly contorted through digital means, while Autobiography 07 by Ebtisam Abdulaziz is an exceptional video work for which the artist donned a black bodysuit adorned with neon green printouts of her bank transactions and wandered through the centre of Sharjah. The work toys with the idea that we are somehow definable by the financial transactions we make. In the most powerful image, this anonymous, void-like figure projects an atmosphere of serenity amid the hubbub of the corniche, as if her shroud of numbers holds some liberating power.
As much as Admaf's exhibition is about generations, it does not set out to fix down a recent art history of the UAE. Instead, we are presented with a group of artists who have proven to have longevity in the homegrown art scene, whether as exhibiting artists or through influence in a mentoring role.
"Every era has its own challenges," says Luqman, who also founded Ghaf Art Gallery in Abu Dhabi, which has previously exhibited several of the artists featured here. "The challenge that the art world now has isn't in the artwork but in the influx of artists. Out of every 30 so-called Emirati artists, imagine the one - the real one - who has to challenge the wannabes."
Time, he says, is the filter. Artists who are prepared to stick at their work will stand out.
A sense of duration and time is shared by a number of works. Mohammed Al Astad, a member of the Emirates Fine Art Society since 1987, created a painting on canvas that is ingrained with specks of iron. He then buried the work at the beach for several weeks, which created a reddish patina of rust across the final piece.
Maitha Demithan has meticulously scanned the bisht (brown robe) once wore by Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the former prime minister of the UAE and late ruler of Dubai. We see the entire robe scrutinised against a flat black background and are left with the sense of an object that exudes the presence of history wrought into its fragile stitches.
Three Generations continues until August 9, Sotheby's, New Bond Street, London. See www.admaf.org for more information