The smell of jasmine is heavy in the air, and only amplifies the claustrophobia of a room that the artist Magdi Mostafa has transformed into a pitch-black tunnel of bass.
Red sensors flash from the walls as they respond to the deep soundwaves that drift out from speakers concealed in the gloom. A grated well in the middle of the room flashes with a strobe suspended inside, creating spikes of light that puncture the darkness.
Mostafa’s sound installation is certainly one of the finest works currently on show at the Sikka Art Fair, which opened in Al Bastakiya on Thursday and continues until March 25. It was created during the Egyptian artist’s three-month stint in Dubai; he is among six artists who have been working out of the heritage quarter since January and are presenting the fruits of their experience during the fair.
This 30-minute piece really captures the “sound of economy” that Mostafa said had struck him about Dubai when he first started his residency there. There’s a feeling of pressure, and the rising bass sounds naturally force one to move around the room in search of solace.
“The sounds that you hear are an accumulation of almost three years of recordings, of water boilers, drainage pipes, washing machines,” says the artist, looking jubilant, if exhausted, on opening night.
Elsewhere in Sikka, Dubai’s studio hub Tashkeel hosts new work by Maitha Demithan, Still Water (2012), which continues the Emirati artist’s use of a flatbed scanner to create her own Ophelia, in a blue dress and submerged in a ghostly stream.
Nearby, the Nigerian artist Abidemi Olownira has created a very impressive assemblage from hunks and strips of leather. Stitching together these pieces, Olownira has painstakingly built a scene of advancing horses, and – as a performative extension of the piece – encourages visitors to clip off a piece of leather that he will sign for them, resulting in the slow erasure of the image.
All works exhibited during Sikka are brand-new, and were commissioned specifically for the event. There are 23 artists taking part, and the bar of quality can be a little uneven at points. Displacement by Firas Audeh, for instance, is a washing machine painted white and permanently on spin. Slightly off-kilter, the machine whirrs, noisy and confusing, in a traditional house.
But there are many highlights here. Isak Berbic, who also teaches at the University of Sharjah’s College of Fine Arts and Design, presents several disparate images – a field of immaculate sand dunes, bougainvillea rattling against a crisp blue sky, the sprawling mess of anonymous construction – and captions them with a narrative about the life of an engineer called “D.M.”, during his time in the Gulf in the 1970s.
We’re never told conclusively whether or not D.M. actually exists. “The ability to make images is truly exclusive to the human species,” reads one of the captions, below an image labelled Sahara Desert which could be any patch of semi-urbanised sand in Ras Al Khaimah. “This is what we have come to name imagination.”
Berbic seems to be playing with ideas of truth and authenticity when we label images and place them in a gallery: there’s some implicit kernel of fiction in this otherwise very believable slide show of a life.
As Sikka continues throughout Art Week – the umbrella event that also encapsulates Art Dubai and Design Days Dubai – it is definitely worth devoting some time to.
But try to catch some of the performances taking place in the courtyards every night of the weekend. Thursday certainly went off with a bang when the performance artist Beloved Boy Chokra burst on to the stage in an explosion of hot pink pigment.
But with more intimate performances over the next week, Sikka offers an ambling, exploratory stroll, taking in eye-opening local talent and presented in one of the city’s most evocative locales.
The Sikka Art Fair continues until March 25, 10am-10pm daily. See www.sikka.ae for the full programme