From the nature of its title – The Beginning of Thinking is Geometric – and the fact it opened in Sharjah one week into Ramadan, you might assume this exhibition would be formulated from traditional Islamic art, but nothing about Sara Raza’s curatorial approach is predictable.
She has taken what could easily be construed as a very large bite into the profound subject of the thinking sciences and offered us a healthy portion of contemporary art that inquires into the creative use of geometry.
“There is a philosophical underpinning here,” she says. “Geometry has been overused, especially in terms of Mena [Middle East and North African] culture, so the whole idea was to reject that and go back to the origin of it and the idea of truth.”
Whether it is from the vantage point of Jamal Taraya Baroudy’s vinyl-finished benches stamped with digital patterns made from a reimagined eight-point star or in Ebtisam Abdulaziz’s map of Africa, which is drawn through a graphic code based on letters and numbers and flattening out the oh-so-loaded world of global politics, the somewhat daunting subject of mathematical theory seems more approachable.
The soundtrack, too, is a long way from the stuffy preconceptions that geometric thinking might conjure up. Even before you enter the main gallery at Maraya Art Centre, where the show is taking place, the heavy bassline of Fatima Al Qadiri and Alex Gvojic’s Ghost Raid hints at the sensory experience to follow. This work in particular is an example of how far Raza’s curatorial reach can stretch. The two-and-a-half minute video, which features shape-shifting, triangular, machine-like objects in a gaming format set to hypnotic music, is based on Al Qadiri’s memories of living in Kuwait through the First Gulf War. It is described in the catalogue as an “imaginal technologically-driven syntax on war and memory”.
“It is also based on navigational mapping,” explains Raza. “When bombs are dropped, they are not done so at random, so it all goes back to geometry.”
During her guided tour, she sweeps through the exhibition with a fount of knowledge on each artist and an academic approach. I take a step back after Raza’s guided tour and contemplate the whole. Although vastly different, with such clear direction, each piece comes to light in the context of her words.
Ala Ebtekar’s site-specific wall drawing, one of only two figurative pieces in the show, is reminiscent of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, but on second look, the artist’s Iranian roots can be traced as well as a sprinkling of hip-hop culture.
“Geometry is also about the mapping of the body,” says Raza. “There was a Central Asian polymath from the 11th century called Al Biruni who did a lot of study between body and space and this work alludes to this as well as being based on the idea of using spheres to create personalities.”
At the other end of the hall is an ephemeral dome made from the seedpods of the senna plant. Mobius, a design collective of three young Emiratis from Dubai, completed the laborious process just hours before the opening and are an example of a different part of Raza’s remit.
“I am very much interested in the post-oil or the YouTube generation who have grown up with the internet and are so much involved in new technologies,” she says, explaining too, that she is writing a doctorate on post-Soviet Asia but is professionally focused on the Gulf, where there is a phenomenally young population.
“There are a lot of new names here, which is a good thing,” says Abdulaziz, who lives in Sharjah and is one of the UAE’s foremost practitioners. “Everyone thinks of geometry in a different way, which also makes what Sara has done really interesting.”