Dubai, United Arab Emirates — Along the banks of the Creek, Dubai’s first contemporary art museum, the Jameel Arts Centre, confronts the ways in which the discovery of oil in the Arab region has both harmed and benefited the people living there. In its inaugural exhibition, titled Crude, 17 artists working across a variety of media explore the oil industry’s transformative effects, both positive and negative.
Oil is a powerful agent of geopolitical upheaval and socio-economic transformation. The most valuable and highly coveted natural resource, it has also been a trigger for colonial and imperial endeavors, wars, and coups. In the Emirates — where oil has been a catalyst of modernization and nation-building — opening an exhibition with images of oil well fires, bursting with thick, heavy smoke, seems surprising.
Hajra Waheed’s “Plume 1-24” (2017) comprises found images of oil blazes. These images have been removed from their sources and presented without context as un-locatable sites of terror. Burning oil fields also appear in Monira Al Qadiri’s “Behind the Sun” (2013), a video work in which Sufi poetry sourced from national Kuwaiti television archives is layered over scenes from Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (1992), a film documenting the ravaged oil fields of post-Gulf War Kuwait. It’s a western display of apocalyptic doom, which Al Qadiri has now rerouted back to a Middle Eastern sentimentality. In Al Qadiri’s film, phrases like “it’s beautiful/…so beautiful it rivaled the roses/for the heart becomes lost/in a world of beauty” blend into fiery clouds of smoke, evoking both demonic and divine connotations, and referencing the Zoroastrian worship of fire.
Crude excels in criticizing the western discovery of oil in the Middle East, while simultaneously acknowledging how it modernized the region. Artist Latif Al Ani, a former photographer for the British-controlled Iraq Petroleum Company, documented the country’s oil-fuelled transformation by taking black-and-white aerial photographs of its changing landscapes. Another artist working within the region’s oil companies — Houshang Pezeshknia, an illustrator at the Publication Department of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) — presents a starker image of the industry’s human toll. In his untitled paintings from 1958, Pezeshknia — who ultimately had leftist sympathies and championed the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry in 1951 — depicts tired, hard workers, physically affected by the difficult conditions of their oil-related jobs.
Oil has been traded in the Middle East since antiquity; it was used as medicine to treat ailments and as mortar for constructing the walls of Babylon. The first westerner to discover oil in the region was William Knox D’Arcy, who came across it in Masjid-i-Sulaiman, Iran in 1908. Not long after, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (1908) was founded, and British Petroleum (BP) soon followed (1909).
A number of works in Crude address the odd relationship that this discovery formed between east and west. Raja’a Khalid’s collages (2013-2017) show Western women wearing Middle Eastern fashions, with one woman even dressed in fabric printed with “Aramco,” the name of what was once an Arabian American Oil Company based in Saudi Arabia. (It’s now been replaced by “Saudi Aramco”, a purely state-owned enterprise.) The works recontextualize images found in American print media archives — such as a 1949 issue of Life magazine and a 1961 Dhahran Girl Scouts’ calendar book — that documented the daily lives of expatriates.
With a focus on historical lacunae and forgotten pasts, Crude challenges the linear narrative of hegemonic histories. Hajra Waheed’s “The ARD: Study for a portrait 1-28” (2018) uses company archives to question the way Aramco’s official history has been narrated, resulting in fragmented portraits that visualize what history omits. The series includes photographs of men smiling at their desks with thick black lines drawn over their eyes; an image captioned “unionization: failed attempt”; and a document labeled “our stolen oil.”
Manal AlDowayan puts a personal perspective on the history and legacy of Aramco. To create “If I forget you, don’t forget me” (2012), she went through private archives and oral histories of pioneering Saudi Arabian oilmen and women to create collages that comprise stamps, ID photographs, and handwritten notes.
The sculpture work featured in Crude is strong. Monira Al Qadiri’s futuristic “Flower Drill” (2016) series twists along the ceilings like oversized cosmic oil rig drills. Nearby, Hassan Sharif’s installation of wire-bound flip-flops (“Slipper and Wire,” 2009) warns us that even if we become less reliant on oil, it will be even harder to evade plastic. Rayyane Tabet’s “Steel Rings” (2013) — made to the exact proportions of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline route from Al Qaisumah in Saudi Arabia to Sidon in Lebanon — are spread across the gallery floor, reminding us that pipelines constantly transgress established borders in order to turn profits.
It is worth comparing this exhibition — taking place in a nation often associated with its oil — to Japanese artist Noriyuki Haraguchi’s “Matter and Mind,” which was installed in Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 1977. “Matter and Mind” comprised a low metal container filled with oil, creating an opaque black, shimmering service. What made the presence of the black substance within the Tehran Museum so significant is that the budget for the selection of art that was first displayed there came directly from the National Iranian Oil Company.
The black substance in question hardly appears at all in Crude. It’s visible only in Lydia Ourahmane’s “Land of the Sun” (2014), in which a lemon tree sits in a rubber tire floating in a shallow pool of oil.
In its unrefined state, crude oil is a coarse, opaque, and slippery liquid. The exhibition in Dubai leaves it open to critique, reminding us how this often-invisible substance has seeped into our lives, helping to build — and destroy — the modern world.
Crude is on view at the Jameel Arts Centre (Jaddaf Waterfront, between Business Bay Bridge and Garhoud Bridge on the Bur Dubai bank of the Dubai Creek, Dubai, UAE) through March 30, 2019. The exhibition was curated by Murtaza Vali.