Dubai: Sahara Surreal
The Sahara desert is thought of as a vast nothingness. The scorching heat, lack of water and sand instead of infrastructure conspire to create an environment not exactly hospitable. How appropriate then, that The Empty Quarter gallery (named after that other great sand sea and with an address in Dubai - itself once nothing more than dunes under the blistering sun) is presenting an exhibition that looks more closely at the sparsely populated region.
Sahara Surreal brings together photographers Phillippe Dudouit, Aglaia Konrad and Andrew McConnell with designers Florie Sainot and Markus Kayser as well as architect Magnus Larsson. This thoughtful group exhibition is about more than just showing what we know is in the Sahara desert - it is about what is unseen in the desert and about what could be seen with some creative thinking and political will.
Sahara Surreal blends science and technology with imagination and art. Experimental furniture and product designer Markus Kayser brings a solar powered contraption to the Sahara which would look more at home in a Mad Max movie than in the soft sand of northern Africa. The device focuses the rays of the blinding sun into lasers to make glass sculptures from the sand.
World Press Photo winner Andrew McConnell's night portraits of the Saharawi are a beautiful look at a people and area not without controversy. As McConnell explains, "The Saharawi are the indigenous people of Western Sahara, a country in north Africa. Western Sahara was colonised by the Spanish until 1976 when Morocco invaded and took over the territory forcing over half the Saharawi population to flee and set up refugee camps in Algeria. A war was fought until 1991 when a ceasefire was signed, but today the Saharawi population is still divided between the refugee camps in Algeria and the Moroccan controlled territory. Morocco's refusal to allow a referendum means the Saharawi's struggle for self-determination has been forgotten by most of the world."
Also working with the Saharawi is French product designer Florie Salnot. Interested in using design to help solve social problems, Salnot "…designed a technique and specific tools to enable the Saharawi refugees to produce some pieces of jewelry with the very limited resources which are available in their camps, i.e. plastic bottles and sand."
Phillippe Dudouit has been going to northern Mali and Niger to photograph the Toureg and the changing political environment of their territory. In 2008 he photographed the Toureg rebellions as Westerners were being abducted and the tourist industry died. In 2009 he looked at the relationships the local population held with their land and how it was changing. On his last trip in 2010, Dudouit explored the former 'tourist paradise' and population now deprived of the lucrative tourism market.
Architectural photographer Aglaia Konrad contributes what look like surveyor images of unpopulated cities in remote areas of Egypt. An urban planning fiasco, the cities were expected to house thousands but nobody ever moved in and much of the area is still a construction zone. At first glance, it is not clear whether the cities are being build or have been abandoned, but the overwhelming effect is eery and - as the exhibition title foreshadows - surreal.
Rounding out the eclectic group of exhibitors is innovative architect Magnus Larsson. The Sahara Surreal statement text explains his project proposal as "a 6000 km-long barrier of organically shaped habitable structures by injecting Saharan soil with bacteria that petrify the sand." Though it sounds like the makings for a sci-fi movie, Larsson is suggesting an organic approach to moulding the sand and helping it to make shelter from itself.
With Sahara Surreal, the always surprising Empty Quarter continues its trend of beautiful images curated into poignant exhibits through thought provoking subjects. Perhaps the most surprising thing on display at this exhibit is the amazing potential of this under recognized corner of the world.
Empty Quarter gallery
Until October 14, 2011
Gate Village, building 02, DIFC