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The number game

Shailaja Tripathi
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art dubai Ebtisam Abdulaziz is negotiating space for her unique voice in the Arab art world. Shailaja Tripathi

Ebtisam Abdulaziz was faced with multiple challenges to tackle when she was starting her career as an artist in the UAE, the country she belongs to. She was doing conceptual art when it had not really made it to the Emirati art scene, and that she was a woman made it even more difficult. She had no woman artists to look up to. “I, as a woman artist, did not get any inspiration from any woman artist.” That, in a way, led her into being a unique voice charting territories her predecessors had not gone into.

More than a decade later, Ebtisam is one of the leading artists of the country. An influential figure in the art world, she figures in the ‘100 most powerful Arab women in 2013’ survey done by a business magazine of the country.

So when you are in Dubai for Art Dubai, you can’t ignore her. Her works are on display at four places simultaneously — Emirati Palace in Abu Dhabi, Annual Exhibition of Fine Arts Society in Sharjah, a performance piece at Dubai Community Theatre and Art Centre, and four pieces at Sikka Art Fair, which is part of Art Dubai currently on in the city.

“I think I have been very smart at my game. Being in a Muslim country, being a woman and using your body to talk about issues is not very easy, but I have done it without offending people. I have done it subtly and intelligently,” says the artist.

She says she was fully covered when she did a performance piece using abstract body movements. “I had made these circles and I passed through these circles. I was not showing my body, so nobody could say that I crossed any line, and also because I respect religion and people’s sentiments. I was talking about the life of women... full with limitations. Her problems are like a circle which is never ending,” explains the artist.

Ebtisam works with diverse media, producing work that combines technology, video, photography and mathematical elements.

It is interesting to note that her discourse is not about women in Arab society. Instead she chooses to cast her gaze at everything happening around her. At the 53rd Venice Biennale, the artist wore a black body suit with numbers printed on it. The numbers were nothing but Ebtisam’s money transactions she had collected from her bank statements. The idea dealt with how the citizens are drawn into the vortex of numbers by the government. In 2010, she did an interesting work around the idea of boundaries where she remapped the Arab world.

Ebtisam practises the unique genre of systematic art, where forms are based on careful calculations and equations.

That vocabulary brings complication to her work, and she likes it. “I want to do everything with an Ebtisam touch... something which is not easy because there are times, there are aspects of my life which I don’t understand. I love to have a dialogue with the viewer.”

Ebtisam didn’t go to any art school and she feels good that she didn’t. “Because the new generation of artists coming out of the art schools has a very European language. But in my case art is in my blood. I was a bit different and my father and family understood it. While growing up there were no proper art institutions. So I had two options — either to be an art teacher or to pursue art. I chose the latter.”

…I have done it without offending people. I have done it subtly and intelligently.


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