If you’re searching for a phrase that captures the process of discovery and introspection that artists – along with the wider community – experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than ‘Grey Times’, the exhibition that recently opened at the Fire Station Garage Gallery.

The exhibition, which runs until 24 July, is a collective display of the works of the various artists who took part in the Fire Station’s latest Artist in Residence programme, including artworks by alumni and faculty of Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar (VCUarts Qatar).

Work by VCUarts Qatar alumni Naila Al Thani
Work by VCUarts Qatar alumni Naila Al Thani
VCUarts Qatar alumni Ebtesam Al Hothi
VCUarts Qatar alumni Ebtesam Al Hothi

The artists – Amena Al Yousef, Ebtesam Al Hothi, Hadeer Omar, Hind Al-Saad, Latifa Al Kuwari, Majdulin Nasrallah, Mariam Rafehi, Maysaa Almumin, Naila Al Thani and Noor Alshebani – used a variety of media platforms such as painting, etching, sculpture, audio-visual display, augmented reality and installations, to explore topics as diverse as identity, confinement, dreams, memories, the environment, displacement, and human responses – through the lens of the unprecedented changes that the pandemic has wrought on mankind.

Inside, Outside

A full-size hammock fashioned out of barbed wire; a walk-in booth that uses over 60 pillows and audio-visuals to re-create the immersive experience associated with dreams; sculptures incorporating sand collected from different locations in Qatar; a multimedia installation of naturally occurring pigments; and images that portray the transformation of suffering into power are just a few of the artworks that bring the two conceptual strands of the exhibition – ‘A Look Inside’, and ‘A Look Outside’ – to life.

Grey Times Majdulin Nasrallah
Majdulin Nasrallah

One of the exhibits, an interactive metal cage designed by artist and VCUarts Qatar instructor Majdulin Nasrallah, reflects the contrasting emotions of liberation and confinement that humans in different parts of the world face due to the transitory nature of political borders, and human migration or displacement. Nasrallah graduated from VCUarts Qatar in 2017 with a BFA in Interior Design and in 2019 with an MFA in Design Studies.

Mohasir-Mohasar‘, which translates as ‘Trapper-Trapped’ or ‘Besieger-Besieged’ can be interpreted in many ways, says Nasrallah. She said that her work is a metaphor for a state of siege, with the bars of the cage protruding both outward and inward, allowing two people to have a seated conversation, but with the barrier of the metal bars separating them.

The concept, she said, could relate to a host of real-life occurrences around us: migration, the pandemic, or the political blockade of a country. For some, it could symbolise the emotional barriers they feel with those around them – the emotional isolation they may have even when they are in the midst of a group of people.

Additionally, in order to juxtapose the feeling of confinement with one of independence, I designed an opening on the roof of the installation to indicate that though one can be geographically stuck in a place, that person could be enjoying the freedom of thought.

For Alshebani, a VCUarts Qatar Painting + Printmaking alumna and multidisciplinary artist who draws inspiration from Islamic patterns and symbols, the uncertainty that the pandemic brought reminded her of a very personal journey – motherhood.

Her display, titled ‘Pages’, mirrors the feeling of ambiguity and concern that she said she experienced becoming a mother.

When I knew I was pregnant, I was delighted; but I was also awash with doubt at my abilities to cope, and my future. To combat that feeling, I started writing my thoughts, writing them down in scraps of paper. I wrote them in concentric circles, to show that by revolving around my faith – and not losing my focus on it – I could surmount any challenge. And rather than throw them away, I saved the pieces of paper and fashioned them into this piece of art.

Artist in Residence

The Fire Station’s nine-month Artist in Residence programme provides artists residing in Qatar with an opportunity to develop their art practices. Participants are given studio space in the Fire Station building, in addition to mentorships, workshops with curators, open studios and access to the building’s facilities.

VCUarts Qatar alumni and faculty have been participating in the programme since its launch. This year, the initial plan for the residency exhibition was to focus on the relationship between visual arts and literature. However, due to the pandemic, and the resulting limitations to the accessibility of resources and supplies, the theme was reassessed and redesigned to the current theme.

‘Grey Times’ is curated by Dr Bahaa Abudaya and Saida Al Khulaifi.

For more information about VCUarts Qatar, visit qatar.vcu.edu.

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