In July of 2022 I was commissioned by Art Jameel for Park Projects, a new initiative which invited artists to respond to the communal space of the Arts Centre’s waterfront sculpture park in ways which questioned notions of nature and community. In my decade of living in the UAE, I recognised that this time of year in Dubai drew people out of the city, many individuals retreating to hibernate in cooler environments to escape the harsh weather. There was an isolating yet communal fear of getting from point A to point B under the sun’s heat. Exploring the sun and its local relationship to time has always intrigued me and been a baseline for several of my past projects, so I was excited to build on that narrative with Shamsa.
Shamsa is a series of time-based interventions which explore the passage of time through the impact of the sun. The detailed process has been described by Lucas Morin in his short essay titled A Single Ray of Sun:
As part of a series of site-specific commissions titled Park Projects, Nahla Tabbaa created a work in the context of Jameel Arts Centre and the Jaddaf Waterfront Sculpture Park, bringing the Centre’s terraced roofs to the fore. Rather than drawing attention to the park itself and its lush greenery, she focused instead on areas subjected to the gruelling sun, with little or no shade. The title of the work, Shamsa, which translates to ‘sunburst’ or ‘single ray of sun’, is a common woman’s name in the United Arab Emirates. Ironically, one of the biggest banes of life in the country is the sun itself: the star is often vilified, its scorching heat thought to be hostile and unpleasant. With this body of work, Tabbaa attempts to bring back innocence and warmth to the harshness of the sun.
The work embraces a slowed-down mode of production, and the publication at hand offers a rich portrait of the artist’s process. Tabbaa began by laying out a variety of fruit and vegetables on silk frames and left them to dry, repeating the process several times a month from summer to winter. The artist was granted full access to the Centre over a period of several months and could use restricted areas of the building—including its terraced roofs, water tanks and technical zones—as a vast site of production and sun-drying. Prolonged exposure to the sun altered the silks’ whiteness; some fruits stained them dramatically, while others bleached them.
Depending on where the silks were placed on the roof, the saturation of colours varied; some mould even grew, creating speckled stains. The white fabric absorbed its surroundings, taking on a palpable earthiness, documenting the changing seasons. The absence of any mark often revealed another kind of presence, as the many inhabitants of the park and the nearby Dubai Creek, notably ants and birds, indulged in the institution-funded feast.
Some of the dried fruits and vegetables were turned into salts, producing a longer-term output that is directly available to the audience. Unlike produce, which are perishable, salts withstand time; they can either be collected, used, or offered to the community at large. Other ingredients were turned into edibles to be consumed during public presentations of the publication.
Bringing together the artist’s visual and culinary practices, this publication features recipes derived from ingredients dried on the roof of Jameel Arts Centre. Tabbaa uses recipe-writing as a means to draw up analogies and metaphors. Nonhuman beings are personified, given a wide range of feelings and put through evocative processes echoing emotional states, such as uprooting. Her recipes are both instructional and poignant: they evoke a culture of sharing and display a complex knowledge of the materials at hand.
Tabbaa’s interventions, gathered in this artist’s book, act as sundials, as time tellers, measuring the passage of time through the sun. In a city where everyone looks forward to the cooler months, a softer sun signalled the end of the artist’s process.
I envisioned the Shamsa book to read like an almanac of this time period. It is organised by colour swatches I made to document the colours of the sky and water during sunrise and sunset at Art Jameel. The process felt familiar in a historical way, drawing on the romantic intentions of painters who sought to depict temporary landscapes. In Dubai’s urban and industrial environment, finding time to sit and study the sun’s colours was a rare treat. However, the irony of these rapid swatches, each a measure of 30 minutes, was that I was still chasing something which was fleeting, trying to capture and create tangible proof of its special yet momentary existence.
I collaborated with artist and designer Layan Attari who used these swatches to build a linear timeline and create pockets for colours from the fruit and vegetable dyes to live in alongside several recipes. Layan purposefully constructed the folds of the book to interact with the reader in the same intentionally slow and laborious way in which the project was carried out. Altogether, of the 150 copies of this book, 20 are limited editions which come wrapped in a silk cover with three small bags of salts, all stained by the same materials the collection itself mothers.
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