A ‘Menu Poem’ and All That Follows
By Daniel H. Rey
with inputs from Sam Ixcaragua, Ji Young Kim, and Anna Bernice
Published on April 1st, 2021
If you have visited Dubai’s maisan15, a cafe-gallery and launchpad for the UAE’s emerging curators, you have heard one too many times the sentence “the menu is on our Instagram.” Saved in their Instagram highlights, one of the city’s most indulged upon menus understands the medium of its crowd. But, what happens when that “Instagram Menu'' gets intervened?
During the months of February and March, visitors of maisan15’s Instagram have been greeted with a commissioned ‘Menu Poem’: Si Escuchas con la Lengua/When You Listen with your Tongue, written by Abu Dhabi-based Cristalina Parra. The Menu Poem is one of the fifteen artworks presented at maisan15 within This Lark Sips at Every Pond: Women as Artist and Muse, curated by Sarah Daher. Featured artists include Aliyah Alawadhi, Amina Yahia, Cristalina Parra, Juletta, Marta Lamovsek, Mashael Alsaie. The exhibition, on view until April 10th, seems to be titled with a mouthful, but that is its point: to introduce us to women pursuing their creative impulses – all of this, while getting our mouths full with a wagyu melt or a mashallah zinger.
Having curated the previous exhibition at maisan15, I was lucky to return to a brand new show, this time with my friends Sam, Ji Young, and Anna Bernice. Our burger bites alternated with our genuine curiosity for the space. To start us off, we read the curatorial statement and grabbed some sticker memes cornered in the cashier counter, which added an element of playfulness and memorabilia to the experience.
With the wall, curator Sarah Daher asks “What does the muse become when it is diffracted through the eye of a female artist? Where can inspiration dwell? How can it be tapped? And who can sip from which pond?” Also in Daher’s words, the exhibition “addresses the theme of the muse, responding to the historical trajectory of females as fountains of inspiration.”
“What does the muse become when it is diffracted through the eye of a female artist?”
Daher is urging us to have a playful and multidisciplinary dialogue about the concept (read: construct) of muses in the arts. Her curatorial statement contextualizes the exhibition while also giving us an express rundown of male-artist female-muse relationships. While I worry that all references allude to Euro-American men (mentioned without their first names even), maybe that is the point worth dissecting. For what it’s worth, Daher masters the art of metaphor in her writing, to the extent of employing images of water to raise an important point: that “the tide is turning [and] we sit on the crest of a new wave in which the art world begins to build recognition for the multitude of talented female artists creating work today.” My takeaway is that the curator expresses this, not as a conclusive statement, but as a process we shall continue bearing witness to.
Our friends’ collective impression is that this exhibition is framed in response to Western art history, which is, in itself, a hot take – yes, maybe hotter than the chicken shawarma pizza in the oven. How does Daher reconcile a rich art-historical discussion with the flavorful distractions of a hip cafe?
How does Daher reconcile a rich art-historical discussion with the flavorful distractions of a hip cafe?
To her credit, the curator is rather aware of the different layers making up the cafe experience: images, sound, interaction with the menu, and the proximity to the artworks based on where one sits to eat.
Greeting the works in the space, we first encounter Aliyah Alawadhi’s vibrant paintings against maisan’s concrete walls. From what we see, her work elevates women beyond muses: as protagonists, agents, bearers of gaze, and instigators of their rituals, revenges, and glories.
Next to Bitter Herb, we see a video, also by Alawadhi, in which she glitches footage of maisan15 captured in the fall of 2020. Alawadhi is a skilled animator and glitcher herself with a crucial approach to women’s role in that medium. Daher, as the curator, presents the video intending to highlight the wide spectrum of media (painting and video) that one sole artist is able to cover. Nonetheless, this connection is not as straightforward for the labels are not easy to find. The connection might also be counterintuitive since the mediums are rather different. The glitched video feels dissonant with the rest of the space, more as if it is part of maisan15’s in-house collection, than part of This Lark’s exhibition. Yet, the point remains key to know: Alawadhi is not a muse but a master – not of one, but of many mediums.
Alawadhi is not a muse but a master – not of one, but of many mediums.
Anna Bernice tells me that the artworks in Sarah’s show intervene in the cafe gallery space “in an intriguing manner.” Case in point, are Amina Yahia’s portraits of her sister Malak and herself placed on opposite sides of the main dining corridor. Bernice adds that “the juxtaposition of Amina’s artworks on either end of the wall lead the visitor to pause and ponder through the female artist’s gaze. The soft blue in contrast with the dark maroon offers a feeling of warmth and serenity that leads the viewer to wonder and perhaps imagine the world within which these artworks take place." Ji Young also commends this curatorial choice: “The part that worked really well was the woman from the back. It shows how females are portrayed from a female lens. That was a very powerful piece to send that message, how a female portrays a female. The color contrast and position contrast between that art[work] and the one across, was also fantastic given you can see so much emotion in both the face and the back. It makes you imagine the backstory.”
7. Installation views of maisan15 corridor. Images courtesy of Sarah Daher.
Sam further agrees, “When I walked in, I first saw a mix of pieces that had been made by women, and were either very blatantly fighting the idea of women as muses… or women going beyond the muse, almost to be inspired by the essence of a woman instead of her looks, as did the piece that showed the back of a woman. Then, upon turning to the area where the booths are, I thought the curator was exploring the idea of ‘alternative muses’ by showing pieces which had either men, or the city, as their muse.” Sam’s phrasing of ‘alternative muses’ leaves me wanting to return to it.
“I thought the curator was exploring the idea of ‘alternative muses’ by showing pieces which had either men, or the city, as their muse.”
- Sam IxcaraguaIn the dining booths we are introduced to Marta Lamovsek and Mashael Alsaie’s photography, each granting us a rather intimate moment with a muse or a landscape photo as we eat. Evoking androgyny, Lamovsek’s portraits depict male muses that speak to a much needed reversal of artist-muse roles. Parallel to that, it is worth questioning whether Lamovsek’s signature portraits evoke an aesthetic composition that, while creative and full of mastery, reads as a melange of objects whose cultural significance might be overlooked. A conversation with the artist is something I look forward to in hopes of learning more about her visual language.
Lamovsek’s portraits depict male muses that speak to a much needed reversal of artist-muse roles.
Alsaie, on the other hand, presents landscape photography of bodies of water. The photographs, while not being directly about muses, shows the skillful craft of the photographer. Without depicting human bodies, Alsaie’s work is a confirmation of the exhibition’s subheader: “women as artists.” Her work in the exhibition ties back to mythology surrounding women in the Kingdom of Bahrain. The legend tells that the body of water is the accumulation of a woman’s tears. An extended label highlighting this backstory, its depth, and tracing the bodies of water back to women would be most helpful in future showcases.
Alsaie’s work is a confirmation of the exhibition’s subheader: “women as artists.”
9. Mashael Alsaie, False Pools (Series). Image courtesy of Sarah Daher.
Beyond the art-on-the-wall approach, the curator also explores other avenues. Daher’s curatorial feats and attempts in This Lark converge in one approach: intervening the space sensorially, beyond the menu. Hence, in writing and song respectively, Cristalina Parra and Juletta propose a sonoric and linguistic atmosphere that ties the exhibition together by way of ambiance.
Daher’s curatorial feats and attempts in This Lark converge in one approach: intervening the space sensorially, beyond the menu.
The dining booths are each separated by a transparent plastic panel that Cristalina Parra appropriates and activates with her poetry. This time, treating Dubai as a muse with five handwritten copies of a poem, very much in conversation with her treatment of Abu Dhabi as a muse with a poem handwritten on the cafe’s full-body mirror. Cristalina is the artist proposing a treatment of cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, as muses. A part of me wishes to unearth a bit more of the poet’s relationship to both places. Where is her voice coming from? Why these places? How deeply connected is Parra to them? Nonetheless, the nomadic nature of her handwritten poetry suffices my curiosity, perhaps this is a much needed sign for more of us to grab pen and paper.
Cristalina is the artist proposing a treatment of cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, as muses.
In a similar vein of holistically intervening the space, Juletta’s voice musicalizes the space via the speakers, of which I left wanting more. As I write this, I gracefully find that the New York-based artist has self-curated a twenty-five-track SoundCloud playlist called Female Muses featuring her original songs alternated with interviews to women all over New York City, quite timely as GAD explores cross-pollination between NYC and UAE art scenes. Juletta’s voice transforms maisan15 into a portal of sorts, straight to New York.
11. Image courtesy of Daniel H. Rey
Juletta’s voice transforms maisan15 into a portal of sorts, straight to New York.
In light of the poetry and music interventions, Sam reacts: “They felt more like easter eggs rather than parts of the exhibition. For instance, since the menu is on Instagram I almost didn't notice the poem that's included in the highlights, and at first thought it was just a part of the menu, or a separate initiative from the restaurant.” Sam’s comment raises an important point. How conducive is maisan15 towards the much needed discussion taking place in the exhibition? He tells me that, “while the idea was interesting and captivating, the space was a bit limiting to fully develop each category.”
How conducive is maisan15 towards the much needed discussion taking place in the exhibition?
Ji Young further agrees, “I wonder how the whole exhibition would look or the curation would change if she were to do it in an “actual” exhibition space. It is definitely a piece that I would like to see again, moving forward, but in a separate space.” While the idea of the “actual” exhibition space is there to be challenged, I do wonder what This Lark would feel like online, at another cafe, at an outdoors space, or with artist-led tours. Possibilities are endless and the exhibition is kicking off at a supportive space for those of us curating solo in Dubai.
13. Watercolor illustration of maisan15 by Maria Daher. Image courtesy of Sarah Daher and Maria Daher - found in publication This Lark Sips at Every Pond, 2021.
For what is worth, with critique come top-notch takeaways. Sam tells me “The whole idea behind this exhibition was very relevant in today's social climate… Overall, I thought that the idea of the role of women as muses in art was condensed in three categories: anti-muse sentiment, a deeper meaning of what being a muse is, and alternative muses.”
The categorization that Sam brings up speaks to the curator’s ability to transmit an urgent message: redefining new forms of representation in the arts. These sustained engagements with artists, artworks, and audience translate into each spectator’s ability to be undeniably intrigued by the ongoing discussion. Ji Young highlights that “The fact that females are used as a muse all the time and sexualized is something that we all recognize but don’t outwardly say. The fact that Sarah Daher made that into an exhibition was fantastic.”
“The fact that Sarah Daher made that into an exhibition was fantastic.”
- Ji Young Kim
To outlive the exhibition and propose new forms of engagement, the curator collaborated with her sister Maria to bring to life a limited-edition publication gathering the artworks, the artists, the muses as well as short essays and poetry from women in the local art ecosystem. Guest contributors include poet Vamika Sinha, curatorial researcher Hessa Al Nuaimi and architect Maria Daher as designer and illustrator. The publication is a living archive, the beginning of, hopefully, an exciting research journey that revisits, questions, and proposes new understandings or debunks of muses.
Screenshot of publication pages. Courtesy of Sarah Daher.
What is further exciting about the publication and the curatorial context it emerges from, maisan15 in 2021, is that it highlights a more mature art scene with a higher degree of interconnectedness. At Global Art Daily, we are thrilled to see, for example, our long-term collaborator Christopher Benton as a ‘muse’ in one of Marta Lamovsek’s photographs. We see GAD’s Design Intern Amina Yahia showcasing her work for the first time outside of NYU Abu Dhabi. We witness the work of Aliyah Alawadhi, a constant supporter and former speaker in GAD Talk Series. And most importantly, we see a key space in Dubai be activated by Sarah Daher, an emerging curatorial voice and GAD contributor who is proposing new, unprecedented conversations and originally presenting forms of curation to the UAE’s audiences.
This Lark Sips at Every Pond is a gentle reminder of how a community can build up enough trust for itself so that serious discussions begin to take place. After years of cementing and complimenting each other, today we enjoy exhibitions that raise nuanced, urgent and critical issues. We enter maisan15 wanting a meal, but with This Lark Sips at Every Pond we are served a feast of words, sounds, images, questions, flavors and discussions. If the male gaze is to be dropped, Sarah Daher’s curatorship is laying out the plot.
This Lark Sips at Every Pond is a gentle reminder of how a community can build up enough trust for itself so that serious discussions begin to take place.
This Lark Sips at Every Pond is on view at maisan15 until April 10th, 2021 at maisan15 (Barsha South, Dubai).
Sarah Daher is a curator and researcher who graduated with a BA in Theater and Economics from New York University Abu Dhabi and is currently completing her Masters in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art in London. She is based between the UAE and London. She cares about the role of art in building and preserving communities and shared identities.