Documenting Before Demolition: Spaces that Remain at Bayt AlMamzar
By Alzaina Lootah
Published on May 28, 2023
Currently on view at Bayt AlMamzar is the second edition of Spaces that Remain, a photography exhibition curated by Rashed AlMulla showcasing the works of Jalal Abuthina, who extensively documents the rapid changes experienced by the community within Shaabiyat Al Shorta (Police) and Difaa (Defense), currently known as the area of City Walk. During the early 1970s, the two neighborhoods flourished with an architectural language that had a unique vernacular space that integrated open spaces utilized by its residents.
In this interview, you will read both photographer’s and curator’s words talking about their encounter in this exhibition.
AlZaina Lootah: How did you two meet? And what was the inspiration behind the exhibition Spaces That Remain?
Jalal Abuthina: Rashed and I first connected when he came across my publication, Memories of Satwa, which had an image of his grandfather leaving the mosque after Friday prayer.
Rashed AlMulla: This takes me back to New York where I used to go to these vintage bookstores and I found the publication Memories of Satwa. As I picked it up, I found a picture of my grandfather’s mosque. I did not buy the book on the spot, but during COVID, when I returned back home, I asked someone to purchase it on my behalf. I began skimming around the photos and discovered that on the back cover of the book is an image of my grandfather walking out of the mosque. I knew that because it was positioned in a certain way and had a very distinctive style that he wore. He was captured picking up his slippers as he was leaving the mosque. It was a cue for me to find who was behind this work, so I tried finding Jalal’s Instagram page. That is where it all started, going back and forth, understanding his ethos, which was also very closely linked with my own philosophy as well.
Rashed and I first connected when he came across my publication, Memories of Satwa, which had an image of his grandfather leaving the mosque after Friday prayer.
- Jalal Abuthina
A.L.: How did you begin your journey in photography, and what inspired you to document Shabiyat Al Shura and Difaa during that time?
J.A.: I started photography around 2003, during my last year attending university in Montreal, Canada. I enjoyed documenting the city, the people, taking photographs of both friends and strangers, as well as some street photography. In 2004, post-graduation, I moved back to Dubai full-time where I began working in real estate for about four years. I still remained engaged with photography. Wherever I went, I always had a camera with me. As for my connection to the Shaabiya, I used to play basketball with some friends who lived there, and that is where I decided to begin documenting the neighborhood, without any conscience of it. This led to a series of books I published about Dubai. One of my publications, Memories of Satwa, focused on the two neighborhoods.
A.L.: That is interesting. So, you began documenting the area before it was marked for demolition, is that right?
J.A.: Yes, due to the financial crash actually, the original project proposed for neighborhood is not the current project built. Instead, City Walk has been developed on the lands of the two neighborhoods. When I started recognizing the area was gradually due to demolition, this is when I realized that the neighborhoods needed to be documented. I ended up taking photographs of the area every 3 to 6 months just as things were progressing.
A.L.: It is truly inspiring how needed a photographer is when it comes to significant urban landmarks part of Dubai’s urban fabric. You mentioned that you have worked on a couple of publications. That said, what were some of the main challenges that you came across during the documentation process?
J.A.: In terms of shooting, I barely faced any challenges as most of the shots were done from the car. Walking around with a camera can easily spook people out. In terms of publications, it was just the matter of paperwork and approval processes from the National Media Council to be able to publish the books – but that is a regular process for any publication. To me, the main challenge became the way Dubai was being portrayed in publications, as I personally think that Dubai has been represented in a specific way to tourists to the detriment of so much that could be depicted of the city.
Before my publications, there were two types of publications that pictured Dubai, one being a historical depiction captured by the photographers Noor Ali Rashid and Ramesh Shukla, and the second type capturing famous landmarks of Dubai and aerial images of the city. As someone who grew up in Dubai, and who considers Dubai as home, capturing the essence of the dense neighborhood was a gap I noticed in publications. I found that the local insight into the neighborhoods of the city and the residents’ everyday lives were not being portrayed to a large extent, and I felt obligated to address that issue. This is where the inspiration came from for these series of publications.
As someone who grew up in Dubai, and who considers Dubai as home, capturing the essence of these dense neighborhood was a gap I noticed in publications.
- Jalal Abuthina
A.L.: Very deep insight into the topic. I believe that your intention became part of the journey, whether it was the documentation of the actual neighborhood or striving to put the story out there. Outlining the inspiration does give a holistic insight to the whole subject. On that note, since photographing in the Shaabiya became a process, what were some of the notable experiences or memorable encounters you had as you documented the neighborhood?
J.A.: Many memories come to mind, meeting different people during the times I spent photographing the Shaabiya. One notable moment is trying to document a villa that was actually turned into a mosque, adjacent to the Mosque of Reflection, which was built by Rashed’s grandfather. It particularly stands out because a lot of people from the neighborhood would visit the mosque and they would see me photograph it and so forth. It was one of the only moments where I was not photographing from my car.
A.L.: How do you think, with all the efforts you put into the documentation and publication, that your work inspires others?
J.A.: I believe the importance of documenting this work is to embrace the importance of photography in recording the life that surrounds an individual. The photographic process also focuses on documenting projects that showcases hidden parts of the city, that are still important to the development of its urban density. It also becomes a way to be able to physically print and share these stories worldwide, because print will always leave a trace and long-term impact, unlike social media.
I believe the importance of documenting this work is to embrace the importance of photography in recording the life that surrounds an individual.
- Jalal Abuthina
A.L.: How did you begin your journey in curation? As far as I know, the first edition of Spaces that Remain was your first curatorial project.
R.M.: It was actually an accident, and speaking about how I began curating, I have to go back in time. Without Spaces that Remain, I would not have entered the curatorial activity or even be a part of it. I always knew what being a curator meant, and the idea of it has been in my mind for a while, but I never had something to curate or organize. Coming across Jalal’s book gave me a push to start my curation journey.
What makes Memories of Satwa stand out is that there are a few photographers out there that have the full picture of the neighborhood of Shaabiyat Al Difaa and Shaabiyat Al Shurta. The moment when demolition started and spaces that remain are in the book’s ethos. This exhibition is also about documenting the importance of archiving good planning practices by the city itself.
I always knew what being a curator meant, and the idea of it has been in my mind for a while, but I never had something to curate or organize. Coming across Jalal’s book gave me a push to start my curation journey.
- Rashed AlMulla
A.L.: What makes Spaces that Remain unique as a curatorial statement?
R.M.: The curation tries to shed light on certain practices that surround this planned neighborhood, which has lost this sense of community over time. It is the density, the alleyways, the pedestrian network and the closest services within the neighborhoods that we want to shed a light on. The neighborhoods became an ideal, one of the very first models of an actual 15-minute suburb, walkable city neighborhood in Dubai.
Spaces that Remain is also a focal start point to show the importance of documenting and presenting archives, because what is the point of documenting if you are not doing something meaningful with the work produced? To us, the exhibition became this next step. It became a way to educate and inspire other people to document their neighborhoods and see what sort of older photos their families have stored in their hidden drawers. I believe the most important thing as a curator is to be able to take the research and experimentation out to an exhibition stage and to maintain a longevity in educating the public. At the end of the day, these core messages are the ones driving social change to the audience.
What is the point of documenting if you are not doing something meaningful with the work produced?
- Rashed AlMulla
A.L.: This is absolutely true, and I do agree with everything you have mentioned, because what does curating really mean if it doesn’t have any purpose? Along these lines, I know that you are currently exhibiting the second iteration of Spaces that Remain at Bayt AlMamzar, after a first iteration at the Mosque of Reflection. Can you tell me the major differences between exhibiting at a mosque versus at a house? What were some of the challenges you faced with both journeys?
R.M.: Every space has a different energy and every energy requires a different set-up. With the mosque, the focal point of the whole exhibition was the mosque itself. That is where the doubling-down happened, where the majority of the images focused on the mosque itself. As a curator, I tried to bring up the mosque images first to the audience because of the placement of these pictures, but when it came to exhibiting at Bayt AlMamzar, we added three different images and we removed an image from the previous exhibition. Each area has its own challenges. The idea of exhibiting in a mosque was a completely foreign idea to the government entities, and as curator, I had to oversee the overall installation, making sure we refrained from having any images with graffiti or vulgar words visible.
A.L.: Very insightful. I see the importance of the venue. To expand on that thought, what was the role of BaytAl Mamzar for the preservation of memory through art?
R.M.: The house is actually a renovated project. The building was not changed or altered, but rather, brought back to life with its intact ethos. The ethos behind it very much aligns with this idea of lasting memories. Bayt AlMamzar, in its core and nature, became an experimental house that showcases different ideas like writing residencies, art residencies, exhibitions, and further activities beyond that. The whole essence of Spaces that Remain was born out of an experiment, so that was on one level of bonding between the nature of the curated exhibition and the venue of Bayt AlMamzar.
The whole essence of Spaces that Remain was born out of an experiment, so that was on one level of bonding between the nature of the curated exhibition and the venue of Bayt AlMamzar.
- Rashed AlMulla
A.L.: How do you see Spaces that Remain growing in the future? What are the aspirations for this project to grow into the next phase?
J.A.: The importance of this work needs a large-scale recognition. Hopefully one day the publication Memories of Satwa can grow beyond institutional representation and exhibitions, and we get to showcase the story of the mosque on a larger scale. Living in a fast-paced city can easily allow one to move on from these great traces of neighborhoods like Shaabiyat Al Shurta and AlDifaa. It becomes a challenge to keep memories and stories like these alive. In addition to commemorating areas that get demolished and having them represented in museums around the city, talking about the journey of the development is important.
Living in a fast-paced city can easily allow one to move on from these great traces of neighborhoods like Shaabiyat Al Shurta and AlDifaa.
- Jalal Abuthina
R.M.: As any curator, it is always interesting to explore multiple venues. But given the relationship that Jalal and I built over time, there is always the idea of creating more immersive experiences with Spaces that Remain which can include the integration of virtual reality and showcasing the pop culture that was related to the area. What I hope is for other exhibitions of similar nature to Spaces that Remain is that they become about documenting. There is a lot of potential in the whole UAE and the Gulf to showcase previous urban forms and developments whether or not they still remain, and we feel it is important to celebrate them.
There is a lot of potential in the whole UAE and the Gulf to showcase previous urban forms and developments whether or not they still remain, and we feel it is important to celebrate them.
- Rashed AlMulla
Jalal Abuthina is a half-Irish, half-Libyan resident of Dubai. Jalal is the creator, photographer and writer of a 3-set series of publications about Dubai, under the name Inside Dubai. The publications include the book “Memories of Satwa” which extensively documents the neighborhood of Al Satwa, as well as the two neighborhoods. Instagram
Rashed AlMulla is a researcher and curator, graduated from London School of Economics with a Masters in Regional and Urban Planning. Rashed founded Mabnai, which is a platform that aims to educate practices of the built environment by public engagement, including the symposium on the future of Gulf housing.
Mabnai’s Official Website
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