3. Pop(Corn): Hashel Al Lamki
Interview by Daniel H Rey
Pop(Corn) is a section that looks at who’s emerging, or poppin’, in a city, what their perception of local art and pop culture is, and what is currently popping up in their head. Pop(Corn) Trivia ends the interview.
On a lazy Sunday, I sat down, logged on Zoom, and had a conversation with Hashel Al Lamki. A contemporary visual thinker from the Emirates, Al Lamki was trained in fine arts at Parsons in New York City. Today, he is one of the founding members and leaders behind Abu Dhabi-based studio Bait 15, and premiered his first solo exhibition at Warehouse421 earlier this year. Having worked together on his exhibition The Cup and The Saucer, it was about time to talk about art, life, and the current times. Below are the questions and answers that popped up in our heads.
1. Hashel Al Lamki, ADNOC Gas Station (2019). Acrylic on canvas. Part of a larger 52-paintings installation titled Versailles (2019). Image courtesy of Warehouse421 and the artist.
Daniel H Rey: To get started, ya Hash, how do you see the popular art scene in Abu Dhabi and the UAE?
Hashel Al Lamki: I don't think there is a “scene” to begin with. There isn't a “scene scene”, but there are experiments happening here and there. In terms of institutions, we have the Louvre, which is outside of “pop culture.” Then you have the NYUAD Art Gallery, Warehouse421, and the Cultural Foundation.
And then you have us, Bait 15. We're kind of still in that honeymoon, experimental phase in which it is taking us longer to figure out our own voice. I don't know if we need to figure out the voice. It's a space managed by artists. We also have a multipurpose gallery.
I don't genuinely think Abu Dhabi has a “scene” yet. Everyone is just cocooning, doing their own thing, and we just need that openness. The art here is an experiment to exist, to survive. The whole artistic and cultural landscape of Abu Dhabi is exciting but is yet to prove itself more. Everything is brand new, which begs the question: how much of what is happening is genuinely from here?
The whole artistic and cultural landscape of Abu Dhabi is exciting but is yet to prove itself more.
2. Hashel Al Lamki, Al Zafarana (2019). Acrylic on canvas. Part of a larger 52-paintings installation titled Versailles (2019). Image courtesy of Warehouse421 and the artist.
D.R.: You often refer to yourself as an “artist from the Emirates” rather than as an “Emirati artist.” What does this distinction mean to you?
H.L.: I think my practice comes before my identity, my political associations, or any art scenes. It's important to have this distinction in the title because, when you say “I'm an Emirati artist,” you are immediately associating yourself with expected topics and also taboos without enough room for discussion. My voice is very authentic. I still belong to the UAE, I'm from here. The show [The Cup and the Saucer] is deeply rooted to this earth and the issues related to this place. I'm praising and I'm celebrating materials and iconography. But I'm interested in having a genuine voice with which I can discuss things that are more tangible, more serious, more critical, more rooted, from a different lens.
I think my practice comes before my identity, my political associations, or any art scenes.
The title of an ‘artist’ has been pulled and stretched in so many different ways that it is scary to be an artist anymore. I was just thinking about a new term. In the eyes of conceptual art and the late 1960s, everyone is an artist. But what is art anyway? I was having a discussion with a friend of mine two weeks ago, and they came up with a title for myself, an upgrade, which is a visual thinker. And I think that suits me better because I'm thinking and I'm responding through visuals. That’s a better situation in which I let others be artists and I embrace this new title.
D.R.: Plenty of your work as a visual thinker gravitates around materiality — and your craft reimagines the life of everyday objects. We saw this in your exhibition The Cup and The Saucer at Warehouse421. What new materials and media have you encountered in the “new normal” of quarantine life?
H.L.: I think it's important to look at things differently. I have painting assistants who pick up my paintings where I left off. And I commission other artists to paint for me. That’s the conversation that I'm having constantly in my practice. It's no longer about the journey or the process or the style or the commodity of the actual physical product. It's about the idea and how I maneuver through my thoughts. It's an exciting way of looking at my own practice. I do have my own style, for sure, but it’s in the mix.
D.R.: As you commission, create, and navigate your vision as a visual thinker, whose voices and sounds are you interacting with today?
H.L.: With the ongoing situation, obviously I’m listening to the authorities, the official announcements, and precautions that people need to take into consideration. That's my first layer of interaction. But then, I like to escape reality a lot. So I become out of touch with everything happening around me. I'm stuck in my head and I don't know what's happening, and that becomes a little bit more egotistical and narcissistic.
I like to escape reality a lot.
Forget about art and forget about anything else, I think that the first things to pay attention to as a responsible citizen in this current situation are the do's and the don'ts. And then, from there, you rationalize what's happening when it comes to art. I'm lucky to have good people around me to bounce some ideas and thoughts. These friends are both inside and outside the UAE. They are in close proximity because, at the end of the day, what we're going through is happening everywhere in the world. And it's so interesting to be in conversation with my friend Mohamed Mazrouei in Egypt and listen to his experience, or Angela Tellier, who is in Amsterdam, or for instance in California, Jeremy, and Brandon, what they are doing and what they are up to. We are living in a kind of experience that is international yet local because the experience is the same. We are all trying to navigate through this.
3a. Hashel Al Lamki, I Will Never Cry Again (2018). Acrylic on canvas, 84.1 x 118.9 cm. Image courtesy of Warehouse421 and the artist.
3b. Hashel Al Lamki, I Am Free (2018). Acrylic on canvas. 84.1 x 118.9 cm. Image courtesy of Warehouse421 and the artist.
D.R.: In your bio in the Bait15 and UAE Unlimited websites, you quote Edward T. Hall saying that both “man and his environment participate in molding each other.” As we move through this pandemic, in what ways are you and your current environment molding each other?
H.L.: When the pandemic happened, just like everyone else, I panicked, I didn’t know what to do and I had just closed a big show — tentatively opened a show but it got closed. So I had a lot of anxiety. I was like “Oh my god!” for a week or two. I was trying to harness that energy and mold it into something that is useful. Normally, I would say, “Alright, you need these and these materials, get them from this person, and just start working.” I called my supplier in Sharjah and he said, “Everything shut down, you can’t get more supplies.” So I ended up trying to challenge the current situation by going to different bookshops in Abu Dhabi, smaller shops, and just collecting whatever I could find. And the first thing that hit me is “I'm in Versailles again!” [title of Hashel’s installation of paintings] while looking at all of these different size canvases and shapes that I normally wouldn't be drawn to.
I managed to be in harmony with the lockdown. A lot of my friends were panicking and didn't know what to do, but I thought of it as a blessing because here I am. I'm granted with all of this time for myself and I need to use it. And luckily I work at night. That's just my nature. That's when my creative juices flow. It worked in my favor to have the lockdown at 8pm and just stay in my studio until 6am. Whenever we get that text message, the alarm, I’m already at my studio in Bait15. It’s a win-win situation, it worked perfectly for me and my work. That’s the metaphor for trying to mold and connect with each other.
Whenever we get that text message, the alarm, I’m already at my studio in Bait15.
But then, conceptually, looking at the pandemic and the idea of the congregation of people now that we are trying to social distance, I immediately thought about American landscapes. I thought about my time in New York and that whole romantic idea of being in the city and escaping to upstate New York. I started pulling a lot of references from my time there.
D.R.: Now that you mention New York, I think of your time growing up in Al Ain, moving to New York, passing through Cairo, and now Abu Dhabi. What do these places mean to Hashel Al Lamki?
H.L.: At an early age, my perception of life was kind of distorted. My mom is Kenyan and I don't really talk about this a lot, me being in Al Ain, having a certain identity and understanding of what life means as a kid, and then traveling every summer to Kenya and experiencing a completely different experience as a kid. Having to one day wake up and think “I'm just going to go take a shower” and the water is running, and everything is fine. And then going to Kenya and having to carry my own bucket of water to take a shower. As a kid, that's just a lot of confusion, you know, almost this distorted reality, like, “what’s happening?” I didn't understand it for a very long time. I was just so confused and I would be traveling back and forth.
Then I went to New York, because I couldn't process the early part of my life. I just rejected everything. I was like, “alright, I'm gonna figure out my own identity all over again, as an adult.” You go there and it's another layer of confusion. You know, there are so many things happening there.
I went to New York, because I couldn't process the early part of my life.
4. Hashel Al Lamki, Jabel Hafeet (2019). Acrylic on canvas. Part of a larger 52 paintings installation titled Versailles (2019). Image courtesy of Warehouse421 and the artist.
Everything was just Egyptian to me for a very long time.
They [the cities] all come at different times with different interests and interpretations. Cairo to me was just a dream. I grew up in Al Ain, most of my education was in public schools with Egyptian teachers, and you go home and it's Egyptian media, Egyptian films, and Egyptian music. Everything was just Egyptian to me for a very long time.
After I came back from New York, I met Mohamed Mazrouei, who’s a half-Emirati, half-Egyptian based in Cairo and that became my introduction to Egypt. Egypt has been to me, until today, an important experience in the sense of understanding the possibilities and having access to craftsmanship and materialities. There's just so much in Cairo. The other day I was asked, “what is your first destination after the quarantine?” — definitely Cairo.
Identity is something that you can stretch and pull in so many directions. Why do you want to claim one thing? Why would you want to limit it to one thing?
5a. Hashel Al Lamki, Liqorice tower (2019). Liqorice, hat, metal stand. Image courtesy of Warehouse421 and the artist.
5b. Hashel Al Lamki and Maitha Abdulla, Dandy (2019). Styrofoam, wood, plastic, faux fur, massage machine, synthetic hair. Image courtesy of Warehouse421 and the artist.
5c. Hashel Al Lamki, Mr. Lantern (2017-2019). Clay, Fabric, cardboard, plastic, comb, mirror, LED lights. Image courtesy of Warehouse421 and the artist.
5d. Hashel Al Lamki, Untitled (2015-2019). Glass bottle, light bulb, carpet, duster. Image courtesy of Warehouse421 and the artist.
5e. Hashel Al Lamki, Untitled (2015-2019). Glass bottle, light bulb, cotton, children's toy. Image courtesy of Warehouse421 and the artist.
5f. Hashel Al Lamki, Untitled (2015-2019).
Glass bottle, light bulb, marble, fiber optic flowers. Image courtesy of Warehouse421 and the artist.
D.R.: You mentioned that you are a visual thinker. You have presented your visual thoughts at the Sharjah Museum, Manarat Al Saadiyat, the NYUAD Project Space, and Warehouse421. What are other personal milestones that you are very proud of but talk about less?
H.L.: I have always been making things since I was a child. I found this empty space in my parent’s house lane and converted into a studio when I was in grade four and that continued all the way to high school until I was eighteen and left for New York.
I always knew that I wanted to be an artist at that time, now it shifted. I’ve had my parents' support but I was expected to be either a doctor or an engineer and that didn't work out very well. So I went behind my parents’ back. I went to HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid’s office with my portfolio and said “please, please please, believe in what I’m trying to do and grant me a scholarship.” And that is how I went to New York. No one really knows about that story.
I applied to Parsons. I did everything until the point where I needed to get my student visa, but I didn't have my passport with me. It was with my dad. I knocked on his door and said “Can I have my passport?” He was like “Why? What? When? How did you do this?” My parents gained my respect when they saw how serious I was about pursuing art and going to New York. Two weeks later I was literally on the plane. I'm proud that I didn't give up and I kept pushing. I went there and I graduated and then I stayed in New York for three years on my own. I kept pushing and trying to gain experiences that I am proud of. I did lots of residencies, I did so many things. I'm a very fast-paced person. I finish and I move to the next thing.
I went to HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid’s office with my portfolio and said “please, please please, believe in what I’m trying to do and grant me a scholarship.” And that is how I went to New York.
One thing that I’m proud of was my little contribution in Haiti in 2010, right after the earthquake. I was able to go there, examine, and allow myself to think about alternative living solutions.
D.R.: You came back to the UAE after seven years in New York, you founded Bait 15, this artist-run space in Abu Dhabi. What drove you to create Bait15 and how did you find the people to do that?
H.L.: I was in New York for seven years, moved to Amsterdam, and was doing a residency there at a Surinamese ghetto. Before that, I was in New Mexico building “Earthships” with Michael Reynolds. With the whole idea of movement and motion between places and territories I’m trying to understand, what do artists do? The paintings and the sculptures are just one aspect of it, but what am I actually trying to achieve?
I came back to the UAE, and was in the Army for a year and a half. That was a time in which I was following orders from the moment I wake up all the way until I go to bed. When I went to bed it was my reflection time. I've never had that time just for myself to actually process things. That was an important period, a year and a half of just reflecting. After that, I joined the Salama [SEAF] fellowship and I met Afra Al Dhaheri, one of the members of Bait 15.
And I knew Maitha from before, we’ve been friends, we’ve traveled and presented at the European Parliament in Luxembourg, we have done a show at the Sharjah Museum and we were in the same batch in the SEAF Fellowship. We graduated and then, I felt it was time to also contribute given the generosity of His Highness who believed in me when I was a kid. That portfolio was so bad. But His Highness saw something in me, he believed in me and invested in me. And here I am, I'm back after all this time of just researching, learning technical skills, and expanding my mind. It is my turn to give back to my community and what is needed are artist-run studio spaces. I’m glad that I didn't join any arts institution because my energy would be sucked into corporate life. I am more honest and authentic by being outside of that conversation and contributing as an artist. This pushed me to create Bait15, the solo show, and the show before that one, at NYU Abu Dhabi.
His Highness saw something in me, he believed in me and invested in me. It is my turn to give back to my community and what is needed are artist-run studio spaces.
As an artist, I have the daily Zoom meeting with myself, trying to identify my authentic voice. Artists come in different shapes, different voices. There are so many shapes. My voice stems from a place of belonging and being able to have a dialogue. Dialogue is key in order to have progress. If my voice is not there, then everything we're doing, everything that is happening around has no value added. How many containers of art are we going to ship? There's just so much of that happening here and someone needs to be on the ground. The best thing in the world to me is to be in my studio creating and making and showing. Anxieties have gone. This is it, I’m a producing, visual thinker.
As an artist, I have the daily Zoom meeting with myself, trying to identify my authentic voice. I’m a producing, visual thinker.
D.R.: Right before the lockdown you premiered your first solo show, The Cup and the Saucer, at Warehouse421. What is your takeaway from premiering a solo show in Abu Dhabi?
H.L.: It is a proud moment for myself and the [Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan] Foundation; it is their first commissioned show. That was a celebratory moment for both us, recognizing that we can build our own space, create our own content, and show it. I felt very proud that I was able to do that and I shared it with everyone who got in. The solo show also has a component where I curate another show for eight artists within the show — sharing that light with everyone and being able to celebrate. It's building slowly. When you forget about the end product and remain genuine, it affects more people. We, as a species, as a collective and as artists own these public spaces. We own what goes into them. We need to be able to speak and be able to express our voices. It's our turn as artists to give back and be able to believe in that. That's very important.
When you forget about the end product and remain genuine, it affects more people. We, as a species, as a collective and as artists own these public spaces. We own what goes into them. We need to be able to speak and be able to express our voices. It's our turn as artists to give back and be able to believe in that.
NYU Abu Dhabi also has a great space. I was probably one of the first shows that came into the Project Space when they opened for the public. Initially, when Maya Allison was telling me about the space to think about a solo show, I wasn’t ready to have a solo. I said, “I’m friends with Mohamed Mazrouei.” Since I met him I’ve been daydreaming, hallucinating about working together. That was the first time we worked together. It was his first time in his 30-year career that he collaborated with another artist. A lot of responsibility. He was in Cairo and I was dealing with everything on the site. But it was an experience that I will always be grateful for. It was super generous to just give someone space and say “Hey, do whatever you want.” Soon after that, I shifted towards working on the solo.
D.R.: For The Cup and The Saucer, you worked with curator Munira Al Sayegh. How did your vision come together to make the exhibition happen?
H.L.: Working with Munira Al Sayegh put things into a structure. It was a different experience from working with a “curator.” It felt like more of a collaboration, figuring out what’s the story that I wanted to say. We switched roles, we’d go back and forth with everything that we were doing. She did not technically produce works but her discussions and ideas around the work have definitely influenced the outcome of what we saw in the show.
I think that it’s very important to have a close relationship with the curator. We get to know each other on a professional level but also on a personal level, having that brave space where we can discuss anything. There were no topics that were lef outside the discussion. We have a dialogue between us. From there we try to articulate the thought and see where this should go. When it came to “Almost Home”, the show within the exhibition that I curated, I learned all of the technical curating steps from Munira. She passed her knowledge onto me during the studio visits: starting an Excel file, selecting work, narrowing down artists, writing a statement. All of those hands-on curating elements I learned from Munira. “This is what you need to do in order to be a curator”, she would guide me. I think that was a very important and genuine moment in our journey. I really appreciate her stepping in and at the same time stepping out. She was overseeing it [“Almost Home”] but then she removed herself from it to leave me completely on my own. It was like when a parent drops their kid to school, waits in the car, and makes sure their kid went inside safely. I think that was her role and that was a very important jump for me. At Bait 15 I'm always curating, but it’s more on the spot. If I was to push that side in my practice as a visual thinker-curator, I needed this experience, doing all of the steps in order for me to actually understand what it means to be an independent curator.
D.R.: With the quarantine happening, I am aware that you are creating a new body of work inspired by your online interactions with people around the ideas of having fun and enjoying the “right now.” What is this new body of work all about?
H.L.: It is about being granted so much free time, to have massive access to time. We all interact with each other in different ways. But the idea of interacting digitally has become more present during this time. I was thinking about the individuality of all these voices that I am interacting with. I have a big mind map in my studio about how everything is connected to identity, belonging, and dreams divided into emotions or landscapes. Emotions then break into pain and reality. Everything is connected. You are just one vessel collecting all these things. The quarantine is good training to understand time, to anticipate what is next.