As he opens his first solo show, we speak to the Emirati artist challenging process and perception
Words by Laura Cherrie Beaney in The Lifestyle · Jan 12th, 2023
Ziad Al Najjar touched down in his home country, the UAE, fresh from Chicago where he’s currently completing his BFA. He journeyed back to attend his first solo exhibition, Under Your Eyes, at DIFC’s Tabari Artspace Gallery and it’s a sell-out!
At just 21, Ziad is part of a new wave of talented, emerging artists from the region responsible for reconfiguring the UAE’s cultural landscape through compelling and challenging output. Ziad’s 2 and 3-dimensional works are mesmeric, invested with a highly intuitive and spontaneous approach to mark making. Working upon unstretched canvas, his compositions comprise abstracted subject matter. In a single piece, the viewer can encounter natural and organic forms that dissolve into motifs absorbed from Islamic miniatures. The revisiting of collective histories suggests an attempt by the artist to rediscover and reimagine his past but on his own terms. We sit down with Ziad to discover how his everyday encounters from the US to UAE influence his output and discover what we can expect from his first solo show.
Ziad: I grew up in Dubai with my formative years spent in the Sheikh Rashid building on Sheikh Zayed road, adjacent to the famous Toyota building. On the ground floor, we had a military souvenir shop that sold switch blades (which is no longer the case), camouflage suits and vests, a grocery store “Dukan”, and a toy store that sold fast remote-control race cars. Growing up there in the early 2000s, I really watched the city expand and develop exponentially. I was a very active child, physically in sports and creatively in art. My days consisted of playing football for hours and then later painting in watercolours with my mother and brother.
My early inspiration came from my parents. My mother is an artist that specialises in textile design. Her practice features meticulously detailed drawings and patterns absorbed from nature, particularly flora. My father, an architect, influenced my sensibilities by installing an awareness of architectural space in me at an early age. He influenced how I observe spaces and even the way I construct environments in my compositions. My brother, Talal is also an artist, his practice constantly inspires me. He’s my greatest critic but also a big part of the reason I pursued art at university. As you can imagine, it’s the people around me that have come to influence my interest in aesthetics.
Ziad: I opened my first solo exhibition on the 12th of January '23 at Tabari Artspace Gallery in DIFC, Dubai. It’s a large body of work I’ve been creating between Chicago and Dubai for over 18 months and the first opportunity for the public to engage with a comprehensive curation of my output in a single environment.
In the last three or four years I’ve noticed that my art practice has developed into an organism of sorts. I find myself embracing an increasingly intuitive process, actively observing and working through the development of techniques and structural problem-solving. I’m preoccupied with the fundamental aspects of a painting - composition, direction, perspective, tonal value, and colour relationships. The final product is very much a result of all of those elements interacting with one another rather than the question of “what is it?” or the literal representation of say an animal or figure, as much as those are also features of my compositions.
Ziad: My work absorbs a lot from the natural world. The environment in Chicago is very different from that in Dubai. The drastic shift between summer, fall, winter, and then spring is truly experienced. The change in the landscape is very evident in the parks I pass through each day while walking to campus. During one season all of the trees and flowers are blooming the next they are stripped of their colours and leaves and left skeletal. These changes in the landscape manifest in my artworks, sometimes embracing the same landscape and at others trying to hold on to the previously flourishing terrain.
Representations of nature are regularly combined with historical motifs in my compositions. For me, nature creates a dialogue between histories made familiar to me through art and the paradox of the timelessness, yet constant evolution of nature. I’m fascinated by the way that these depictions and meanings are ever-changing.
I’m also inspired by both contemporary and historical approaches to art, particularly Islamic and MENA art that dates back to the 12th century and beyond. I found myself searching museums and institutions for art that not only inspires but also establishes a connection between myself and my culture.
I think it’s important that we take time to visit cultural institutions that present MENA histories, depictions, and artefacts outside the Arab world. Such encounters raised important questions for me: What does it mean for these histories and artworks to be represented outside of the Middle East? Why has our exposure to art from the MENA region often been limited to certain eras or disciplines?
Ziad: There’s an element to my work which encourages the audience to visually and physically navigate the paintings, I hope my work will provoke viewers to contemplate their ways of observation and encourage them to be more considerate of “seeing” as a fundamental part of our perception. I hope they will contemplate the ways that we take in information visually and how that can be manipulated to be both sincere and at times deceiving.
I anticipate that 2023 will be a year of change. In March I’ll present new work at the Art Dubai art fair alongside a good friend of mine, fellow artist, Hashel Al Lamki. I’ll graduate with my BFA in May marking the culmination of 5 years in Chicago. I think then I’ll move to Los Angles for the summer where I hope to take advantage of the city’s contemporary art scene and museums. I’ll expand my practice and create new artwork in a new landscape and city along with my brother Talal Al Najjar who lives there. Then, I’ll return to Dubai later in the year to see what the city holds for me!