Oil On Canvas? Art As Seen Through Black Gold
An art exhibition in Dubai depicts an alternative story of the Middle East, using oil as a starting point.
DUBAI — "Oil is magical and insidious," writes Murtaza Vali, curator of Crude*, the inaugural exhibition at Dubai's Jameel Arts Centre. Oil's influence was central in U.S. President Donald Trump's November 20 statement, in which he affirmed his support for Saudi Arabia following Jamal Khashoggi's murder. "America First," reiterates Trump, citing the Kingdom's $450 billion commitment to the U.S. — mostly as oil proceeds — and its status as the world's second largest oil producer. Aside from its brashness, the statement offers little new.
Throughout the 20th century, the unwavering efforts of western powers to secure their oil needs have assumed a guise of political correctness, and at times cultural diplomacy, both constituting a strategy that is explored and heavily critiqued through several works in Crude.
For instance, the public relations departments of Saudi Aramco (the national Saudi petroleum and natural gas company) alongside British Petroleum produced art publications and films to mediate cultural differences and showcase the developing utopias they were building in a region that, still today, holds more than 70% of the world's crude oil reserves. Persian Story was envisioned in 1951 by BP as the first Technicolor film to be shot in Iran for local screenings, British cinemas and international film festivals.
The artists use the corporation's archive to subvert its propagandistic efforts.
The film was to be shot in Abadan, where "the greatest oil refinery in the world" was located, featuring British physicians called from their dinner tables to operate on Persian workers, alongside local tribesmen trained to become oil technicians — all in BP's newly built oil hub. However, political developments that culminated in the rise of Mohammad Mosaddegh as Iran's prime minister and the subsequent nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry challenged the film's completion, with director Ralph Keene declaring it "unfilmable."
Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi, two of the 17 artists exhibiting in Crude, dug into BP's archive to create their mixed media installation Seep (2012–18). The artists use the corporation's archive to subvert its propagandistic efforts. They also link the events to the extensive collection of Western art amassed by the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art from nationalized oil revenues, through framed lists of artists whose works it housed, including Edgar Degas, Marcel Duchamp, Edward Hopper and Paul Klee. The collection was buried in an underground storage room for 20 years as anti-American sentiments grew in Iran after the Khomeini Revolution in 1979. Taking up one of the five galleries dedicated to Crude, Seep makes a subtle nod to the Gulf states' recent use of artistic and cultural production as tools for soft diplomacy.
Through UNstabile-Mobile (2006), Venezuelan artist Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck mixes abstract art with documents. The centerpiece of this work is a delicate black sculpture of dangling amorphous sheets pinned to a star. It is inspired by the hanging mobiles of Alexander Calder; but its shadows, cast upon a white base, map Iraq's oil fields. An accompanying handout presents excerpts from the censored 2001 Energy Task Force documents, drafted by then-U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in collaboration with key figures in the energy industry, highlighting maps of Iraq's oil fields, pipelines and refineries, as well as concessions made under Saddam Hussein. A framed 2006 issue of the New Yorker magazine features a piece by journalist Seymour M. Hersh on the motives behind the George W. Bush's antagonization of Iran in the early 2000s.
While Iran remained isolated, oil producing countries in the region enjoyed a protectorate status and had leverage vis-a-vis the U.S. and western Europe. An example of this dynamic is the 1991 Gulf War, when the U.S. deployed 540,000 military personnel as part of Operation Desert Field. Along with a coalition including NATO, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria, it successfully pushed Iraqi forces led by Saddam Hussein out of neighboring Kuwait. As the Iraqi troops withdrew, however, they set some 680 oil fields ablaze. German filmmaker Werner Herzog chronicles that moment in his 1992 film Lessons of Darkness, composed of aerial footage of the burning fields. Kuwaiti artist Monira al-Qadiri, however, provides a different aesthetic and emotional experience in Behind the Sun (2013), exhibited in Crude. Combining shaky documentary footage of the fires shot on a road trip by journalist Adel al-Yousifi, with a recording of Sufi poetry from Kuwaiti television that features statements praising God like "Everyone enjoys the blessing," the 10-minute video shows smokey clouds morphing into fantastical, blooming red flower-like shapes. In its eerie and cataclysmic beauty, it is reminiscent of Crossroads, about the U.S."s nuclear weapon experiments in Bikini Atoll.
Murtaza Vali, a curator, writer and art historian based between Sharjah and New York, was interested in exploring unconventional relationships to colonialism, and delving into the impact of discovering oil, as well as the temporal optimism associated with these discoveries and their effect on cultural production, urban development and the material lifestyle of local communities. Through a selection of 41 pieces, three commissions and two productions, he seeks to tell a crude, alternative history of modernity in the Middle East, using oil as a "screen" to distract from stereotypical representations.
In a 15-minute video presented across four screens, Wael Shawky's Asphalt Quarter (2003) shows 60 Bedouin children paving an asphalt runway in the desert as we listen to a woman reading technical instructions in English, occasionally interrupted by Figiri singing. Asphalt Quarter is an interpretation of the first chapter in Abdul Rahman Munif's 1984 novel Cities of Salt, in which UK petroleum companies arrive at a fishermen's village and ask members of the local community to build an airplane platformg. The airplane runway as a prop of modernity finds resonance across the region, from Saudi Arabia, where Shawky grew up, to Dubai and Egypt's Western Desert, where he shot his film, playing on the spontaneity of non-actors.
These stories are contrary to the typical Orientalist images promoted by oil companies.
Fleshing out the region's inhabitants, particularly those working in the oil sector, is Saudi artist Manal al-Dowayan in If I Forget You, Don't Forget Me (2012). The highlight of this installation is an intimate video portrait of Saud al-Ashgar, retired senior vice president of international operations at Aramco. Al-Ashgar, meaning The Blond in Arabic, received the nickname for his fair skin and hair. After much traveling in extreme poverty with his family, he studied chemical engineering at the University of Texas and worked at Aramco for 33 years. The sexagenarian tells us us how he learned to read and write at religious schools, and that the green lawns of Texas were his "heaven". One of several portraits filmed by al-Dowayan, the video raises curiosity and empathy towards a little known class that contributed to the region's transformation in the 20th century.
These stories are contrary to the typical Orientalist images promoted by oil companies, which Raja'a Khalid highlights in her series on the leisure activities of Aramco's expatriate staff. Surfing the archives of Aramco World and Fortune Magazine, Khalid reproduced photographs of U.S. executives playing golf in blazing heat and inhospitable sand. We see a topless man in white shorts, steadily positioning his club to make a swing against fire roaring from an oil well, and several black and white photographs of men marking holes with flagsticks for fellow golfers as Bedouins watch in bewilderment.
Golf courses continue to mushroom across the Middle East — only today they are lush green, despite the arid climate and water distress. This phenomenon seems to be coupled with another byproduct of the early oil culture: exclusive gated communities that were originally modeled on company towns. Hajra Waheed tackles this alien urban infrastructure in Aerial Studies 1–8 (2013). Having grown up at the Dhahran compound, Saudi Aramco's administrative headquarters, the artist was interested in highlighting the segregating design of these European upper class enclaves. She prints parts of the walled compound's map — obtained from the company archive — on unexposed Polaroid film, as if the image is gradually developing into view. The work provides a backstory for the development of gated communities for the financially able across the region, while the majority of local and migrant populations are left with dilapidating infrastructure in the older, unrestricted towns.
The old cities weren't always in such a dire state, however, as shown in Latif al-Ani's photographs of Baghdad. Having worked for BP's public relations department in the mid 1950s, then for Iraq's Ministry of Culture and Guidance in the 1960s, al-Ani was repeatedly commissioned to document the developments in urban infrastructure and lifestyle brought about by oil revenues. We see women working in an automated date-packing factory in Basra; a new housing project in Yarmouk, south of Baghdad, shot from above; Baghdad's city center with Jawad Salim's iconic Freedom Monument. The formal composition of these black and white photographs of petrol-fueled developments — shot using a medium format Rolleiflex, occasionally from an airplane — captivated the readers of company publications in the past, just as they continue to beguile us today.
The color and texture of oil is present throughout the different showrooms of Crude. Introductions to each of the show's six sections are printed in hazy fonts on transparent plastic sheets, while wall texts are typed in dark, reddish brown on bluish purple reflective paper. But it is Lydia Ourahmane's installation, Land of the Sun (2014), that truly brings the physicality of oil to our senses. As soon as we enter the last gallery, we smell oil and see a blossoming lemon tree planted in a tire and feeding on used engine oil. The image is striking and initially counterintuitive, as we are constantly reminded of the environmental hazards of oil spills.
The works on display, of which many are made from plastic and petrochemical by-products, might last longer than existing oil reserves worldwide. They constitute a body of work that narrates rarely told stories of the region's murky oil industry.
*Crude is showing at Jameel Arts Center Dubai until March 30. The exhibition is accompanied by a program of film screenings, talks and workshops.