Mohammed Kazem has an uncanny ability of shining a spotlight on something completely peripheral and making it dance into centre stage. His practice has often centred on that; whether it be discarded chewing gum stuck to the pavement or the shadows cast on his balcony, his subjects are often the ubiquitously overlooked. For his latest exhibition, A Prime Activity at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, he has taken this concept one step further by looking at the working population of the UAE, who are, all too often, discounted or ignored.
This delicate and often politically-charged social conversation is not something the artist wishes to directly engage with. Instead, the subtleties of his practice allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions. The story begins with Neighbours (2018), a new series of Kazem’s watercolour-on-paper paintings that recall a much earlier strand of his work which began in the 1990s during his time spent in the studio of the late Hassan Sharif.
The older and newer works are both displayed here, but while the earlier ones focus on classical formations showing emphasis on dimensions and perspective, the newer pieces show blurred characters floating and deliberately unpinned from any sense of grounding. Both series have been developed from photographic documentation – something for which Kazem is more widely known.
The Neighbours series continues with sculptural wall pieces that re-enact segments of the dividing walls between villas, common in residential areas across the UAE. The orange, yellow and beige hues of the textured concrete walls, often separated by a thick white line, are such a common sight that they are somehow synonymous with the UAE itself. The artworks are presented as actual segments from these exterior walls, complete with textures and colour - and again display Kazem’s artistic need to highlight the often unseen parts of every-day life.
The real showstopper in the exhibition comes when this narrative is placed in context with a facing wall of larger paintings from another new series, Even the Shade Does not Belong to Them (2018). For these works, Kazem has also relied on photographs from which to source the content, but in a masterly execution and development of style, he has painted the scenes of labourers at work or at rest around the city and then applied several washes to the canvas. Dark colours in acrylic and ink blur to conceal the subjects, leaving the figures only partly visible through a grey black mist or smoke.
The haunting pieces demand a second and third look, asking the viewer to closely inspect what the artist is saying. Taking into consideration the title of the series, Kazem is placing his subjects – the city’s workers – in the shade and also denying them of any sense of ownership.
Viewed in context with the wall pieces hanging opposite, the statement becomes even more clear; the men that build the city’s walls, those which create shade for all of us, are themselves relegated to the shadows and, in the end, they are marginalised by them – disappearing or fading from view with no claims to make. These are bold paintings - both in style and content.
The final part of the exhibition, which also serves to highlight Kazem’s little documented painting practice, is a series of flat canvases, which, through geometric form and shading, also recall the angles of the city and the architectural landscape made from shadow and light.
Kazem is one of the UAE’s leading practitioners and A Prime Activity truly underlines that fact. Through this thought-provoking presentation, the artist has succeeded in revealing a social, physical and visual narrative of his city while simultaneously displaying his own artistic development, making this a must-see show of the season.
Mohammed Kazem: A Prime Activity. Until November 1, 2018. Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde.