"Unearthed" is a show with a difference. It chronicles the journey of twelve Dubai potters as they explore the medium of ceramics — using clay as a receptacle for their ideas and experiments with what can be an unforgiving, yet enthralling and fascinating, medium.

By Shalaka Paradkar (Contributor)

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Published: Wed 16 Nov 2005, 1:06 PM

Last updated: Tue 14 Nov 2023, 10:41 AM

The twelve ceramists, all women, are exhibiting their handbuilt pottery at Gallery 76. The show, which ends today, is curated by Beba Hamati, artist and chairperson of the Dubai International Arts Centre (DIAC). Hamati has also been a guide for the exhibiting artists. Yet she is meticulous about separating the student from the artist, or the teacher from the curator.

"This is not an exhibition of students' work, but the individual statements of different artists. Some are beginners, even children, some are experienced, but all of them speak in the common language of clay. The works are decisions undertaken at every stage of the journey of clay from soft malleable state to the hard, sturdy fired pieces that live on for centuries."

Hamati herself is a conceptual artist whose works have been exhibited at XVA Gallery, Bastakiya. Yet she revels in the softness and historicity of ceramics. "My intention was to change the widely held notion that pottery is an inferior art form to sculpture. "Unearthed" celebrates the tactile nature of clay at a time when art is preoccupied with conceptual, idea-based work."

While the artists have all honed their skills under the aegis of the DIAC, the works selected for the show represent the wide spectrum of influences and firing techniques in the ceramist's art — there is raiku, glaze, smokefired and paper clay — rather than just a bunch of "best course work". The handbuilt pots have emerged from various techniques, not just the potters' wheel; there are pinched pots, mold-built and slab-built works, and works incorporating molten glass. Nor is the pottery confined to pots, there are installations, tiles, bowls, plates, slabs, and sculptures.

The works have been arranged in the gallery space so visitors are encouraged to walk around and explore the larger free-standing pieces from all angles. The potters' workspaces are referenced in the clay-smeared canvases hung on the wall and the studio stools used as stands for some of the works.

Singaporean artist Jennifer Choy's work is a departure from the usual interpretation of a pot. Her Dubai Prosperity Wish Pot is a statement of form over function, a high-rise structure whose form resonates at many levels with the viewer. The surface of the pot is overlaid with Chinese calligraphy, Choy's self portrait and a map of Dubai, while the height is built in progressive layers, referring to the many worlds an expatriate inhabits. The overall composition is like a coming together of disparate shards; stamped with the Chinese words for luck, prosperity and satisfaction, each shard tells the story of the expatriate dream.

Architecture is the take-off point for other exhibits too. The works of the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi inspire Finnish artist Raila Halinen's glazed stoneware. Like Gaudi, her works are informed with a love of nature and simplicity. Organic and free flowing, her approach is a visceral response to clay — in the introduction to "Unearthed", she say,"the smell of earth is like coming home." Also included in the show are her smoke fired "African" pots.

Mira Rifai's pots push the limits of the ceramist's art. She manipulates the material and finishes, using coloured glazes, slips and oxides in layers, masking, subtracting or building up. Another work recalls rugged mountain topography, molten lava run-offs and sparkling rivers, on a perforated base reminiscent of oxidised metal (it's actually made from ceramic oxides). Its multidimensionality encourages the viewer to explore memories and connections. Rifai says she was inspired by the mountains of her childhood in making the piece.

Indian artist Ragini Dewan's work is different in that she uses molten glass as a medium. As a potter who pitfires in her own backyard, Dewan's works are experimental and intrepid. Bold colours and designs exempify her "playing with fire" approach.

Potters working with clay often feel the tug of history and a connection with the past. Unlike other art forms, high-fired ceramics are almost indestructible. Lauren Robinson explores this archaeological aspect of the medium in her paper clay installation Preservation. Paper clay is a lighter and quicker method adapted for this work about man's journey through the sands of time. The anchorpoint is a Baobab fruit, from the "eternal" tree. Also by Robinson, Dig in Raku, is a gridded tray that recalls the remains of an ancient settlement that has been excavated. Another artist who delves into the past is Anne Smith. Her clay tablet is a modern twist with with words and symbols repeated endlessly around a self-portrait. The turquoise hues and lavish decoration of Mughal pottery are seen in Canadian artist Deborah Boussaad's work. Nature thrives on these pots — there are pebbles, streams, maple leaves and favourite gardens, all in a profuse medley of colour, form and surface texture.

Hamati has also included Naive clay pottery shaped by child artists. These works immediately tug at your heart. It's hard not to fall for the shy look in Rowan's Arabic Lady, or smile at the Garfield-like smugness of Robyn's Cat on Mat. Little fingers have fashioned some compelling art — there's Zara's Spot My Cat, Tanya's wistful Lady in Waiting, Aimee's Man in Hat, Lou's Granny, Robyn's My Parents and Colin's beautiful Mum.

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