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Issue 218

'Ancient Future' Asks Whether We Truly Live in Unprecedented Times

A group show at The Third Line, Dubai, featuring Sophia Al-Maria and Farah Al Qasimi, explores the nostalgia that comes with temporal dislocation  

BY Cleo Roberts in Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 04 FEB 21

Taking its cue from a weary phrase that the pandemic has bleached of all meaning, ‘Ancient Future’ asks whether we truly live in ‘unprecedented times’. Featuring powerful works by 13 artists, the show attempts to reconcile different approaches to chronological displacement.

Huda Lutfi’s painted collage, Suma’s Mandala, Series 4 (2008), is a cyclical ode to Uum Kulthum, the great 20th-century Egyptian singer. Replicas of her steely face bob around a cut-out of a six-armed Nefertiti with noxious green skin. Lutfi’s exemplar of femininity sits alongside Farah Al Qasimi’s inkjet print, Miracle Garden (2014). Where Lutfi splays the sprouting limbs of the iconic queen, Al Qasimi isolates the thin stems of an extravagant lamppost – designed to look like bindweed – from the world’s largest natural flower garden in Dubai. Al Qasimi has a knack for extracting the Emirate’s tenderness from its razzmatazz. Yet, given that this work, along with many others in the show, was produced more than six years ago, is it fair to advance it as a response to what the press release terms the ‘strange events’ of the past year?

huda lutfi suma's mandala
Huda Lutfi, Suma's Mandala, Series 4, 2009, painted collage on paper, 85 × 85 cm. Courtesy: the artist and The Third Line, Dubai

Sophia Al-Maria may be closer to the mark. In 2009, she coined the term ‘Gulf Futurism’ to highlight the temporal void created by the region’s hypermodern expansion. In Age Defiant and Beauty Industrial Complex (both 2017), we see the language of urban bureaucrats and neoliberal beauty idealists grafted onto satellite images of architectural ruins and animals’ faces. Combining a digital aesthetic with an irreverent overload of marketing slogans, she sharpens the sense that the region is dangerously missing a stitch in time.


amri h fallah toiling male gardner 2007
Amir H. Fallah, Toiling Male Gardner, 2007, mixed media on canvas, 199 × 91 cm. Courtesy: the artist and The Third Line, Dubai

Here, however, the politics of individual works are overshadowed by the tenuous link binding them together. Nostalgia may have been a more fitting premise than temporal dislocation. With Tarek Al-Ghoussein’s photographs of solitary figures in desert landscapes (‘[In] Consideration of Myths, 2012–13) and Youssef Nabil’s Dreams about Cairo (2008), the show sears with a sense of territorial yearning.

'Ancient Future' at The Third Line, Dubai, continues until March 2021. 

Main image: Sophia Al Maria, Beauty Industrial Complex, 2017, digital print, 24 × 42 cm. Courtesy: the artist and The Third Line, Dubai

Dr Cleo Roberts is a writer and a lecturer in contemporary South and South East Asian art at Sotheby’s Institute. She is currently working on her first book on the history of indigo in India.