Abu Dhabi Shows Noura Ali-Ramahi’s “Allow Me Not to Explain”

7 November, 2022


Noura Ali-Ramahi’s “Allow Me Not to Explain” opens Nov. 10 and runs through Nov. 23, 2022 at the NYU Abu Dhabi Project Space in the Arts Cen­ter, NYUAD Cam­pus, Saadiy­at Island, Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.


Rana Asfour


The new exhi­bi­tion “Allow Me Not to Explain,” from Lebanese-born Emi­rati artist Noura Ali-Ramahi, spot­lights “every­thing, any­thing and noth­ing” accord­ing to the artist. The work is on view at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Project Space from Nov. 10–23, and fea­tures a kalei­do­scope of vibrant art­work based on the artist’s prac­tice of repet­i­tive med­i­ta­tion. The show also seeks to shed light on the need to address the world’s esca­lat­ing envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis — con­ve­nient giv­en that the COP28 cli­mate con­fer­ence is slot­ted to take place here in Abu Dhabi next year.

“My new work is a per­fect exam­ple of how mate­ri­als I find inspire my cre­ativ­i­ty,” Ali-Ramahi explains. “Every piece of art on exhib­it is made out of every­day mate­r­i­al. It was my way to throw away as lit­tle as pos­si­ble. I hate waste and shud­der at the thought of the world’s land­fills. I’m a cer­ti­fied div­er and it appalls me to see how much of our oceans are fill­ing up with rub­bish and plas­tic. This is my way of turn­ing paper waste that comes into my home into some­thing beautiful…If one thing comes out of this exhi­bi­tion, it is for audi­ences to be inspired to re-use paper in more cre­ative ways.”

Noura Ali-Ramahi, shapes in “Allow Me Not to Explain,” 2022 (cour­tesy of the artist).

“Allow Me Not to Explain” is a con­tin­u­a­tion of a series of works the artist labelled as “Nos­tal­gia,” “Pan­dem­ic” and final­ly, “Los­ing my Mind,” which took place at the Eti­had Mod­ern Art Gallery at the end of 2021 and into 2022.

 “‘Nos­tal­gia’ was a very par­tic­u­lar body of work that I did which was a col­lage made with plas­tic and paper, that reflect­ed gar­den scenes, water and flow­ers. ‘Pan­dem­ic’ is the body of work I did dur­ing the pan­dem­ic lock­downs in which I used a lot of Emi­rati Tal­li thread that includ­ed a lot of rep­e­ti­tion in the work. ‘Los­ing my Mind’ was the last thing I worked on before mov­ing on to this exhi­bi­tion, which was work that I found very hard to explain. I named it ‘Los­ing my Mind’ in a nod to Van Gogh, who once said that he paint­ed in order to stop think­ing. This res­onat­ed with me because los­ing my mind wasn’t about going crazy dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, it was about stop­ping myself from judg­ing my work and giv­ing myself per­mis­sion to wan­der with my thoughts, to free myself from my inhi­bi­tions and the strug­gle to explain what it was that I was producing.”

The art­works are abstract pieces, many of which are com­prised of a mul­ti­tude of col­or­ful repet­i­tive, uni­form and inter­laced cir­cles, drawn using a com­bi­na­tion of dif­fer­ent medi­ums — paint, ink pens, and at one point, Tipp-Ex. The designs appear on parchment/wax paper that came with a cheese order, a piece of card­board that wrapped a deliv­ery pack­age, or even a paper bag from a retail brand.

As the artist shows one work after anoth­er, there is pal­pa­ble joy not only in the works them­selves but also in the entire mood of the view­ing expe­ri­ence, in which there is a sense of light­ness and exu­ber­ance. The med­i­ta­tive, repet­i­tive process ren­ders the pieces deceiv­ing­ly play­ful, almost betray­ing the seri­ous mes­sage that lies behind their con­cep­tion. I can under­stand how some view­ers, not used to assign­ing their own mean­ing to what they see before them, might strug­gle with the pieces. At one point, I found myself prod­ding Noura Ali-Ramahi to reveal whether the cir­cles were meant to be a con­stel­la­tion of stars in one, a set­ting sun sink­ing into a tilt­ed hori­zon in the next, and even a dol­phin in yet anoth­er. What was the four-meter scroll that took months to make try­ing to tell us? In short, what was the nar­ra­tive? Where was the wall text for each one?

“I would be deceiv­ing you if I told you there was one. That’s the point of this par­tic­u­lar work and that’s why there is no wall text. For the past two years, my work has refused to fit into one con­cise nar­ra­tive. What links these pieces togeth­er is that they por­tray the nature that I encounter on my walks, an act of repet­i­tive move­ment in and of itself, be it the sun­rise, the sun­set, the shape of the sun, the earth, or the sea.”

“I am not on a mis­sion to dis­cred­it nar­ra­tive art, because I’ve told sto­ries through pre­vi­ous work such as when I paint­ed my series on refugees. The sto­ry there was clear to tell and to explain. Again, in ‘Rhap­sody,’ my sec­ond exhi­bi­tion, there was a sort of sto­ry on why I was com­pelled to draw my abstract humans and fish. How­ev­er, if I can’t find an expla­na­tion for my work, I refuse to impose one out of noth­ing. I pre­fer the art to remain pure, free of any labelling. What I tru­ly want is for view­ers to expe­ri­ence the works of this exhi­bi­tion in a way that will spark their imag­i­na­tion and curios­i­ty, and prod them to reach their own inter­pre­ta­tion of what the work means to them. The mate­ri­als I use send out a mes­sage about the envi­ron­ment, but it is up to the view­er to make their own con­clu­sion about what they see in the work itself, which I hope will be a fun and joy­ful exercise.”

“I Find Myself in the Green,” Noura Ali-Ramahi.

Hav­ing dab­bled in pen­cil and char­coal draw­ing as well as silk paint­ing dur­ing her high school years in Dubai, in the early1990s, and then with clay paint­ing at uni­ver­si­ty in Beirut, it wasn’t until 2016 that Ali-Ramahi decid­ed to exhib­it her work for the first time. A busi­ness grad­u­ate, she has had no for­mal art train­ing, and ini­tial­ly approached the sub­ject as a hob­by, mak­ing her own kids’ give-away gifts at their birth­day parties.

“May 2015 is when things changed for me. I attend­ed a col­lec­tive exhi­bi­tion for some artist friends at Abu Dhabi’s TwoFour54, where I was inspired to book the place for my own work. I set the date for Jan­u­ary of the fol­low­ing year. Look­ing back on that show now, I see that it proved to be a kind of affir­ma­tion, to myself, that art was some­thing I want­ed to pur­sue seriously.”

Faced with the eight-month dead­line, she called on her fam­i­ly for help. Her father and sis­ter are both poets, while her moth­er and uncle paint. As a per­son who writes poet­ry, Ali-Ramahi has real­ized how much music, par­tic­u­lar­ly jazz, has, on many occa­sions, per­formed in jux­ta­po­si­tion with her art­work and is “as impor­tant as breath­ing.” In “Rhap­sody,” her sec­ond exhi­bi­tion in 2018, she would name each piece after a song — one titled “Love is a Los­ing Game by Amy Wine­house” sold instant­ly. And now, “Allow Me Not to Explain” will include a hand­writ­ten scrap­book of her own, nev­er-before shared poems, inspired by her inter­ac­tion with nature on those ear­ly morn­ing walks, that vis­i­tors can read through. There are, so far, no plans to print out any oth­er copies.

“I decid­ed that my first exhi­bi­tion was going to include my moth­er, my uncle, and my sis­ter. I had been work­ing on my ‘Dis­placed’ series about refugees. My sis­ter Sarah’s self-pub­lished book of poems, The Flower Girl (Ate­lier Poet­i­ca, 2009), pro­vid­ed an essen­tial source of inspi­ra­tion to the work. Final­ly, ‘A Pic­ture in a Thou­sand Words’ was birthed in 2016, thanks to the col­lab­o­ra­tive inter­pre­ta­tion of Sarah’s words that I expressed through my paintings.”

Noura Ali-Ramahi cour­tesy Noura Ali-Ramahi — the markaz review

Ali-Ramahi is both an artist and a col­lec­tor. Her gallery-like house is dot­ted with works of artists the likes of Jason Seif, Sah­marani, Afra Al Dha­heri, Hashel Al Lam­ki, and Will Mar­tyr. She is of a gen­er­a­tion of Lebanese Arabs who moved with her fam­i­ly to the UAE in 1989, in pur­suit of tem­po­rary shel­ter from Lebanon’s Civ­il War. Decades lat­er, it has become the place her fam­i­ly calls home. Fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of her father, Ali-Ramahi has writ­ten poet­ry from very ear­ly on, and used it to chan­nel her thoughts on war, dis­place­ment, trav­el and most recent­ly what she sees, feels and hears on her dai­ly walks, at sun­rise, which she doc­u­ments on her Insta­gram feed under the title “A Bil­lion Steps Towards the Sun”the title of a book she is think­ing of writ­ing, and where, inci­den­tal­ly, she also man­ages to sell her art pieces to fol­low­ers in places like Por­tu­gal and the UK.

“Since I start­ed tak­ing long dai­ly walks, I’ve found that I’ve been writ­ing more. My poet­ry is always spur of the moment. I don’t sit down to plan a poem, instead a word may come to me, or the first line of a poem pops in my head and I’m off. My art and my poet­ry start with the same urge that needs to be trans­lat­ed either into words of poet­ry, or into an art­work. That’s not to say that one informs the oth­er, but only that they are two forms of expres­sion that I chan­nel my thoughts and feel­ings through with no spe­cif­ic end result.

“I just fin­ished read­ing Qui­et by Susan Cain, in which she talks about flow, and it struck me how what she describes is exact­ly what I do with regard to my approach to my work. I find that when I walk, I flow, when I write I flow. Even the repet­i­tive cir­cles in my new exhi­bi­tion are all about flow where the result, my work sound­ing or look­ing pol­ished, is not the main focus, but the actu­al process itself where­by I myself am sur­prised with the result is what thrills and excites me.”

The moth­er of four feels she’s come quite far since that first exhi­bi­tion, admit­ting that it has been a long and wind­ing road to self-real­iza­tion and acquir­ing con­fi­dence in the work she pro­duces, with­out much con­sid­er­a­tion for how audi­ences may judge her work. Instead, Ali-Ramahi has adopt­ed an “I do this is and it is what I’m show­ing you” atti­tude. That said, how­ev­er, she is an Arab woman liv­ing in the UAE and is mar­ried to an Emi­rati; she admits that despite the con­fi­dence she has built up through the suc­cess of her art pieces, things remain far from ideal.

“There is def­i­nite­ly self-cen­sor­ship. There are things that I think about doing but I wor­ry may not be cul­tur­al­ly accept­ed. They would be too con­tro­ver­sial. Some­times there are things I want to incor­po­rate into my paint­ings, either a word or an image, which I find I’m not at a lev­el of courage to go ahead and apply. I real­ize though that some artists in the UAE have begun to take that step and are suc­cess­ful at what they do, but I feel I’m not quite ready to take that leap, main­ly because my ideas are not yet ful­ly devel­oped, irre­spec­tive of cul­tur­al sensitivity.”

There is an ease of man­ner and a refresh­ing rebel­lious­ness to Ali-Ramahi, who is no longer apolo­getic about exper­i­ment­ing with a mul­ti­tude of media and styles. She is some­one with one tar­get in mind and that is to give full reign to her cre­ativ­i­ty, trust­ing in its abil­i­ty to take her to where she’s meant to be…from work­ing on largescale col­lages made of palette paper and plas­tic bags, to throw­ing paint at fur­ni­ture, can­vas and, frankly, any­thing else she feels like.

“Right now, art in the Gulf, and the UAE in par­tic­u­lar, is boom­ing. There is a hunger to show the art of the region and artists today are enjoy­ing an unprece­dent­ed abun­dance of plat­forms to exhib­it their work with­in the Arab world, where­as before we only viewed art as that com­ing in from the West. The art world is huge and it requires a lot of patience, hard work and net­work­ing. Artists in this region tend to sup­port each other’s work by show­ing up at exhi­bi­tions, and by sup­port­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions with each oth­er. That said, it’s not easy to break in to, and a lot of per­sis­tence is required, but it isn’t impos­si­ble either.

“When it comes to what my work, I don’t want to con­fine myself to one style. I am not alone in this. I can think of Emi­rati Afra Al Dha­heri and Hashel Al Lam­ki as two exam­ples of artists who con­tin­u­al­ly try out dif­fer­ent medi­ums and styles and do so suc­cess­ful­ly. Who decides what’s wrong and what’s right? I refuse to stop myself from try­ing out new things. My work is all about exper­i­men­ta­tion and unex­pect­ed­ness, and I’m hap­py to do both for the rest of my life.”



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