A farewell to birds

Fatspatrol – Fathima Mohuiddin – is an artist that magpie has been following for a while now. She lives between Dubai and Toronto (“I’m still going back and forth seasonally, like a migratory bird”) and her practice is rooted in urban art and murals, increasingly of a gravity-defying scale that tests the cherrypicker’s reach.

Until recently her characteristic motif has been a highly stylised bird, recognisably as an owl or maybe a hawk … but not quite. Often the imagery suggests the kind of symbolic representation and storytelling you might associate with native American civilisations, maybe the Aztecs, maybe Ancient Egypt … but often it’s perfectly realistic, a kind of magical realism where the components are identifiable though the end result won’t be found in any field guide. Usually her work is painted in flat, stark high-contrast blacks and greys … but often with slashes of colour and a presence that suggests perspective. “My preferred palette is black, white and shades of grey, but sometimes a project needs colour or a client asks for colour …”

Her biggest and boldest challenge to date was to decorate the buildings of Miral’s Yas Village (right), a campus-style development of nine residential buildings intended to provide affordable accommodation for the people who work on Yas. For this project, which she completed in February this year, Fats went for a broader, bolder palette and a more realistic selection of birds.

“I didn’t have a brief from the client,” she says. “Birds were my proposal. I knew I was coming to the end of my bird-painting journey, and this was a real bang finale.

“But also they seemed like the right theme for this site. For one they speak to diversity. And what I learn from birds I tend to apply to humans. Yas Village houses the hospitality staff that work on Yas Island. They are from all over the world. They come and go. It felt like an apt representation – albeit with a change in scale.”

The colours won’t fade in the sun – the artwork has been sealed. The birds are there for a while. They may discolour over time, as do all murals, but not for a few years.

“Imagine a world of giant beautiful birds. Usually birds live in the windows of humans; here there’s a role reversal – you see humans living in the windows of birds. “As we painted them, the project seemed to roll out like a flamboyant theatrical show. Each bird struts on to stage, so different from the one before, showing off its unique features. Some fly, some walk.”

“That appealed to me. And as I looked into bird diversity in the UAE as well I was really pleasantly surprised to see how much time is being dedicated to conservation. There’s definitely a lot more birds in the UAE now than when I was growing up. So for me there is awareness aspect to this project as well …

“There are different levels of vulnerability in the birds that are painted on those buildings. the collared kingfisher, for instance, is highly endangered. The houbara has been as well, though that’s something of a success story for UAE conservation. Others are more prevalent, like the white-eared bulbul and laughing dove.

“I felt like there was another story there in that contrast of vulnerability, representative of the degrees of vulnerability humans live with around the world. Some with privilege, some with real struggle. That perspective is important.

“There’s something universal about birds. They appear in all cultures, in all parts of the world. I hope these murals transform Yas Village into a magical place where the giant birds live.”

Still, Fats says she’s moving on from birds – not completely, and not irrevocably, but she’s keen to spread her own wings. ““I started working with birds as a theme after a leaving a really unhealthy relationship at the end of 2014; I was in pretty rough shape emotionally, very disconnected from myself. I was a mess and struggling.

“Birds have literally lifted me up from that place, helped me find my freedom, resilience, power, perspective, humour, dance, elegance, all of it. All those things they embodied. It’s almost like I’ve journeyed from a fallen, busted up birds into one that soars through these seven years. So this project is something of a thank you to birds as well.”

She has enough confidence now to look beyond those intense, blocky owls with their unyielding gaze, fiercely protective, daring you to pick a fight. There’s room in her head for elegance, pattern, colour – even people.

So to some extent the Yas contract was a farewell to the birds. It’s a spectacular goodbye.

There are still hawks and eagles, and the influence of cartoons is clear in the outlined shapes and the lack of realistic shading; but these are accurate, anatomical, and not necessarily aggressive … Here’s a falcon, the bird of the UAE

Line work is really important to me – mark-making in general, actually. Mark-making has given me a way of creating a voice that’s mine. I’ve struggled sometimes to fitting in culturally and socially; creating marks that are uniquely your own gives you a way to represent yourself. A voice. Hence the black lines …”

There’s storytelling here, or at least illustration; the shallow waters around the islands of Abu Dhabi city attract real birds like these …

“There are so many herons in the UAE these days. They seem kind of solitary and elegant and proud yet up close seem be a little disheveled and clumsy looking. And yes, I’m hoping there’s a little poetry there is the posture of each bird and its placement against the background. Birds are extremely poetic creatures, after all …”

And there’s still something of the essence of the hunting bird – strong, bold feathers; bright, accurate eyes; a beak that looks like a nose-cone …

This is a collared kingfisher. Very rare; there’s currently a breeding programme in Kalba trying to grow their population. Beautiful and tragic in some sense. The colour pallete is my own take on their actual colouring, but I love how this one turned out …”

“Of all the walls I had to get up on this project, this was the one that scared me. I don’t know why. I was absolutely terrified to get to the top of that wall to paint the topmost tip of the wing on the ibis.”

“A lot of the story around these projects comes about while you paint them. We had silly names, silly stories for every bird. There was something rebellious about these two, an ibis and a Mohawk-wearing hoopoe. These two were a bit rock and roll. We painted them really fast …

Fats with “assistant extraordinaire” Marlon.

“I couldn’t have painted this project without him. He followed my sometimes challenging colour guides to put the colours in each bird while I painted all the lines. Projects like this can be a real emotional rollercoaster and having the right teammate is a real asset, which is so important when you’re on site for four months. This is the second time we’ve worked together, and it was a real pleasure having him on board.”

A large project like this is nowhere near as glamourous as it might seem – “it’s dirty and exhausting,” says Fats. “High pressure all the time, lots of frustrating times when lifts break down, when it rains, when you stop and question whether what you’re doing is any good … And the comedown after four months up there is hard, too. But it’s a privilege to be able to do it and I feel very lucky to have it as a sustaining career.”

Fatspatrol (Fathima) is an Indian, born and raised in the UAE, with a BA from the University of Toronto and an MA from Goldsmiths. She says her work embodies her third-culture identity – a hybrid medley of many influence that in the end gives her a voice of her own. Addressing her own curiosity about the world, our place in it and other existential conundrums, Fats works heavily with symbolism and narrative to share her stories and learnings and look for universal sentiments. Often referencing representations of freedom, resilience, and triumph, her work and style mirror her own break from cultural and religious restraints, the identities and definitions imposed by others, and a journey into the subconscious.

Passionate about art’s social impact, Fats has worked on public murals in 10 countries. That’s accompanied by a studio practice in drawing and painting and a number of brand-related commercial projects. In 2010 she was awarded the Sheikha Manal Young Artist Award and founded The Domino, an artist run platform in Dubai.

All images © 2022 by Jo Askew

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply