Form, space and light: Concrete gets a birthday present

Alserkal Avenue opened its multidisciplinary space Concrete back in 2017, a hyper-versatile brutalist box that was the first building OMA designed in the UAE. Since then it has hosted a rich and appropriately diverse portfolio of exhibitions and events. To celebrate five years of Concrete’s significance, Alserkal Avenue is hosting a show by Rana Begum; and it’s an exhibition that fits the building’s aesthetic.

Rana Begum (right) is an artist known for her use of industrial materials, repeating geometric patterns and colours that interact with the surrounding architecture. Although based in London, she has a long-standing relationship with the region; Dubai-based gallery The Third Line has long represented her, and she has completed commissions locally including an Art Dubai exhibit in 2017 and work for a show at Concrete in 2019.

Dappled Light will be the artist’s largest solo exhibition in the region to date, however. It will include works that have not been shown here before, though the core of the show itself has been touring.

Dappled Light originally opened a year ago at the University of Warwick’s Mead Gallery, the grand reopening show for a leading Midlands gallery. Its newly refurbished exhibition rooms, all clean sharp lines and muscular use of space, aren’t too different in concept to Concrete; and since Begum’s show worked beautifully there, it should fill the Alserkal Avenue site equally well.

Speaking on the exhibition’s iteration in Concrete, Begum said: “This show means a lot to me, bringing together the varying strands of my work in a narrative that continues to inform and push my practice. In each touring location, Dappled Light has transformed to create a new experience, a new narrative”.

Begum’s abstract pieces characteristically make use of light, colour and repetition to capture fleeting moments of beauty – or take advantage of them. She’s said she doesn’t want her art “to be obviously representative of myself, or my culture, or political belief or religion, because it would immediately mean it’s quite enclosed. I wanted to use a language that was much more open, and I felt that gave me more freedom.”

A sense of freedom is what you get from Begum’s gorgeous Mesh works, dense, suspended, see-through steel-mesh sculptures in powder-coated colours that look like giant gossamer blossoms or clouds floating into the air. Concrete will be getting No. 1228 Mesh (2023 – above).

Another dramatic piece we’ll see is a huge spray-painted canvas, No 1079 Painting Large (2022). This epic 10m wide colour-field canvas has a kind of pointillist presence that one reviewer described as akin to diving headlong into a dense field of summer flowers.

Both of these illustrate how Begum’s work is changing from the harder edges and more geometric shapes of a few years ago, works like her 2017 Abraaj Art Prize winner shown at Art Dubai (below). Her current concerns seem more organic, more concerned with integrating into the environment rather than contrasting with or commenting on it.

Taking that a step further, the show includes Begum’s first video installation – No. 1080 Forest (2021), a time-lapse study of natural light as it falls through the forest canopy. A slow-motion depiction of one scene across 365 days, it’s been edited down to a 38-minute meditation on time passing and the seasons changing.

Not that the geometry has been omitted completely. Several constructivist wall-based works use different materials and forms to reveal the interplay of light and space; they include No. 694 Hyetal (2016), the artist’s only work to combine artificial illumination and movement with her signature perspex panels.. There will be a “spectacular” outdoor commission in the Yard, the latest iteration of Rana Begum’s sculptural compositions of colourful tessellated mesh panels. Other works, including No. 1227 Net (2023) and No. 1229 Wall Drawing (2023), will be site-specific installations that respond to the architecture around them.

Indeed, that’s partly the point. As Begum put it, “I am so excited to bring [Dappled Light] to Concrete and see how it responds to the vast architecture. The geometric brutalism reflects my exploration into urban form while providing a stark backdrop to the more nebulous surfaces of colour and soft, dappled light.

“I’m excited to see how these works change and develop in relation to the new spaces they inhabit.”

The exhibition is organised by the Mead Gallery and is curated by Dr Cliff Lauson, Director of Exhibitions at Somerset House. Dappled Light shows at Concrete from 28 February to 22 March. More information about the Concrete show is here.

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