The UAE Memorial was formally inaugurated on 30 Nov, Martyr’s Day. It’s a striking composition by Idris Khan which went from design approval to delivery within just nine months; the centrepiece of Wahat al Karama, a new Memorial Park just beside the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the monument to the war dead of the United Arab Emirates has seven 23m high aluminium-encased steel tablets which lean against each other in mutual support.
Khan is quoted as saying the idea of ‘support’ was his starting point. He began with strong, straight lines on paper; “the lines looked like they were never completely falling, but caught somewhere in the middle between going backwards or being pushed forward.
“In losing someone close to you, the most important thing is the support of everyone around you and to stay strong together.”
The tablets have Arabic calligraphy cast or sandblasted into the aluminium surface, poems and quotes from the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. Said Khan: “I wanted to create an immersive space, where the viewer could interact with the sculpture. A place where the sculpture could create a feeling of being overwhelmed by its scale – like it represented the weight of history.” Khan’s idea was the calligraphy guides the visitor to search for the text, using their eyes to look up, across and over the sculpture.
The work is the centrepiece of the Memorial Park, which also includes a large plaza with terraced seating, public gardens and a pavilion with the names of the UAE’s fallen soldiers on its walls. In the centre are seven glass plaques incised with the soldiers’ oath of allegiance. A unique reflective pool will mirror the nearby Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The Memorial Park will also have a visitor centre.
Idris Khan also spoke of the “immense sense of pride” that he felt on receiving the commission (there were three on the shortlist). “It was an incredible feeling to have been chosen to create an artwork of this magnitude and meaning.”
London-based Khan completed his Master’s at the Royal College of Art in 2004, since when he has received international acclaim as one of the most exciting British artists of his generation. He has developed a unique narrative involving densely layered imagery that speaks to themes of history, cumulative experience and the expression of time as single moments.
Until last year the UAE had never felt the need to express public recognition of those who have fallen in its service, largely because the country is young enough to have avoided the major conflicts of our time. But 45 Emirati soldiers who serving in Yemen as part of Saudi coalition against the Houthis were killed in September 2015 when a missile hit an ammunition store; and since then, there have been further deaths in combat. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, immediately announced commemorations in the form of the Memorial Park and the Martyr’s Day on 30 November.
The Memorial has a website here.