by Heather Zises
Interdisciplinary Emirati artist Maisoon Al Saleh creates images and objects that serve as diagrams of personal experience, contemporary UAE culture, and history. Through painting, drawing, digital prints, and sculpture, she uses bold colors and shapes to create abstract images with unexpected details that add dialogue and visual interest. Identifying mostly with Surrealism, her art excavates topics that lay well below the picture plane. Compositions of faceless portraits, fragmented landscapes, and subversive playing cards all function as devices that seek to reveal a deeper meaning of humanity. A self-proclaimed storyteller, Al Saleh’s cloaked narratives investigate Emirati culture and aim to unpack societal views about how it is portrayed by the mainstream media.
A product of an artistic family (her mother is a fashion designer and her father is a photographer), Al Saleh is a natural-born entrepreneur. In addition to maintaining her active art practice, she runs an online platform called The Paintly Store in which she exhibits and sells artwork from an international selection of artists. Founded in 2017, the enterprise found new momentum due to the global shutdown: “It has been a great success the past three years, and we are thankful that our sales tripled during COVID period. In 2020 we had exhibited artworks of 46 artists, 76 artworks, and from over 10 different nationalities,” states Al Saleh.
Prolific and hard-working, Maisoon Al Saleh earned her BA in Art and Design with a concentration in Interior Design from Zayed University in Dubai in 2010. A year before she graduated, she was selected as one of 64 “Best Artists” in the UAE and was invited to exhibit her paintings in a group show entitled Emirates Expressions at Gallery One Emirates Palace. To date, Al Saleh has participated in 100 exhibitions at leading institutions and exhibition venues around the world, as well as in international art fairs like Art Dubai, GZ Basel, and Sikka Art Fair. Her work has been the subject of four international solo shows and she is regularly commissioned by prominent companies like Baume & Mercier and Brand Dubai to create interactive artworks for their brands. Al Saleh is the recipient of multiple awards and accolades, including the Royal Arts Prize in 2018, London; a grant from the Daman Art Exchange Program to participate in an artist residency with Art House Düsseldorf, Germany in 2016; and she was selected by Break Dubai as one of the “Most Effective Artists” in the Emirates in 2011. Additionally, Al Saleh’s work has sold at auction by Christie’s Dubai.
The artist constantly explores new media and is perpetually interested in the ‘bones’ of a subject which often include using skeletons as figures. The artist focuses upon bones and skulls as a storytelling device that conveniently transcends age and gender. Inspired by aspects of historic representational art, Al Saleh looks to Calaveras (skull) prints by Mexican illustrator José Guadelupe Posada who was known for his satirical and politically acute renderings. In her own work, skeletal compositions reveal stories from Emirati life, culture, and history, and assert new meanings that undermine the bones’ symbolic association with death and poison, all of which culminated in her first solo show, The Bright Side of the Bones at the Gallery of Light in Dubai.
For her second solo show, The Dara Chronicles, Al Saleh’s art dove—quite literally—below the surface to recount the past. More specifically, in advance of the exhibition, Al Saleh became a certified scuba diver which allowed her to develop paints underwater. For the show, she produced a set of mixed media images underwater during a series of dives to explore stories of the Dubai-based M.V. Dara, a passenger liner that exploded in the Gulf on April 8th, 1961. The resulting artworks were inspired by letters about the incident written by the shipping company and police investigators, news articles, and stories told by survivors or family members of those who perished in the shipwreck.
Her third solo show titled DXB to PEK was part of the Global Residence Programme at Beijing’s Shangyuan Art Museum. The museum exhibited 30 of her artworks, several of which ended up being acquired for the institution’s exclusive collection. The exhibition depicted websites she explored in exquisite paintings that incorporate the imaginative and the human. Her works combined Beijing’s society with Dubai, earning her title of “Ambassador of Art”.
Al Saleh’s fourth solo show The 3 Phase Signal, opened right as the world was shutting down last year (March 2020) at the Etihad Modern Art Gallery in Abu Dhabi. To maintain momentum of the show, she created a virtual art gallery in which her exhibition could continue to be seen. Al Saleh presented 42 paintings that imparted a message of tolerance and human connection through the symbolic use of sine waves. By portraying unknown characters that are faceless or whose facial traits have been replaced with colorful visual effects, the artist disrupted the classical portrait by leaving her subjects’ faces intentionally blank and open for a more global and unified interpretation. Al Saleh comments about the works: “In some pieces, the background of the image, along with any further indication of location or cultural attributes is erased by the so-called monoscope, or television test pattern. This ubiquitous motif is not only a quasi-visual representation of the sine wave but also a universal and internationally recognizable point of reference, known to all of us around the world. The people portrayed here are only characterized by their traditional or religious attire, while their human features are transformed into blank color fields, essentially derived from the monoscope itself. As the combination of the various sine waves creates a harmonic bond, I seek to emphasize the importance of deepening the connection between different nationalities and religions. Just like the colorful, ever-changing, yet always familiar visual representation of the sine waves, our humanity behind all our cultural differences will always connect us.”
Al Saleh’s upcoming group show Transcending Passages which opened at Agora Gallery on March 16th, features a premier selection of the gallery’s represented artists whose diverse range of mediums, styles, and subject matter come together to create an interesting visual narrative that transcends time and place. For this show, Al Saleh shifts her focus away from the canvas toward digital artwork that has been printed on plexiglass and laminated with DiBond (aluminum composite). Her subject matter of isolated flora, fauna, and subversive playing cards succeeds in transcending time and place as there is no way to determine when or where these works were made. Set against bold color fields of cyan, magenta, yellow and black winks at the artist’s knowledge of the traditional color model (CMYK) and printing process while showcasing what she can do with her compositions. Al Saleh presents two series: Watching Over You and In Spades. In the first series, unexpected details like feline eyes are superimposed upon the innocent backs of butterfly wings, honey bees, and on the pistils of flowers. Startling yet alluring, the viewer is left to ponder a myriad of questions that surround issues of privacy, surveillance, and even Big Brother. Were those eyes always there? And if so, how did they get there and how much can they see? In the second series, Al Saleh replaces standard iconography from playing cards like traditional English Kings and Queens with exotic members of the animal kingdom and traditional Arabian headdresses (an Esama). Both sly and vanguard, the artist makes reference to cultures and symbols from her homeland, once again leaving the viewer to contemplate aspects of globality and how subtle shifts can cause wrinkles in time.
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Maisoon Al Saleh’s works will be on view at Agora Gallery from March 16 through April 6, 2021. You can view more of her works on ARTmine.