What Are We All Without Water?

Martha Atienza, Our Islands 11°16_58.4”N 123°45_07.0”E, 2017. Photo: Daniella Bapista. Courtesy Art Jameel, Dubai

An Ocean in Every Drop at Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai asserts that we exist as part of a complex hydro-collective

At the entrance of An Ocean in Every Drop, visitors are reminded of the fundamental role water has played in shaping worldviews. Displayed under glass is Kitāb Al-Masālik wa AlMamālik (Illustrated Description of the World), a book made in 1331 CE, in Iran, that documents the voyages of the tenth-century geographer al-Istakhri who travelled widely throughout then-Muslim territories. The book lies open to show a rendering of Bahr al-Rum (The Roman Sea), drawn in the medieval Islamic mapping tradition in which water is given prominence as the substance that holds together the world, representing not just a conduit for movement but also the connector of the earthly to the celestial.

So begins this group exhibition that reflects on the universal ancient and contemporary belief that water makes and sustains life on earth. Spread across multiple gallery rooms is an expansive body of works, from largescale installations and audiovisual works to manuscripts and works on paper that explore our social and cultural relationship to water across history and geographies.

Munem Wasif reflects on the perpetual flow of forced human migration in the Bay of Bengal in his work Dark Waters (2019). Hung on a blue wall are black-and-white photographs in which lines between sea and sky dissolve in the darkness. Alongside them are framed texts printed on white paper, including one that reads ‘Puke, piss and the sea become one’. Adding narrative to the simple images, the words draw from eyewitness testimonies to illuminate the violence endured by the Rohingya people in Myanmar, whose only chance of survival is to seek safety in Bangladesh by crossing the dangerous nighttime waters. The work echoes the harrowing experience shared by countless people searching for refuge across waters worldwide.

Daniel Otero Torres, Lluvia, 2020, mixed media, 435 × 610 × 700 cm. Photo: Daniella Bapista. Courtesy Art Jameel, Dubai

The sound of dripping and pouring liquid follows you through the show. Its source stands over six metres high and takes up an entire gallery on its own. Titled after the Spanish word for rain, Daniel Otero Torres’s mixed-media installation Lluvia (2020) stops you in your tracks. Buckets and barrels of different sizes installed on wood and aluminium structures create a four-tiered, pump-operated fountain that rises from a pool. Lluvia celebrates the resourcefulness of community-driven infrastructure and brings into view the harsh reality of the water crisis (lack of access to fresh, clean sources) for indigenous communities around the world. Some of the containers in the installation bear the logos of bottled water companies, recalling the way that water has come to be a resource to be managed, dispensed and commodified as part of economies that allow for systemic imbalances. Additionally, this is the only room in the show where the window has not been frosted. The view outside looks over the swimming pool of a luxury hotel on the other side of the creek waterfront.

Sohrab Hura, The Coast, 2020, video installation. Photo: Daniella Bapista. Courtesy Art Jameel, Dubai

The seashore is a site for spiritual transformation in perhaps the most moving work of the exhibition – Sohrab Hura’s The Coast (2020), which is being shown in its own dark room. Set to an entrancing soundtrack, the work captures devotees in a coastal village in South India during religious nighttime festivities. The video starts with a red, storm-filled sky. Shots of funfairs and fire rituals are intercut with people plunging into turbulent waves. They struggle against water that weighs their garments down, then eventually defy the sea’s persistent force, seeming to achieve a spiritual renewal at the end of the process. Alongside this, the musical score begins with anxiety-inducing throbs, then pauses to let the sound of waves be heard, like a cleansing, and ends on an uplifting note. Becoming absorbed in the heightened emotional states of fear, surrender and joy that evolve through the crashing waves, viewers too emerge transformed.

As far back as the tenth century and into the present day, the stories we have told, the rituals we have maintained and the knowledge we have accumulated have only reinforced the fact of our watery world. Immersing ourselves in the cultural and social implications that the works in the exhibition explore asserts that we exist as part of a complex hydro-collective: our own flesh challenges individualism, along with animals, plants, oceans, clouds and the other numerous bodies of water we are continuously in the process of ‘becoming’.

An Ocean in Every Drop at Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai, through 2 April

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