Ammar Al Attar: Documenting Emirati life
Dubai - It was curiosity that led Emirati photographer Ammar Al Attar to buy his first camera soon after landing a job following graduation from the Higher College of Technology in Dubai in 2003.
Learning through workshops of the Emirates Photographic Society and by seeking advice from senior photographers, artists and curators, Al Attar began documenting sporting events and then moved on to capture Emirati life, culture and heritage.
Al Attar said he sticks to analogue photography in his work. “I like the tangible and I have more control using a vast range of vintage cameras, either in colour or black and white. I can also control the effects better,” he said.
Because of the nature of the projects he has been involved in, he said: “It always results in a discussion about UAE contemporary art. For example, when I did Art Index 0.1, the debate was whether a show based on portrait photography can be considered as art.”
Al Attar singled out advice from Roberto Lopardo, a professor of photography at the American University of Dubai. “He was the one who gave me direction by asking me to think in terms of themes and his advice on following established artists and studying how they process and exhibit their work have been indeed invaluable,” Al Attar said.
Visual Diaries in 2011, based on street photography and showing images of Emirati life across the country, was Al Attar’s first work exhibited as part of Emirati Expressions, a biennial show in Abu Dhabi.
His first solo show followed in 2012 at the Cuadro Fine Art Gallery in Dubai. Under the title Prayer Rooms, Al Attar documented various places of prayer — in shopping malls, corporations, porta-mosques and outdoor areas. Beyond the basic typology, emanate the subtle and sometimes stark variations of the interiors, from which one can deduce the larger structures where these prayer rooms are situated and the types of people they serve.
Being part of a second generation of Emirati artists who were educated in their own country, his works reflect elements of local culture and pride in their heritage.
“Ammar is a complete package — natural talent, honest intention, with hard work and the willingness to engage with the community,” said Lopardo, who is now the director at Cuadro. “He is doing things that not many in the artist community here are doing. In the Prayer Rooms series, for example, he looks at daily religious practice without being judgmental and in a way it allows discourse to happen so we can come together and view this as a neutral space.”
In Sibeel Water (2013), Al Attar explores the theme of public water fountains outside villas and government buildings in the UAE.
His solo show Art Index 1.0 (2015) at the Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah traversed new territory, featuring 50 portraits of artists and figures from the art world in their studios and work place environments.
In Salah (2016), Al Attar set out to examine the Quranic principles that one has to pray at the time of prayer, wherever he is. He photographed himself in various steps of the prayer ritual — inside his studio with only his camera as witness, outside at a farm and on the road in one of the busiest trading areas of the old city of Bur Dubai.
Al Attar lives in Ajman and daily braves the traffic for his day job in Dubai at the Road Transport Authority. He said he is working on several projects, including Reverse Moments on photography studios in the UAE that were largely owned and run by expatriates, and the disappearing standalone old cinema theatres such as Khorfakkan Cinema in Sharjah and Plaza Cinema in Bur Dubai.
“Ammar Al Attar’s practice is almost scholarly in its approach. Unlike many other photographers of his generation, the process for Ammar is as important as the final product. He has managed to document and uncover lost archives and unseen corners of the UAE and bring them back into the public realm,” said Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, founder of Barjeel Art Foundation.
“I think Ammar Al Attar is a perfect example of how a simple photographer becomes one of the most talented artists in an emerging art ecosystem, using photography as a tool to document time and history. His perspectives translate from photography documentation, to photography appropriation, up to the point where he simply depicts image references for documentation and iconic exploration,” said Giuseppe Moscatello, director of Maraya Art Centre.