Ammar Al Attar: Documenting Emirati life

Sunday 19/02/2017
From the series Sibeel Water by UAE photographer Ammar Al Attar. (Courtesy of Ammar Al Attar)

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.