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Bigger picture: UAE art exhibit shows a new side to family photographs

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By Ana De Oliva
Artist Maria José Rodrigues Escolar (right) pictured with Dr. Michele Bambling, creator of the Lest We Forget project (left)
Artist Maria José Rodrigues Escolar (right) pictured with Dr. Michele Bambling, creator of the Lest We Forget project (left)

An art exhibition in the UAE is showing a different perspective to family photographs.

Created by Spanish artist Maria José Rodrigues Escolar, the exhibit is part of the Lest We Forget initiative (see below) and puts together family photographs - alongside artworks based on them - originating from the UAE and Spain in the late 20th century.

The Universality of Family Photographs exhibition in Warehouse421

Entitled ‘The Universality of Family Photographs,’ the exhibition aims to bring more than a simple comparison between the two countries, according to Rodrigues Escolar.

“The important thing familiar and intimate photographs when you take into another space, another context, there's a new meaning to these images, they become universal, artistic,” she explains.

Artwork exhibited at The Universality of Family Photographs

The exhibition uses the popularisation of the Kodak camera during that period and showed how the device gave different people the ability to pose and register what was important to them. From objects to moments, the exhibit aims to uncover a hidden, almost oblivious past and its details.

“At the time, in Spain, in the Emirates, [the photos show] the pride of your family, your children, your car, friendships, celebrations,” she explains. “What I want is to rescue these memories conceptually and aesthetically.”

The painting on the left, based on an Emirati photo from the Lest We Forget collection, juxtaposed with a photo from Escolar’s archives in Spain

Contrast is highlighted with the original use of colour and medium, with some reproductions using warmer tones, whilst others are featured in black and white with inserts of sand. According to the artist, the use of sand makes reference to uncovering old memories.

“Sometimes people forget the past, even the very recent past and I played with sand because it can cover everything easily while we try to dig out the past,” says the artist.

Artist Maria José Rodrigues Escolar shows Euronews the process of pairing her photos and artwork with Lest We Forget material

The exhibition will run from 12th June to 28th July at Warehouse 421.


The Lest We Forget initiative began in a university classroom.

Lest We Forget art photography books on display at Warehouse421

In 2011, Dr. Michele Bambling was invited by Zayed University to teach ‘Curatorial Practices’, with the aim of preparing young Emiratis to work in the museums that were being constructed in Abu Dhabi’s Saaadiyat Island.

In her years in the UAE, learning more about the country’s history, Dr. Bambling realised something was missing:

“I had read everything I could read in English about the history of the UAE and examined the photographs, but I noticed that there was a missing imagery for that history and that was the photographs taken by Emirati cameras.”

In the hope of enabling the students to familiarise with their own history through the lenses of their ancestors, Bambling asked the group to bring in their family albums to class.

After months of reluctance from the group, a student named Mariem presented the class with the first family album.

The thick, black, dusty book with the words ‘Lest We Forget’ typed on its cover - which explains the origin of the project’s name - created a buzz in the classroom.

“They began to flip the pages look at it ask Mariem stories so they were naturally telling stories to one another that had been passed down through her family,” Bambling tells. “They were so enthralled by the photographs that they went home and told their parents about that album and by the last few weeks of class different students brought in a few of their family photographs as well.”

Photo courtesy: Lest We Forget
Lest We Forget collects a series of family photographs from the UAEPhoto courtesy: Lest We Forget

Amidst the excitement, students began to exchange their own family stories, drawing comparisons and coincidences between each other’s photographs and memories.

“It was then that they realised the value of their own photographs not just because they loved the people in them or their in their household, but that those pictures really mattered and related to and connected to someone in the next house, in the next community, in the next Emirate and for the country overall,” she explains.

“They began to have real joy linking their stories and creating these stories - so that's the key word, create.”

Ayah Al Heera presents her creation based on photographs of her grandfather (left) and mother (right)

By creation, Bambling refers to the the students artistic responses to their photos through sketch, sculpture and installations created to accompany the photography art book they put together with family photos, called Emirati Family Photographs.

One the members is Safiya Al Masqari, who says the project will have an impact for years to come.

“The purpose of [this work] is that the younger generation will hold these memories so they don't die out and it's important to collect them because otherwise once they are gone, that memory is gone,” she explains.

Ayah Al Heera, who has also been involved with the initiative since the very beginning, worked on a photo of her grandfather.

Ayah Al Heera presents her creation based on her family photographs, exhibited at Warehouse421

“I felt that I’m really attached to it because I never had the chance to meet him. He passed away before I was born so I felt that I started to know him better when I looked into his photographs,” she tells Euronews.

Now, Lest We Forget counts with more than 500 participants, including Emiratis and ex-patriates, creating a series of photography art books and exhibits supported by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation.