In a marked departure from her harmonious, amoeba-like watercolors enfolding stands of human hair, Afra Al Dhaheri’s latest work suggests acts of transgression and rupture. Both real and represented, hair exceeds its sculptural container and bifurcates the exhibition space, collapsing notions of public display and private ritual. She builds a vocabulary of materials—twisting cement, clay, thread, and rope to suggest plaited locks —but she is doing more than indexing the ways in which hair can be decontextualized as form.
In Fil Al Shaar (all works 2020), a curtain of thick, braided cotton cords cascades from ceiling to floor, dividing the gallery and impeding movement throughout the space. Split Ends, which lends the exhibition its name, pushes through this divider. A chunky coiled log segmented into thirteen interlocked parts, it’s at once forbidding and inviting, summoning the viewer to step across the partition.
A few works in the show rely less heavily on the physical impact of their materials, suggesting more intimate themes of interiority and embodiment. School braid, for example, recalls a childhood memory of thick hair hidden underneath a school uniform; an upside-down door frame (Absent Yet Present, 2020) is the remnant of an abandoned family home. While these pieces feel rather light in terms of conceptual weight, Al Dhaheri excels in architectural interventions that expand hair’s culturally coded symbolism in the UAE, but also in her minimalist works that reference its concealment.
The Line Hair Drawings are stunning closed circuits of overlaid strands, their simplicity belied by vertical and horizontal traceries resonating with the space. One at a Time presents a mess of untangled, fine curls dangling from strips of cotton mounted horizontally on the wall like a timeline. The artist doesn’t fetishize hair, but rather suspends it between states of containment and unravelling. The element of control may be present in Al Dhaheri’s material manipulations, but she has loosened the strings, enabling the sculptures to perform themselves.