Afra’s hair is the colour of saffron with streaks of mashed turmeric. It’s thick and coiled like frayed edges of rope, and tumbles past her shoulders. When she was a girl, it grew past her knees. In some public spaces, she covers her hair, keeping it obscured from view: “My upbringing says it’s a private body part,” she says. However, in her recent solo show, ‘Split Ends’ at Green Art Gallery in Dubai, her hair is there plainly on view for everyone to see. It’s pressed and twisted into knots; combed into rope and twine; and folded with watercolours and gesso. You can see it hanging from large-scale installations and used like string in delicate sculptures.
Emirati artist Afra Al Dhaheri, 33, grew up in Abu Dhabi but spent her summers in the United States. Her interdisciplinary practice spans painting, sculpture, textiles and ceramics. She received her MFA at the esteemed Rhode Island School of Design, which helped give her a new understanding of home. “Time slows down in the United States and fast-forwards in the UAE,” she says. “I’d come back from college and drive around, and everything looked so foreign to me: new buildings, new houses, new developments. Imagine [that] everyone dresses differently and wears their makeup differently. [Then,] suddenly everyone has fillers and looks the same.”
Upon returning to the UAE, Al Dhaheri joined the faculty of Zayed University. Along with Hashel Al Lamki and Maitha Abdalla, she founded the powerful art collective BAIT 15, which operates two studiocum-art gallery spaces in Abu Dhabi. “With BAIT 15, we were interested in taking part and creating an environment for community and dialogue for artists,” she says.
For Afra, a type of artmaking has always been in the family, a lineal passing down from mother to daughter. Her mother owns the art store Crafty Cottage, and sometimes appears on television to talk about her crafts. Going back a generation, Afra’s maternal grandmother knitted, sewed and made the sort of dolls you find in many Emirati households. Her paternal grandmother practiced palm leaf weaving. In many ways, Afra channels the spirit of these vernacular ways of making and re-interprets these craft traditions through the more conceptual gestures of the contemporary art system. “I’ve always associated creativity with my mother,” she says. “She has always put me into classes to learn to sew or crochet or make jewellery, and as a kid I used to love baking French bread. I think that’s where a big sense of [my] materiality and process comes from."