Filling in the blanks

on Dubai's walls

Culture

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Dubai, not surprisingly, last year had people paint the largest mural in the world: Rehlatna, “Our journey”, which stretched along the Gloria hotel next to Jumeirah Beach Park and was made in celebration of the 43rd National Day of the UAE.

National murals — often depicting colourful, nationalist motifs, like the falcons and calligraphy on the Rehlatna painting — are common bearers of political and nationalist messages. The most notable example of this is Mexican muralism, which began in the 1920s as an initiative to unite people following the Mexican revolution. Messages of national, political and social meanings were circulated, starting a cultural trend that spread for decades in Mexico and beyond.

Murals and walls from Tehran to Berlin are other cases of such processes of identity and nation building.

But just like many things in Dubai, the mural is peculiar. 2.25 kilometres of painted castles in the sand, camels, Arabian horses and falcons, crowns and flags, calligraphy and veiled women, prominent buildings and elaborate mosques — all airbrushed in bright colours, celebrating a legacy: the country’s journey of independence. There were 150 national and international artists invited to take part in the impressive initiative.

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But not Dubai’s most authentic street artist.

Rewind a few years, to when I visited Dubai on a mission to unravel some of the city’s spirit through its walls and graffiti. I struggled. The walls were so clean apart from a Tupac here and a Freej there, a few scribbles elsewhere, including in languages I couldn’t understand. There is some street art to be found a bit outside the city, and now some recent and noteworthy works in different central parts by the Void and FWC graffiti crews, but as far as the commercial walls of Dubai go, it is hard to find expressions that are not advertisements or public announcements. I remember wondering back then, that if there ever was an art or graffiti movement to develop in the city, it would probably be neat, pretty and happy-go-lucky, and most likely commissioned by art galleries.

Today, I’m glad to have been proven wrong. Something much more interesting has emerged: the artist Arcadia Blank. The name literally translates into a blank utopia; a space that’s expressionless, untouched and blank. What started as a triangle, representing an esoteric symbol of ascension, painted on walls across Dubai, eventually turned into a “u” — a blown open triangle — or a “u” as in “you”, you, read the writing on the wall.

An expat with a mixed Arab and European descent, Arcadia Blank came to Dubai like many others, in search for a better life. His journey into the city’s streets began out of a frustration with the local art scene, which he found too commercial, compartmentalised and in lack of any organic element representing society, community and human spirit. In an attempt to find an alternative platform, and as a consequence of a general sense of disbelonging, Arcadia Blank began to write on the streets.

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The art he makes — gnomes, short sentences; always in caps — range from provocative to poetic, as do his questions, which range from the sarcastic to the genuine. They are ultimately participatory, requiring the passerby, “u”, to complete his work by pausing to look at it, in the midst of Dubai’s imposing construction sites, real estate developments, malls and highways.

Arcadia’s writings are mostly found on temporary construction structures or barricades, which perfect his defining unique interventionist aesthetic. They speak about modernity and consumerism, lifestyle choices and belonging, in a city constantly struggling to define itself. Behind each statement is a meaning, serving to subvert our expectations as we mindlessly navigate through the urbanity. I found, when discovering the letters on the walls, that the “u” and what it said could make a soulless city breathe.

His work seems to echo much of the frustrations of Dubai’s inhabitants. It is a release, a way of destressing and venting out, and has allowed him to “bypass the constraints of the very compartmentalised art scene” in Dubai. A hyperactive interruption that is both expressive and inquisitive.

Then there are his tech-specific writings, which question the city’s acquiescence of exponential advancement at the expense of staying grounded and in touch with reality. “My software, my sanctum”. “This beautiful pixelated world”. “Smile, you’re disintegrating”, and “Die in HD”.

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But does this mean anything to the passersby? On a makeshift barricade is written “We all search”, suggesting that the writer is not alone in this search for meaning. Presumably, those who share Arcadia Blank’s work online, adding the hashtag #arcadiablank, can relate to a common quest. And so begins the discourse and the maps of meaning, which are what makes Arcadia’s work powerful and significantly different from the corporate and sponsored “street art” projects, including the Rehlatna mural. The power of Arcadia’s writings lies in their ephemerality, which ties perfectly into Dubai, where things are in constant flux and transit.

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Aren’t we all struggling to keep up with this fast-pace world? Perhaps what makes Dubai exceptional is its boundless and untameable ambitions, though most of its inhabitants suffice and get by with a lot less. “All my dreams drowned in dollars” says another message, written on a crooked and descending structure at Palm Jumeirah. Perhaps a reference to the recent market crash. “Rotting in opulence”, “Malls r us” and “Pocket full of gold and a paunch full of guilt” are other reflective axioms in this city of cranes, tagged in order to sparkle the sky with more glitter.

Another wall says “And then there was plight”.

And then there was plight, which was not painted on the world’s largest mural.

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