graffiti in Dubai

I recently sat down with long-time Dubai resident and photographer Jalal Abuthina to talk about his photobook series “Inside Dubai”. Inside Dubai is a project that aims to document a unique account of Dubai - something that few photojournalists have attempted to do in the past. Jalal decided to start project after noting the lack of resources that gave an authentic account of the city - and also the need to break away from stereotypical and one-dimensional images of Dubai. I spoke with Jalal about his project, representation and the city we both grew up in, for Sekka Magazine. You can find the interview here.

Images courtesy of Jalal Abutina

At the end of the interview, however, Jalal pulled out a white book/catalogue and gave it to me. It was a gift - a incredibly thoughtful one that has been in my thoughts since he gave it to me. It’s one of his earliest books, before the creation of “Inside Dubai”, that documented graffiti around the city. It particularly looks at a neighbourhood Al Badra also known as district 333. Al Badra is sandwiched between the more popular areas of Jumeriah 1 and Satwa, and is often times assumed to be part of either one. The book is a beautiful account that archives the history and phenomena of “street art” in Dubai (and the UAE at large).

As you can tell from many of the images, the writing is very simple, short, to the point. It is the complete opposite of everything we “know” about graffiti - it is the opposite of what you see in European or American cities - and the book presents it as a complete genre of its own. This project immediately took me down memory lane; images of graffiti from the neighbourhoods I grew up in came flooding back to me and I instantly blushed. I remembered how embarrassed I used to be of this overly simplistic graffiti. Seeing it on the walls of my school and near my apartment building used to make me cringe. I always assumed that our "overly-simplistic” graffiti was the result of our “backwardness”. Our communities were unable to coherently build a “proper” street art scene because we are in a way “primitive” and don’t understand the sophisticated rules of street art.

The book didn’t only bring me back to my childhood but it brought me back to myself - why was I so critical and so embarrassed? The answer to that, I of course, know very well. I now know that we have been taught from the very beginning not to understand our history. Not to understand the complexity and layers and multitudes of our communities. We have been taught not to think twice about WHY the graffiti is so simplistic (because vandalism is a serious crime in the region and therefore the writing has to be quick and short before anyone gets caught) and to just assume that everything we are part of is INVALID. That its not witty or clever or meaningful in its own right. That nothing we make organically of our environment can have meaning or validity.

Seeing this project restored my feeling of pride that I worked so hard over the years to gain. Its taken me so long to break down the stigma inside me and to truly see who we are with understanding and empathy. This is why its so important to archive our communities - we need to be creating works that help us understand ourselves.