One of the most intriguing art exhibitions to come to Abu Dhabi is currently on display at the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Art Gallery; presented by the art collective Slavs and Tatars, this major solo showcase is a their most ambitious and immersive installation to date. FACT’s Shabana Adam chats with Gallery Director and Curator, Maya Allison, to learn more about the exhibition…

When I heard that Slavs and Tatars was coming to Abu Dhabi to showcase the collective’s incredible work, there was jump for joy and a feeling of excitement for all the art enthusiasts in the city. This is their most ambitious and immersive installation to date, with new work occupying the 7,000-square-foot exhibition space at NYUAD Art Gallery. The exhibition and accompanying book trace the current obsession with self-help to a medieval genre of political science, “Mirrors for Princes,” shared among Christian and Muslim lands, with Machiavelli’s The Prince being the most famous example. At NYUAD Art Gallery the artists look to these texts as an urgent precedent of generosity and critique, and as a case study of the balance between faith and state, issues that continue to resonate today across the Middle East, North America and Europe.

For those who may not be familiar with this art collective, who exactly are Slavs and Tatars?

“This is a group of artists who, together, create art installations, books, and performances,” says Maya Allison, Gallery Director and exhibition curator. “They started as a book group, reading about the cultural history of the Islamic world, and from that began producing books that connected those readings to contemporary questions and issues. “The group describes itself as ‘a faction of polemics and intimacies devoted to an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China.’ They are best known for their use of a playful presentation style to disarm and engage viewers in the content of the research underlying their work,” she adds.

In the exhibition, visitors traverse three environments, each radically different from the last. The first is a five-channel audio installation in which a series of mirrored speakers, arranged  on traditional book stands, play excerpts from an 11th-century, Turkic “mirror for prince” called Kutadgu Bilig (Wisdom of Royal Glory), in five languages (Turkish, Uighur, Polish, German, and Arabic).

Next, a dark, psychedelic gallery holds a series of glowing, fetishistic sculptures that explore the text’s concern with grooming, both one’s hair as well as one’s heart and one’s tongue. Finally, visitors discover a serene teahouse and reading room, where the books available are curated by the artists from the NYU Abu Dhabi library collection, and merge with their art practice. “They [Slavs and Tatars] make art installations – sculptures and images, but also entire environments, such as a teahouse or a dark, mysterious room, where the mood itself is part of the work,” Maya explains. “All of their art has a very playful quality.

They link witty, irreverent, creative practice to scholarly and field research, so naturally they are ideal for a University gallery audience, and its surrounding community. “Like many in the NYUAD academic community, the artists work at the intersection of multiple histories, in this case from Eastern Europe to Western China,” she says. “Their projects resonate with the regional audience, and with the diverse community within NYUAD’s student body and faculty.” Maya tells me that it has been a wonderful experience bringing a university gallery into existence. I’m curious to know if she faced any challenges with putting together this particular exhibition.

“The biggest challenge was simply making sure people know that it is happening,” she says. “As a new space on a university campus, it’s important that people understand that we are exhibiting shows in the format of a museum: the work is not for sale, the artwork comes from established artists, and our shows run for two to three months,” Maya adds. One of her favourite pieces on display at Mirrors for Princes is Fingerling, a sculpture that shows hands holding thread, as if at a salon, to thread facial hair, but on that thread are rosary beads.

“Right now,we hope to create a space where creative individuals and scholars and people who love art can all come together and grow into a community of friends and colleagues.”

“It captures how these artists combine ‘grooming’ in the salon sense with ‘grooming’ of one’s spiritual practice – it’s playful, but also responding to the more serious work of these ‘Mirrors for Princes’ to groom our future leaders to be good leaders,” Maya says. In conjunction with the exhibition, a book titled Mirrors for Princes has been published by JRP| Ringier, edited by Anthony Downey of Ibraaz, and commissioned by the NYUAD Gallery for the Mirrors for Princes exhibition cycle, in collaboration with the other venues. As for the growing art scene in Abu Dhabi, Maya believes that there are many creative people here, and the promise of great museums to come is exciting. She says: “Right now, we hope to create a space where creative individuals and scholars and people who love art can all come together and grow into a community of friends and colleagues. All art ‘scenes’ need that, and everyone, from artists to engineers, from students to families, thrive when communities have a variety of artistic nourishment to offer.” I couldn’t agree more!

GO: The Slavs and Tatars: Mirrors for Princes exhibition will run until May 30 at NYUAD Art Gallery. Visit www.nyuad-artgallery.org or call (0)2 628 8000 for more information