Artist Lamya Gargash On Documenting Forgotten Spaces In Emirati Society

Ayesha S. Shehmir, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, June 11, 2021

"There is much beauty in what is now considered banal - the unseen, the overlooked"

Throughout her career, Lamya Gargash has showcased her work across several group exhibitions and film festivals around the world. Here, the award-winning artist sits down with Bazaar Art to discuss her dreams, the concept of cultural change and celebrating spaces.


Tell us about your background and your journey of becoming an artist. What sparked your interest in photography?

I was never really interested in the camera. In fact, when I was younger, it was my younger sister who would be taking pictures. On family vacations my parents would tell me to hand the camera over to her as she took better pictures than I did. It never really occurred to me that it would play a pivotal part in my growth as an artist.


My first analogue photography class sparked a huge interest in this medium. Initially, I tried my best to get out of the course, but it was a prerequisite and was non-negotiable, thus I decided to soldier through it and to my surprise, I found bliss and joy looking through the view finder and unveiling my images in the dark room.


It was a natural ascension to the medium. It was my destiny.


What inspired you to document forgotten spaces in public and private realms in Emirati society?

My old home was the muse that started it all. I had flown back home for winter break, unsure what my thesis project would be. So, I was pretty stressed and flustered. It was the visit to my grandparents' for lunch with my camera that really triggered everything.


We lived in a family compound with my grandparents and uncle and had moved out a few years earlier. I was intrigued to see my new home and I was lucky enough to have had my camera on me that day.


I was curious now to see how time has altered this childhood home of mine and this opened up a whole world for me. One which I have been dedicated to for over fifteen years.


There is much beauty in what is now considered banal - the unseen, the overlooked. I like to provide an insight into more intimate spaces opposing the commercial, globalised image that the media seeks to present of my home.


Tell us about your photography series ‘Presence’. How have you explored the notion of estrangement and why do you think it’s important to address this?

I am an observer. I live my life through visuals. Stories form in my mind as a series of images rather than text, and my work is a direct opposition to our fast-paced society.


Using analogue photography reflects this opposition. My thesis study called Presence is about documenting Emirati family homes, specifically in Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman, through different stages of abandonment: Its initial stages, the process of moving and then complete abandonment.


The quarters documented vary from being semi-abandoned, people about to move to newer houses, to those soon to be demolished. These interiors represent a young culture that came to life post the oil boom nearly 30 years ago. Now with the need to be “modern” taking over, cultural extinction is inevitable and a new identity is forming.


The houses or edifices presented in this project entail different features. Some are recently vacant, whereas others have been deserted for a long time. The present trend of modernisation had transformed the old and cultural infrastructure into beach resorts, rental compounds and even shopping malls.


Our concept of time is very different in parts of the world, where 100-year-old homes are still considered modern. These homes, in contrast, were deemed too old at 20 or even 25 years old. This fascinated me.


This type of mentality was the driving force to undertake this project on a deeper level.


In your work, why did you choose to photograph spaces without physical human presence?

My work documenting spaces is truly an homage to my home, my country and my city. Representing emotions and human experiences I grew up with as opposed to the glossy images portrayed by the media.


There is a lot of intimacy and humanity in the work without showcasing any physical human figures. Devoting myself to this form of preservation stems from memories and a huge interest in the human narrative. Showcasing the mundane in a beautiful light and allowing the viewer to delve into the details and the human narrative that exists within them.


One can sense great human presence in the spaces I shoot without actually seeing any humans. The details in these spaces, be it furniture or composition all weave into each and portray humanness and a great sense of intimacy. Cultural change can definitely be presented and expressed in the spaces we live in. How we as humans interact with one another and how our lives are in constant motion.


How would you describe your desire for seclusion, as seen in your series ‘Traces'?

All the work I document really fall under one theme: the concept of cultural change in space and also the human experience in space. Traces is just an extension of my studies of space which I have been conducting for over 15 years.


In your series ‘Familial' - which was showcased at the UAE Pavilion’s first appearance at the Venice Biennale - you’ve explored the relationship between an unfamiliar space and personal human touches. In this light, what do you believe defines a space?

In Familial, I have documented budget hotels, their rooms and spaces. I have created a link between me and the unfamiliar by integrating family portraits in them.


I wanted to present them in a beautiful light since they are overshadowed by commercially accepted glossier establishments. The idea was not only to provide a platform to show their humanness but also to strip them of labels and project them as personal, private spaces.


In my opinion, every space - be it commercial or personal - evokes a sense of human experience and every space needs to be celebrated.


What are you working on at the moment?

As a mother, it is almost impossible to be producing work constantly, but I am always shooting.


My cameras are always with me, and I am always looking for moments and for inspiration: Providing a perspective on my personal experiences and finding intense beauty in what is overlooked and what is considered mundane.


From the Harper's Bazaar Arabia website.