Desert as muse


Deserts converse with us in a different language. And we understand it, most of the time. Deserts are the ultimate expressions of solid-yet-fluid space, and their uninterrupted spatial expanse lovingly mocks at our limited lives. But generally we tend to foster a negative connotation around deserts — fit only for a brief spell of adventure — because we feel they just offer the minimalist backdrop to life, where elements express themselves in their raw beauty.
No wonder, artistically exploring this rough terrain has always remained a challenge. To appreciate them requires an altogether different aesthetic caliber.
However, the monumental space of the desert has had a powerful influence on art, be it the bold land art adventures of Donald Judd who sought to soak in the emptiness of the surrounding Chihuahua desert landscape of Marfa in Texas, or Walter De Maria’s stunning works (notably “The Lightning Field” and “The Mile Long Drawing”), to list a few.
Such attempts have brought in a new perspective entirely inspired by the pure space of the desert, introducing to the art community the amazing possibilities of the bare wild.
Of course, their focus was not to paint or sculpt desert forms.
What they chased was the inspiration that the grand topology of the deserts ignited, which added new dimensions to paintings, installations and land art. Both the sculptures and the space that contained them assume equal significance in their works.
Back home, the fantastic deserts in the Sultanate are waiting for artists to romance them. Here I’d like to mention Petros N Zouzoulas, the Greek architect and photographer, who explored the rolling deserts of the Sultanate over a five-year period (2007-12), clicking away their diverse moods and expressions.
He could arguably be the first artist to have such a long-term affair with Oman’s deserts, revealing their most sublime and aesthetic dimensions using the medium of photography.
His words about Oman’s deserts beautifully portray their essence, even as he echoes grave concerns about humans degrading virgin landscapes: “I’ve had the rare privilege to travel and camp through much of the Sultanate. While many of these places… ranging from the far northern parts of Oman in Musandam to the Hajar mountains in central Oman…appeared rather untouched in my earlier visits, new access to many of these sites has brought people, and along with them trash which has scarred the landscape. I will not reveal the location of (the places photographed) any further for fear that I would further accelerate the demise of this land by polluters,” he said, adding, “We have been reminded that we are small beings under the heavens.”
If a foreigner who was new to Oman’s deserts could be so wowed by their greatness, what to say about the bonding and appreciation felt by Oman’s own people whose cultural identity is defined to a large extent by deserts?
While every desert has its own charm, the Empty Quarter — called the Rub al Khali — exudes a mystic aura that eludes easy description.
However, we haven’t seen any prolific attempts by Omani artists and photographers to decode the mystic exuberance of Oman’s deserts; in particular Rub al Khali.
A notable effort has been the photographical journey of two artists — Ahmed al Harthy and Ahmed al Shukaili — who had an eerie tryst with the unkissed terrains of Rub al Khali in 2013. Their snaps titled “The Fabrics of the Desert” are an attempt at feeling the soul of Rub al Khali, which is one of the largest sand deserts of the world, and one of most inaccessible.
They succeeded in bringing out the land’s stunning contrasts. They captured the fiery sun beating down on the sands even as hot gusts of wind continuously redefine the desert, along with its softer aspects such as the deafening stillness and absence of time, offering a unique visual treat.
Paintings, land art and architecture inspired by Oman’s deserts, together with desert-focused art residency programmes and art communities, could greatly enhance efforts by Oman’s Ministry of Tourism to popularise the Sultanate as a choice tourist destination.
No doubt, Oman’s majestic deserts could be every artist’s haloed muse. However, the romance is yet to reach full bloom. It may take time, for it’s a different love affair. And, time is infinite — just as the deserts that we attempt to realise in our selves.