MUSEUM DEBATE: EMII ALRAI AT THE TETLEY, LEEDS

What happens to an object when it enters the museum space? A transformative shift occurs, one within which object is subverted into artefact. A past identity is shed whilst a new one is gained, pacified by the museum, cloaking a process of appropriation in the guises of preservation and display.

Leeds based artist Emii Alrai explores these issues in her current solo show at The Tetley. Informed by her dual identity as a middle Eastern woman growing up in the UK, The High Dam offers viewers the opportunity to evaluate traditional museum processes, to question the objects displayed and decipher how, and possibly of most importance, why they are presented.

Alrai’s exhibition takes place across two of The Tetley’s gallery spaces. The centrepiece of her show, which can be found in Shirley Cooper Gallery Space, on the first floor, is a five-metre long boat. Functioning as a replica of a bitumen boat, these structures were originally constructed in the ancient Middle East and found inside grave shafts.

It is believed these boats functioned as demon lures, working to trap and deter grave robbers and demons from stealing remains. This structure is raised on metal stands, lifting the boat into the centre of the gallery space. Above eye-level for many guests, visitors are invited to peer at the curiosities curated inside the vessel. With the walls of the gallery space enveloped in a collage of plaster-covered, corrugated cardboard, a tactile landscape of various beige and browns provides a backdrop for the sculptural, glossy boat.

Collaged wall covering, Shirley Cooper Gallery, The Tetley, 2020

Spotlights hit the various smaller objects within the boat, with each air-dry clay pot and sculpted animal figurine bringing to mind the significance of talismans, or the display style of a museum diorama.

Emii Alrai, The High Dam, Shirley Cooper Gallery, The Tetley, 2020

Entirely Alrai’s intention, she constructed such objects to emulate the sorts of objects we might expect to see within a museum context. Playful and subversive, Alrai’s work toys with the traditions of museum display, bringing to light the value applied to such objects when viewed through a Western gaze.

In the opposing gallery space, Alrai presents a series of large polystyrene forms, each rocky shape impaled by metals rods.

Emii Alrai, Mixed Media Installation, Gallery 9, The Tetley, 2020

These abstract forms surround the viewer who are halted at the door by the wire barrier. Confronting the audience with a playful manipulation of traditional museological procedures of hanging and display, Alrai inflicts damage on her sculptures, wounding each one with metal prongs, rather than applying the notions of preservation and care expected in museological display. The mixed media installation imagines constructed artefacts as invaluable antiquities, mimicking irreplaceable museum objects. Puncturing each of these forms challenges the Westernised culture of collecting, destabilising the application of value to objects within a museum, which is reinforced through the preventative care taken with artefacts.

Emii Alrai, Gallery 9, The Tetley, 2020

Alrai’s bold installations confront the viewer with the realities of museological acquisition and encourage a process of questioning, regarding the value of objects which have been plucked from their origins and transplanted within a Western context. Her exhibition celebrates a certain ‘unfinished’ aesthetic, with her sculptural forms adopting the appearance of the findings of an archaeological dig. Without the formal supports, display poles and stands, these objects would seem out of place, crumbling plaster, broken figurines, in a contemporary space in Leeds. At very odds with their environment, Alrai successfully comments on the problematic procedures of Western-centric museum display and raises the question, how can Middle Eastern artefacts be transported to Western museums, celebrated and gazed upon? She makes the viewer contemplate the residues left in the objects’ place of origin and brings to light the ultimate fragmentating of identity and heritage which take place within the traditions of museum collecting.

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With a revised programme schedule, Emii Alrai’s exhibition will remain on display until 29 November 2020. Book your free gallery ticket here: https://www.thetetley.org/.

A graduate from the University of Leeds in 2016, Emii Alrai was a TAAP artist between 2018-19 (The Tetley Artist Associate Programme), which is a year-long talent development programme for emerging artists, supported by Tetley’s Beer.  She has previously been selected as an engagement artist by Yorkshire Sculpture International and nominated by The Hepworth Wakefield as one of three UK artists to take part in Making Marks, a project exploring the impact of international working on emerging artists.

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