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The Stonebreakers at Warehouse421 was inspired by the historical and ongoing importance of maritime trade to the development of the port cities of the Arabian Gulf.
The Stonebreakers bring together three recent projects by Shumon Ahmed, Ranjit Kandalgaonkar and Hira Nabi that focus on a specific node within the modern shipping infrastructural network: the ship-breaking yard.
Despite limited access to the yards, ship-breaking has emerged as a cause célèbre for not just human rights and labor activists but photographers, filmmakers, and artists interested in examining the global imbalances of capital and profit, the exploitive labor practices, and the outsourcing of environmental costs that accompany globalization.
Each of the artists in this exhibition focuses on the main yard in their respective countries—Chittagong in Bangladesh, Alang in India and Gadani in Pakistan. Though each artist uses a distinct medium and methodology, they all complicate the purported objectivity of the documentary image, be it photographic, archival, acoustic or filmic, with a surreal twist.
Focus on Shumon Ahmed ‘s work
Experimenting with various analogue cameras, film stocks and unconventional processing techniques, Shumon Ahmed’s large-scale prints and intimate Polaroids zero in on the ships’ dismembered carcasses and capture minute details of the surrounding landscapes.
In his moody images, the vessels appear as ghostly ruins and the site a picturesque nautical graveyard, much like the field of abandoned dhows near Warehouse421.
Focus on Ranjit Kandalgaonkar’s project
Drawing on ongoing research into the history of shipping infrastructure, Ranjit Kandalgaonkar annotates and embellishes his archival sources, both personal and technical—from family photographs and anecdotes to CAD drawings and illustrations from industry journals—to recount stories and practices related to ship-breaking.
While his eerie, otherworldly soundscape—filled with ominous clangs and piercing grinds—acoustically transcribes the yard and the activities that transpire there, his recent drawings provide a speculative storyboard for it, visualizing a dystopic future in which decommissioned ships fuse together with the machines and marine life.
Focus on Hira Nabi’s artwork
Hira Nabi overlays documentary footage shot at Gadani with an unexpected soundtrack, weaving together workers’ testimonies, which recount their hardships and the deplorable conditions at the yard, with a poetic monologue, delivered in a dulcet female voice, of an anthropomorphized container ship.
Narrating her life story, the ship mourns not only her own obsolescence and demise but the disastrous effects the process has on those who break her down and the site. An unlikely intimate, a beloved confidant, she enables the workers not just to speak but also be heard.
The exhibition takes its enigmatic title from a famous mid-nineteenth-century painting by the French Realist Gustave Courbet, showing two male peasants breaking rocks.
Courbet’s unflinching portrayals of the rural poor, which captured the impoverished conditions in which they lived and worked, inaugurated an important humanist tradition of social realist art.
The titular reference to Courbet’s painting is a provocation, extending the exhibition’s examination of the vexed politics of representation related to ship-breaking beyond the particularities of that industry to other instances of exploited labor.
Destroyed during World War II, Courbet’s lost masterpiece casts a melancholic shadow, reminding us that despite its withdrawal from many contemporary representations of work, the laboring body never comes to rest.
This exhibition at Warehouse421 opened on the 7th of March and runs until the 26th of April 2020.
WAREHOUSE421 | Mina Zayed, Abu Dhabi
Tuesday to Sunday 10 am – 8 pm
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