Slovenian visual artist Marta Lamovsek poses for a photograph at her residence in Dubai. Photo: Dana Hachwa/ Gulf Today
“I remember the first time I was on the beach, and I was taking photos of birds,” said visual artist/photographer Marta Lamovsek. “I saw that there [were] men putting up their carpet and putting up their coffee and tea … and then one man with this group, they were Emiratis, he said, ‘Come, come! Come here!’ And I was like “Okay,” and he’s like, ‘Sit! How are you?’"
As she recounted one of the many remarkable experiences she had in the UAE, Lamovsek’s eyes widened in wonder as she sat at her chaotically organised desk in her Dubai home. The large work desk dominated her sitting room where a television would typically be, and on the couch sat a cat or two, depending on how many had entered through the wide-open backdoor looking out on a lively shared garden.
The animated Slovenian had moved here from London, England in 2013 for a temporary photography job, but what she eventually found would define the rest of her career, and would keep her here longer than expected. The beach incident was one of these catalysts, a confirmation that she was meant to do more than just take photographs commissioned by others.
“I was interested in the diversity. In general I was very captivated by the fact that, in London, I was seeing the multicultural environment,” said Lamovsek. “But here, it went further. Here, I can actually participate in it.”
It was in this melting pot that Lamovsek experienced an artistic release, and eventually developed the unique visual language and style seen in her portraits today. A quick scroll through her Instagram page would reveal a stark shift from sleek, gloomy, black and white photographs taken in London, to the colourful, culturally-ambiguous and “kitschy,” as she calls it, portraits that now paint her life.
This artistic evolution was long and definitely not instantaneous, but if Lamovsek were to pinpoint ground zero, it would be her move to the neighbourhood of Satwa in old Dubai. “It’s something about the vibe here that gives me … this stuck-ness in time,” she said, comparing it to the city’s downtown areas that are lukewarm in their modernity. “Here, things are almost unchanged, it looks like we’re in the 70s.”
And so, Satwa, where she resides in to this day, became the source of her artistic stream: the haven of artistic inspiration and cultural expression that she was searching for since leaving London. “I decided that I love the neon lights, I love all these kitschy stuff that I see around streets,” she added.
Lamovsek then began exploring Satwa’s shops and collecting items of clothing and jewellery she found intriguing, with a particular interest in those with Middle Eastern and Asian influences. Some of these items she hodgepodged into something new, and once, she even salvaged giant letters from a store’s retired signage for one of her backdrops.
Now, all Lamovsek needed was a human subject who could unite these elements in a portrait, and it was at a traffic light’s pedestrian crossing that Lamovsek found just that. Her first subject was a Pakistani man named Khaled. “There was something that I felt: this, I need to explore, this is it,” she said of the moment she spotted him.
Soon after, Lamovsek’s series ‘Plastic Garden’ was born, and it featured portraits of some of Satwa’s Pakistani men holding flowers awash in colourful neon light. The first one, of course, was a mesmerising portrait of Khaled holding a rose, framed by a bright pink background.
“These people are among us and they are people that we should look at and maybe have a conversation with,” Lamovsek said of the subjects of ‘Plastic Garden’. “Now you will look at them, because you never look at them.”
“It all just brought together my passions and my values,” said Lamovsek of her new project, ICONBOOTH. Taking an ICONBOOTH portrait might mean being clothed in a Levantine dress, an Indian shawl, a Pakistani hat and Emirati jewellery. The result is a photograph reminiscent of painted portraits of royalty, a stunning amalgamation of colour, culture and command.
"Some people call it cultural appropriation, but I’ve never seen it like this,” said Lamovsek. “My personal experience was, when I first wore a hat that was a Muslim hat … everyone who was Muslim gets a smile on their face, they were so happy. They were like, ‘Are you Muslim?’ I said no, but I love the culture and I’m embracing it.”
Lamovsek’s art is within this embrace, transcending social and cultural boundaries in the most humbling yet luxurious way imaginable.
“I feel, this is my opinion, we as humans sometimes get too identified with our own culture,” she added. “Which, it’s good to be proud of where you come from, but that sometimes can limit you.”
And contemplating her portraits, one can clearly see the future the way Marta Lamovsek sees it: limitless.
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