Illustration by Isabel Ríos

Two Angry South Asian Women Making Sense of the Mina Zayed Exhibition

We spent the rest of our evening expelling heavy sighs and furiously writing in our notebooks, phones and eventually the walls of Warehouse 421. We were angry.

Apr 10, 2021

It’s Feb. 17. We decide to pay a visit to Warehouse 421’s latest exhibition, “Mina Zayed: Reflections on Past Futures.” This visit is a search for solace as we attempt to make sense of Mina’s accelerated redevelopment projects and the inevitable process of displacement that comes with it.
Mina holds a special place in many of our hearts. Its close proximity to campus has led to the infamous midnight chai and paratha runs. For some, the space stores pockets of childhood nostalgia. For us, we feel a warm familiarity amidst Brown bodies, a gentle reminder of our homes and families that are an ocean away.
Inscribed on a wide white wall is a description that the exhibition “explores and honors the lives and livelihoods it continues to support today, those who may soon find their surroundings drastically changed.” The show is the outcome of a year-long mentorship program in collaboration with Gulf Photo Plus, where 11 emerging artists were chosen to receive pedagogical support for their art-making practice.
With curiosity, we enter.
Museum of Ordinary Things by Catherine Donaldson. Photo Courtesy of Lubnah Ansari and Nandini Kochar.
In the first room we discover a colourful assortment of cardboard boxes, broom sticks and a single broken mop carefully placed together in a museum-like fashion. We notice business cards messily pinned to a cork board, worn out badminton rackets and tattered chairs, among many more objects common to everyday life in the Mina Vegetable market, put on display for our gaze. This is “The Museum of Ordinary Things,” we read.
A lingering discomfort begins to writhe within us: why are ordinary objects from local shops in Mina Zayed embellishing the walls of an elite space like Warehouse 421?
In silence, we continue.
Making our way through the winding walls of the exhibition space, we observe a series of black and white portraits of Brown men posing with cricket bats, in addition to photographs of kitchen utensils, clothing lines, food containers and other personal items found in the temporary homes of drivers at Mina Zayed.
Am I Driving Safely? Please Call by Augustine Paredes. Photo Courtesy of Lubnah Ansari and Nandini Kochar.
At this point we stop to look at each other.
“Is this bothering you too?”
“Yes, it is.”
We turn to the texts accompanying each piece in the hope of establishing deeper connection with the disembodied objects and smiling faces of Brown men on display. We wonder: what are these individuals’ full names? What is their relationship to Mina, their co-workers and neighbors? What forms of knowledge do they possess about their trade and collective community? How do they perceive the changes occurring in Mina?
Even a glimpse of meaningful engagement with the respective communities involved would suffice in rekindling the curiosity we had started with. Instead, we find that individual stories are reduced to trivial one-line captions and, in some cases, stories are completely omitted.
Mina Repurposed by Mazna Almazrouei. Photo Courtesy of Lubnah Ansari and Nandini Kochar.
We spend the rest of our evening expelling heavy sighs and furiously writing in our notebooks, phones and eventually the walls of Warehouse 421. We are angry.
What are your favorite memories at Mina Zayed? A wall where exhibition attendees could reflect on Mina Zayed. Photo Courtesy of Lubnah Ansari and Nandini Kochar.
As two South Asian women in the UAE, we have continually thought about how Brown bodies are represented and rendered in national narratives, academic discourses, the media as well as art spaces. Often, this has meant questioning our own intersecting identities of privilege and vulnerability, as well as ways in which we are complicit in upholding structures of inequality. As we have developed a more nuanced understanding of our positionality as Brown women and aspiring artists in Abu Dhabi, we have become increasingly cognizant of the art we make, consume and support around us.
Located across the Mina Zayed Port, questions of privilege, positionality and accessibility permeate the Warehouse 421 space. While the exhibition sets out to honor the lives and livelihoods that Mina supports, we must ask ourselves: what is the line between preserving the histories and lived experiences of Mina Zayed and tokenizing the lives and labor of those who inhabit it? Why are the most widely spoken languages in the Mina community, such as Malayalam, Hindi or Urdu, wholly absent from the exhibition space? Who is the exhibition for, and how accessible is it to the communities being represented on its walls?
Postcards from Mina Zayed by Lena Kassicieh. Photo Courtesy of Lubnah Ansari and Nandini Kochar.
In the pursuit of finding answers and making sense of our anger, we connected with the different artists and programmers involved in the exhibition. To our surprise, our qualms and questions were welcomed with openness and receptivity. “I always say to people, don’t tell me what you liked about the show,” noted Mohamed Somji, the director of Gulf Photo Plus and an acclaimed Dubai-based photographer. “Tell me what you didn’t like.”
As we discussed our reservations with the exhibition, four artists explained to us their varying relationships with Mina Zayed. “I lived next to Mina and visited it a lot,” Fatema Al Fardan, Class of 2020 and an Emirati artist raised in Abu Dhabi, recalled her intimate relationship with Mina.
On the other hand, Maryam Abdulla, Class of 2021 and an Emirati artist raised in Dubai, recalled her passive relationship with Mina. “I felt like I knew of Mina Zayed, but I didn’t know the perspective from the people that worked there, [who] lived twenty or thirty years working there.”
Some artists hadn’t interacted with Mina until they were accepted into the program. “Mina is a stranger to me as I am a stranger to Mina,” reflected Augustine Paredes, Dubai-based Filipino artist and photographer.
Based on the intersecting identities each artist held, they made different choices on how to approach their respective projects. Al Fardan, for example, reflected, “I thought about my positionality and what it would mean to interact…I felt very intimidated [by Mina]. I am a woman, and it’s a very male space... There was also this Emirati-ness, a power dynamic that I didn’t know how to navigate.”
Being at a loss about what it would mean to photograph Brown men given her positionality, Al Fardan turned to explore her own family’s history and complicate the Emirati narrative. Abdulla responded similarly, choosing to focus her attention on a socio-cultural critique of weddings instead. In addition to ethnic and gender barriers, there was also a pervasive language barrier. “There were no [South Asian] people in our group, no one spoke Hindi or Urdu,” noted Al Fardan.
We Dance Asynchronously on the Same Stage by Fatema Al Fardan. Photo Courtesy of Lubnah Ansari and Nandini Kochar.
Many artists in the exhibition were aware of how Brown bodies are often represented in media. “In my opinion,” asserted Abdulla, “these kinds of places… especially when it comes to South Asians, they are very fetishized in the UAE… I think that’s because [South Asians] are so looked down upon in our country, that they justify taking photos of them. Because you’re not going to go up to an Emirati and take a photo of an Emirati.”
Somji reflected on conversations around the ethics of photography that he had conducted with the artist cohort, and Mays Albaik, Programs Manager at Warehouse 421, emphasized the institution’s mandate to develop emerging artists as critical thinkers. Nonetheless, many interactions between the artists and Mina’s inhabitants were clouded by doubt and confusion. Catherine Donaldson, an artist from London, noted that while she spoke to shop owners and vendors about where the objects they had donated were going, she wasn’t certain that “the message always got across” and people were often “confused about why [she] wanted some things sometimes.”
Mazna Almazrouei, an artist who photographed the series of Brown men playing cricket, was dubiously asked if she was from the government. These instances are testament to how power dynamics continued to unfold, even within consensual interactions.
At the end of the day, what seemed to take precedence in the Warehouse 421 and Gulf Photo Plus collaboration was not so much the responsibility of representing a space as fraught as Mina Zayed with dignity and care, as it was about prioritizing the artistic development of the eleven artists involved.
Perhaps that is where the heart of our discomfort lies – the exhibition wasn’t thoughtfully made with or for the people of Mina. This begs the question: what role does Warehouse 421 have in documenting and archiving Mina Zayed, ethically and holistically, as it stands securely across a port and series of markets impending renovation, and amid communities facing displacement?
The final return to rage, where we began. Anger is what drove us to make sense of the Mina Zayed exhibition. It compelled us to ask difficult questions, from ourselves and others. And most importantly, it helped us to start a conversation.
Conversations with artists challenged us to think deeper, extend empathy even in moments when it seemed impossible and find strength in our stance. While our understanding of the exhibition has expanded over the past few weeks and we have found spaces for redemption and hope, our anger nonetheless persists.
Our anger persists because Brown bodies continue to be fetishized, the lived experiences of marginalized identities continue to be trivialized and privileged voices continue to speak on behalf of migrant communities.
Nandini Kochar is a UAE Columnist and Lubnah Ansari is a Contributing Writer. Email them at
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