I meet Ammar Al Attar at Dome Café in Dubai’s International Financial Centre and he orders coffee drowning in ice cream and sugary syrup. He wears thick-lensed glasses and a crisp white dish dash (the traditional robe worn by Muslim men in the UAE). He has a deep voice, laughs easily and speaks quietly. There is nothing flashy about him. He works a government day job behind a desk and at night takes his camera and drives around residential neighborhoods snapping photographs, sometimes for himself and sometimes for a project. The evening before he was up late in the living room, showing his wife photographs on an old rickety slide projector. He comes from and lives in the Emirate of Ajman, which he says probably influenced his work with its simplicity.
He was never formally trained in the arts but has no regrets: ‘You don’t need to study something beyond learning technique. It can be like pollution to be too heavily influenced. You can learn technique, but then have to use your freedom. As an artist you constantly have to experiment.’
There is an anthropological quality to Ammar Al Attar’s work, a desire to collect, classify and preserve elements of Emirati tradition that could easily be overlooked. An implicit love for community is a thread that runs through all his work but thankfully without the preciousness or lack of grit that so often accompanies photographs of someone or something beloved.
His most recent project, Sibeel Water, brings attention to the tradition of community water taps found outside palaces, mosques, family homes, and factories in the UAE. Sibeel in Arabic translates to ‘an act of giving.’ He explains to me that, ‘The water coolers outside the houses are donated by families, mainly for workers. If you go to Al Quoz, you will find simple fountains outside factories, and sometimes they are a bit more hidden.’ By photographing both ornate and simple taps, he has drawn attention to the tradition of charity in Islam despite financial station, and the beauty of giving away water—a particularly precious resource in the Middle East.
Some of the images were taken using large format 4×4 film that is shipped to Germany for printing. The film is expensive and only comes in packs of ten, which added to the pressure on Ammar to shoot thoughtfully. Several of the photographs from the Sibeel Water series are currently part of a group exhibition at Dubai’s Cuadro Gallery titled, Do you see what I see?
I first learned about Ammar Al Attar when I visited Prayer Rooms, his 2012 solo show at Cuadro. One of the things that Muslims first notice when visiting the UAE is the availability of prayer rooms—everywhere from malls to office buildings and even in parking lots and the side of major desert highways. As he commuted from his job in Dubai to Ajman every day, Ammar often stopped in prayer rooms along the way and eventually began to photograph the unexpected.
He chose to shoot without people because to him prayer is an act that is not about the body, but just about the worshiper and God. Male prayer rooms are separate from female spaces and because a man would no more set foot in a female prayer room than he would the ladies’ bathroom, all of his photos in this series are of male-only prayer rooms. Here’s how he describes the rooms: ‘It’s not about whether they are small or big. The goal of prayer is always the same. Some of the places are just wood and carpet. Other places are decorated. Dubai Mall is actually carpet and that’s it. You wouldn’t expect to find this quiet place.’
I’m curious to see what Ammar Al Attar tries next. It would be interesting to see how he retains his anthropological lens while incorporating the human form into his work. His work is not controversial and some of it is not physically beautiful (if that’s what you look for in good art), but there is a solidness and meaning to it that demands real attention and study.