26 Mar 2024 - 26 May 2024

The Fifth Wife

Firetti Contemporary


Firetti Contemporary is thrilled to announce the upcoming exhibition, The Fifth Wife, featuring the creative talents of seven artists from the MENA region. This exhibition is curated by gallery founders Mara Firetti, Celine Azem, and artist/curator Ali Cha’aban and will be open to the public from the 26th of March 2024 till the 26th of May, 2024. 

The fundamentals of folklore rely on oral culture. These oral stories possess treasures of wisdom, knowledge, and boundless myths, offering a mirror through which societies interpret the mysteries of existence, impart profound moral lessons, and reverently dance with the spirits of their cultural heritage.

The Fifth Wife is an exhibition that explores the mythology of where all these stories unfold; in the core of the romanticised “Majlis.” The space plays an important role in transferring and excelling the oral heritage of folk, from tales, songs to poetry; profoundly elevating the “White Language,” which sprouted from the Nabati poetry.

In this exhibition, the artists explore sacred ‘sitting places’; hailing from distinct nations, they converge not merely to express their individual cultural identities, but to harmoniously celebrate the enduring majesty of the ‘majlis’ tradition.  They breathe life into their canvas and craft, drawing inspiration from the mystique of communal gatherings. Across borders, ‘The Fifth Wife’ unites these creative souls in a vivid exploration of the majlis’s indomitable cultural resonance.

Within the Majlis lies the very essence of sentiment, especially in its aesthetic form. Syrian Majalis are renowned for their fine craftsmanship and traditional furniture, which have become timeless objects, placing ARE studio at the forefront of The Fifth Wife. Here, ARE explore the sensibilities of Syrian furniture. Damascene carpenters, joiners, and cabinetmakers have a rich tradition of creating ornate and intricately carved furniture pieces, which ARE seamlessly delves into. The studio’s work doesn’t seek functional formats; instead, it allows viewers to experience conventional patterns and textures woven or transformed into imaginative pieces of art.

In a monumental drawing, Sawsan Al Bahar delves into the origins of her surname. Myth has it that the artist’s great great grandfather left ‘Ana in Iraq, a young weaver unable to compete with other weavers in town. Travelling along the Euphrates river and settling in Mayadin, Syria, the villagers welcome his family as “Al Bahar”: the people of the sea; they who come from the sea. Drafting a drawing of a seascape, Sawsan reflects on her family’s unique name and all the meanings the sea holds as a symbol of departure and return. She looks at the sea as her origin and homecoming, interpreting its ebbs and flows and crashing waves through her pencil, placing  the sea  between abstraction and depiction, and between dream and reality.

Cuban-Syrian artist Jason Seife delves into the profound exploration of cultural heritage by examining the mysterious essence embedded in Arab World tapestries. Similar to oral traditions, these intricately woven carpets serve as vessels carrying wisdom, knowledge, and timeless narratives, encapsulating unspoken or folkloric sentiments that have unfolded in communal Majlis gatherings. In his contribution to The Fifth Wife, Seife communicates a visual narrative shedding light on a conflict related to the transmission of oral culture across generations. Through this, he endeavors to capture a sense of preservation for his interpretation of heritage. Siefe’s work grapples with the concept of preserving and adapting to the influence of modernity on his cultural history. Consequently, this juxtaposition creates a visually harmonious synergy, reflecting the tension between conservation and the evolving impact of contemporary influences.

In Emirati culture, Majlis, pronounced “Maylis,” played a prestigious role in ceremonies, divided into two types: social settings and halls of order. They were held for elderly chieftains, sheikhs, pearl merchants, fishermen, and others interested in hunting, folklore, and poetry. Salmah Al Mansoori explores the physical setting of the Majlis, delving into a more metaphysical realm in The Fifth Wife. Almansoori believes that a physical space absorbs memories and shapes identities, mirroring the concept of oral culture preserving cultural heritage. By transferring photographs onto tiles collected from spaces she has inhabited, she imbues these tiles with the weight of time and associated memories, much like folklore and oral stories carry the weight of generations.

Embedded within the contemporary context of the ‘Majlis,’ individuals such as judges and religious sheikhs hold a distinctive significance. They play a crucial role in adjudicating disputes and elucidating political, social, and religious rights and responsibilities. Khalid Zahid’s artistic endeavors focus on religion as a central theme, using it as a means of discourse to capture the complexities inherent in such narratives. In The Fifth Wife, Khalid delves into the aesthetics of Islamic structures like mosques, emphasizing their perpetual nature that transcends both time and space. He suggests that the mosque and its ‘majalis’ have evolved beyond their primary significance, transforming into a focal point of knowledge, from which scholars and leaders have emerged.

Attachments are formed through the seemingly mundane moments during the formative years of a child’s life and we see many try to hold to the notion of preservation because of these sacred spaces. Aidha Badr’s work intricately delves into the mother-daughter relationship within the cultural setting of the majlis, conveying deep emotional ties within the four walls.  Her series Please forgive me for what I do when I don’t remember you explores themes such as attachment, guilt, forgiveness, and tenderness influenced by her relationship with her mother. In The Fifth Wife, Badr examines the tradition of passing down ideals of femininity and emphasizes the enduring bond between mothers and daughters. She also explores the concept of ‘hand-me-downs,’ a symbolic tradition that passes down tangible remnants from one generation of women to the next.

Embracing Majlis heritage, Ghaleb Hawila reimagines Al Masnad cushions as sculptural art. “Al Masnad” integrates gracefully with the symbolic Al-Musnad script, the oldest form of Arabic writing, derived from “Musnad,” meaning “supported.” Each cushion becomes a contemporary canvas, adorning the traditional Majlis with patterns echoing Al-Musnad’s rigidity. Ghaleb’s work invites guests to experience Al-Musnad’s timeless elegance, transforming the Majlis into a haven where support becomes art—a space that embodies centuries of communal bonding and storytelling.

The Fifth Wife serves as an invitation to contemplate, appreciate, and introspect, much like the “majlis” itself, where stories and culture converge in a harmonious union.

Press release from Firetti Contemporary

Image: Aidha Badr. Please forgive me for what I do when I don’t remember you II. 2024. Image courtesy of the artist and Firetti Contemporary