After almost 27 years in Abu Dhabi, renowned American artist Emily Gordon is leaving the city. But she won’t do so without leaving a little piece of herself behind, in the form of her paintings, many of which adorn the lobbies, boardrooms and living rooms in the capital. Her artworks pay tribute to some of the emirate’s iconic buildings, which are depicted in bright colours, using quirky logos, old jewellery and scraps of patterned materials.
These buildings that make up the modern-day skyline – including the Hyatt Capital Gate, Emirates Palace and Aldar’s headquarters – did not exist when Gordon arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1990 with her husband Patrick, a training captain for Presidential Flight.
“Abu Dhabi was a little village: everything was just a couple of streets off the Corniche,” she says.
Gordon previously worked as an agronomist (soil scientist) in the United States.
“I didn’t want to pursue that line of work here, as it would have meant sharing a cabin out in the sticks with a group of men,” she says, laughing. “There weren’t really many job opportunities here for women back then, apart from nursing and teaching. Even most of the secretarial work was done by men.”
There were no expat artists in the UAE at that time, says Gordon – just a few “British journeymen” artists, such as watercolorist Trevor Waugh, who exhibited at the country’s only gallery, Majlis Gallery in Dubai.
“Emirati artists existed, but the arts weren’t a great priority then,” she adds.
With time to invest in a new hobby, Gordon developed a unique art style that reflected, in an abstract way, the architecture of the new city emerging around her. It was her good fortune that the empty walls of all these new buildings needed art with which to decorate them.
She slowly developed her pioneering style by layering paint, resin and discarded objects to create distinctly Arabian-style artwork rich in depth and colour. Each piece takes two-to- three months to build up the layers – and it’s a dirty job. “I have to work really fast with a blow torch, a mask and full gear on – these used to be nice pants,” says Gordon, pointing to the paint-spattered leggings she is wearing, with a smart purple shirt. “It’s like a soufflé, either it sets and it’s yummy or it’s mushy and collapses. ”
Gordon found a particular niche in depicting traditional Arabian doorways, adorned with jewelry salvaged from curiosity shops during her travels.
Her decision to focus on doorways was a shrewd one.
“Strict Islamists take exception to anything that God’s created, which could be a landscape picture – that’s why a lot of Arabic art is calligraphy, poetry and mosaics,” she explains.
“With the doors, I managed to reflect the local culture in an inoffensive way.”
Gordon’s art sells for between Dh2,000 and Dh14,000, but she points out that a large percentage of that goes towards costs. She says she jokes with her husband about the fact that it is usually the paintings she “absolutely hates” that sell quickest.
Like the city she has painted, Gordon’s art has evolved.
“My work was more naive, looser and more open, and now I’ve gone to busier and more intense,” she explains.
Some of her recent pieces, which take pride of place in her Abu Dhabi villa, have a charm and humour to them and often strike a chord with guests. A curious column of colourful puppet heads are, she explains, the faces of tailgaters.
“I was driving back and forth to Dubai for commissions, and you know how they get so close to you that you feel they’re in your back seat – they look demonic back there,” she says. “It’s more to amuse me.”
Gordon adds a further Abu Dhabi flavour to her pictures by scouring newspapers for eye-catching headlines, which she cuts out and glues onto the windows of her buildings.
“I’m obsessed with the weirder stuff,” she says.
Her home will be back in the US from now on. But she will not be staying away from the UAE for long – this autumn, she has signed up for another No White Walls exhibition, which she takes part in annually at the Fairmont Hotel alongside other veteran expatriate artists.
Gordon adds that she plans to put away her blowtorch to do something else that inspires people.
“I need to teach kids coming into the US, to get them up to scratch on English,” she says.
She admits she will greatly miss Abu Dhabi, and the welcoming aspect of the culture she has tried to depict in her pictures.
“The fact that in Abu Dhabi you’ve got a Greek Orthodox church next to a Roman Catholic church and a mosque, it’s so understated – but so welcoming and open,” she says.
“That’s what a lot of people don’t understand about this part of the world. In my pictures, I emphasize that welcoming aspect. We’re all here and we’re all leaving our fingerprints. How big they are, history will tell.”