Maitha Abdalla, Allure, 2020, ink-jet print, 31 1⁄2 × 29 3⁄8".

Maitha Abdalla, Allure, 2020, ink-jet print, 31 1⁄2 × 29 3⁄8".

Maitha Abdalla

I have a visceral memory of crouching among the hanging shirts in a wardrobe as a small child in Dubai. Its wooden back falls away, and I am transported, not to the pink-tiled bathroom on the other side, but to fantastical worlds. In one, I’m clutching a helium balloon as it floats to the ceiling, with tiny me hovering several feet off the ground. I know that in reality these things couldn’t have happened, but they feel so intensely real all the same. Maitha Abdalla’s show “Scars by Daylight,” which traces the quiet irreality of growing up in the United Arab Emirates, conjures similar sensations: not so much a whimsical reverie as a claustrophobic fever dream.

In this show, Emirati folklore and a medieval European bestiary walk into a cosmetics store, and things only get weirder from there. In the photograph Allure, 2020, a young woman in a green micro-floral-print dress poses with some papier-mâché roosters against a wall tiled in Pepto-Bismol pink. In Islam, roosters are said to crow when they see an angel; hearing one is a prompt to ask Allah for forgiveness. But one imagines these roosters are silent, for the woman wears a tired-eyed pig mask, the kind you might more commonly see at an anti-corporate or police brutality protest. The image is hung behind a clear shower curtain in a cross section of a bathroom tiled the same shade in an interrupted mise en abyme. Next to it, a rain showerhead is installed above a knee-height sink with sculpted claw-foot legs—ready for ablution, if not absolution.

A ready theatricality pervades the exhibition. Scripted, it might take on the timbre of a darkly observed coming-of-age story. In photographs, the figures have an air of waiting—for puberty, perhaps, or simply for the future to happen. In paintings, meanwhile, they either partake in open-armed bacchanalian excess—replete with, say, a bull’s head and a green creature who has hopped up on a small table to swig from a flask—or sit in the fetal position, undergoing what looks like a late-night existential crisis on the bathroom floor.

Objects and animals seen in the photos or the bathroom set turn up in Abdalla’s paintings, which feature a gloomier, more jaundiced palette and roughly hewn, mostly unclothed, and often bald figures. Pigs cavort in the foreground of one painting, and one serves as a churlish-looking steed for a naked blue figure in another. In the photograph Between Daydreams and Nightmares, 2020, a pig-headed female figure kneels on the floor in front of a woman in red. This second woman sports an elongated pelican beak and, impossibly, the same flat-footed triungulate legs as the sink. In the moody painting Tomorrow Is Still Another Day, 2021, a muscled figure sports a rooster’s comb and a plague doctor’s beak, but here the nonhuman attributes suggest not props but rather a chimeric fusion.

In the paintings, not only figures but also their settings are mutable, with floors shifting between pink bathroom tile and a tight checkerboard pattern; the sinuous trees of Eluding Dreams, 2021, almost seem to be wearing high heels. Some paintings have a palimpsestic quality, too, with ghostly afterimages barely visible in their backgrounds: a gossiping pair and some roosters and foxes screeching in concert in Scarred by Silenced Nightmares, 2021, or ungraspable outlines like a fast-fading dream in others. In the forested glade of Dancing Stills II, 2021, slim tree trunks are highlighted in pink, as if seen in the rising sun, and the ground is pale pink, too, carpeted by fallen blossoms perhaps. But a closer look reveals white perspectival lines that describe a tiled floor and intersecting wall. We’re back in the pink bathroom, and perhaps we never left.