Alia Sultan Aljoker’s best-known work is arguably the photograph that the Deira-born artist published following the success of the UAE’s mission to Mars.
In the photograph, an elderly Emirati woman raises a cardboard sign above her head, which reads — in Arabic — “We’ve reached Mars”. Dressed in traditional clothing, her eyes reveal the smile obscured behind a golden burqa. The sidr tree, which holds a symbolic value in Emirati culture, looms behind her.
Like many of Aljoker’s works — which are currently on display in a special exhibition at Sharjah’s Xposure International Photography Festival — the image encapsulates the UAE’s drive to preserve its national heritage while pushing to the future. Shared thousands of times across social media platforms, the photograph has become one of the main visuals related to the Mars mission and its implications, particularly when it comes to how the nation celebrated the feat.
“I actually took the photograph four days before the mission’s success on February 9,” Aljoker says. The photographer did not know for certain whether the UAE’s Hope Probe would complete its journey to Mars, making the UAE the first Arab nation to reach the Red Planet. Yet, she knew she had to be hopeful — and prepared.
“I knew I had to find an elderly woman who still preserved her traditional sense of clothing, her burqa and henna,” Aljoker says. “A friend of my sister’s sent me a picture of her mother, and I knew immediately she was the person I was looking for.”
Aljoker went to visit the elderly woman, Khasiba, at her home in Fujairah to take the photograph. The photographer spent some time thinking of how to compose the portrait, saying she wanted it to subtly represent various aspects of the mission while touching upon Emirati history.
The sidr tree, she explains, is a nod to the tree that the UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the former prime minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, met to solidify the union between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The fact she chose a female as her subject was to celebrate the fact women comprised 34 per cent of the crew behind the space mission.
“I chose an elderly person because, without our predecessors, we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish the feat,” Aljoker says. “Khasiba, in fact, asked me why I was taking the photograph before the mission proved successful. I told her we would reach Mars and that we wouldn’t accomplish anything without their blessings. They are the essence of our achievements. I told her to pray for us so that we would reach Mars without a doubt.”
Aljoker says she had set up notifications to inform her whenever President Sheikh Mohamed, or Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, published a post on Twitter. “You’ll find that I am often the first to retweet their posts,” she says. “So when they announced the success of the mission, I was ready. The photograph and its explanation were ready, and I immediately published. By God’s grace, people started reposting the picture more than any other associated with the mission.”
Aljoker’s works often merge the contemporary and traditional aspects of Emirati culture. Her exhibition at Xposure International Photography Festival, which runs until Wednesday, is being held under the title Between Modernity and Tradition: An identity we are proud of. It comprises several portraits and close-ups of elderly Emiratis, who are dressed in traditional attire while sporting modern accessories.
One work shows a close-up of a woman’s wrist, sporting an Apple Watch displaying a drawing of the UAE flag. Her fingertips are dyed with henna and her sleeve is laced with traditional silver threads.
Khasiba is featured in yet another photograph of her standing next to one of the stout, oval robots at Expo 2020 Dubai, designed to help visitors navigate the sprawling site. An elderly couple are the subjects of a third photograph, as they stand at the foot of the Museum of the Future’s curving, calligraphic structure. The caption of the photograph reads: “Today we set the foundation for the next 50 for future generations.”
Another photograph shows a woman, again sporting traditional clothing and accessories, as she ties the laces of modern running shoes. The photograph, Aljoker says, was taken as part of the annual Dubai Fitness Challenge, which is spearheaded by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai.
“The challenge was lovely,” Aljoker says. “So many elderlies came with their burqa and traditional clothing. I think this picture encouraged them.”
Aljoker says she is keen to continue her work in photographing the elderly of the UAE while celebrating the country’s momentum towards future achievements.
“I often get comments online from foreigners saying they often see the country’s skyscrapers and modern buildings, but rarely see the people, particularly our elderly,” she says. “The least thing I can do with my works is celebrating our culture and traditions.
“I see myself in our elderly. They hold our traditions, and without them, our accomplishments would not have been possible.”