An Artist’s Statement by Siniša Vlajković & Mohamed Somji

Substations is a collaborative artistic project that focuses on documenting hand-built petroleum stations in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) between 2007 and 2013.

Cruising along desert roads, we discovered a colony of small, shack-like diesel stations that stood as a stark contrast to their corporate counterparts, those sprawling, brightly-lit roadside shrines of consumer capitalism. It was like being transported to another time, one that has little in common with the world we know today.

Architecturally, these diesel stations were a prime example of the vernacular style – a term used to categorize methods of construction which use locally available resources and traditions to address local needs and circumstances. Makeshift structures constructed from found objects and scrap materials, and decorated with colorful neon lights, they were short-lived. According to our observations, the average lifespan was limited to just a few years, the main reasons being economic hardship, changes in local legislation, development and ownership.

What lied beneath the surface of the quirky-looking structures was an entire subculture with its distinct way of life and sense of community. Unlike the state-sponsored conglomerates with their fast food restaurants, convenience stores and uniformed staff, these enterprises were owned by struggling individuals and maintained with simple amenities and local hospitality.

The consistent visual esthetic employed from the very first session was that of a lone, brightly lit structure in a pitch black minimalist setting, allowing the one-of-a-kind, arbitrarily designed structures to captivate the viewer with their inherent beauty.

More than a decade after documenting the first of these phenomena, it appears that none are left standing. This collection of photographs, serves as a testament to an ephemeral culture that was, for a brief moment, sociologically, economically and esthetically unique to the UAE, and possibly, the Middle East at large.


Substation #1-1, Al Ghail (Ras Al Khaimah), 2007

Substation #2, Masfout (Ajman), 2008

Substation #3, Masfout (Ajman), 2008

Substation #4, Masfout (Ajman), 2010

Substation #1-2, Al Ghail (Ras Al Khaimah), 2011

Substation #6-1, Al Ghail (Ras Al Khaimah), 2010

Substation #1-3, Al Ghail (Ras Al Khaimah), 2013

Substation #6-2, Al Ghail (Ras Al Khaimah), 2013

Substation #7-1, Masfout (Ajman), 2009

Substation #7-2, Masfout (Ajman), 2009