Art in the “New York” of the Arab World

Source. Hassan Sharif's Spoons and Cable, 2006

Source Hassan Sharif’s Spoons and Cable, 2006

Chilean photographer Jaime Puebla, speaking about his project “TV” which includes photographs of “futuristic” UAE studios, describes “The UAE, and Dubai especially” as “like the New York of the Arab world, where most young Arabs dream of going to make it.”

I’ve heard this kind of description before, and though I think it’s exaggerated, it is certainly true when it comes to the art scene, as I discuss in a previous post, the Gulf Art Boom. As Antonia Carver puts it, “Ten years ago, very few international museums had MENA (Middle East, North Africa) acquisitions committees or dedicated curators. In 2011, we had over 60 museum groups (including museum directors, curators, patrons, donors and staff) attend Art Dubai.”

Like what Puebla sees as the contrast between the “fantastic, futuristic” studios and the traditional clothes of the presenters, there is a constant interest in UAE art in exploring what it means to be a modern Emirati and at the same time representing imagined pasts in ways infused with nostalgia. In the UAE in particular, there seems to be a convergence between the Gulf’s museum boom and the interest in cultural memory and the flourishing of art spaces. Discussing the retrospective exhibition 1980 – Today: Exhibitions in the United Arab Emirates, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi talks about this convergence:

“Reflecting our generation’s collective obsession with memory, many recent exhibitions have been conceived to look at the past in order to reflect on the present. For these archival exhibitions, curators travel the world to discover overlooked artists and art scenes, institutions invest in research, gathering material, and publishing texts. But how do we connect all the information?…This exhibition—and its accompanying publication—invites viewers to make connections directly between objects, historical archives, and the collective memory they represent. The resulting discourse is both personal and collective, and marks the beginning of a much more detailed and intensive research project.”

The exhibition features work by 15 Emirati artists: Ahmed Al Ansari, Moosa Al Halyan, Mohammed Al Qassab, Abdul Qader Al Rais, Abdullah Al Saadi, Mohammed Abdullah Bulhiah, Salem Jawhar, Mohammed Kazem, Dr Najat Meky, Abdulraheem Salim, Ahmed Sharif, Hassan Sharif, Obaid Suroor, Dr. Mohamed Yousif, and Abdulrahman Zainal.

More on the exhibition here.

The same kind of emphasis on tradition appears in the UAE’s embassy’s short overview of art in the Emirates. One manifestation of the cultural-memory-enfused-art  is the obsession with the symbolism of the Arab horse in UAE art. Moosa Al Halyan and Budour Al Ali have both spoken about this in the National – although their horse paintings are not always simple representations of past glory. In this painting by Al Halyan for example, the contortions of the horses seem to me to encapsulate not pride in heritage but its overturning into a sense of civilisational malaise.

Moosa Al Halyan - Horse Painting, 1996.

Source. Moosa Al Halyan – Horse Painting, 1996.

On the other side of this, there is the sort of art that celebrates the “vibrant future,” such as some works by Khalid Mezaina. Mezaina reflects:

‘With the evolution of both the city’s landscape and its society, we have come to adapt to living in a space that is vibrant and unique. I truly believe that with the merging of various cultures, traditions and with modernity, we can create a city and community that is tolerant, vibrant and, most importantly, better.’

Another recent exhibition which again reflects on the UAE’s interest in preserving “tradition” and simultaneously becoming hypermodern is Past Forward. I was particularly struck by Shamma Al Amri‘s pinhole photographs which seemed to reach for the melancholy produced by distance. Her work

explores how change is inevitable because what is present today will become the history of tomorrow. Within less than three generations, isolated villages of tribal societies have been transformed into the UAE’s modern metropolitan centers. Al Amri captures her hometown of Abu Dhabi on film using an older technique – pinhole photography – to document the changing landscape.

One Emirati artist who seems to be moving these dichotomies is Zeinab Al Hashemi, currently doing an art residency with Delphina.

For an introduction to Emirati art through art, take a look at “Art Index 1.0” by Emirati photographer Ammar Al Attar, a project which “traces the shifting ecosystem of the local arts scene across geographies and generations.”

Also see Dr Lamees Hamdan, Commissioner of the UAE Pavilion, and artist Mohammed Kazem, discussing the country”s contribution to the 55th Venice Biennale.

For more on “cultural happenings in the Emirates,” take a look at The Culturist. 

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