At the Crossroads: The Arts in the United Arab Emirates

Winter 2008, 2013 | ArteZine

At the Crossroads: The Arts in the United Arab Emirates

By , Author

Art is poised at the crossroads in the United Arab Emirates, particularly in Abu Dhabi.  Abu Dhabi, the important political hub of the Emirates, has arrived at the contemporary art scene very recently, unlike Dubai, with its history of involvement with exhibition spaces and setting for important auctions of Middle Eastern art, or Sharjah, site for the Sharjah Biennale that greatly expanded its offerings under the direction of Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, daughter of the ruler of Sharjah.


Ayyub bin Russell Hamilton, Footsteps of Bukhari (detail) 2008, Photo-Montage, 8ftx29in, Courtesy of the Artist

Fouad Elkoury, 4158/1 Sheikh Zayed Skyscrapers at Night, Color silver-bromide print, 80x100cm, edition of 13, Courtesy of The Third Line Gallery in Dubai

While the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi provided space for art and cultural events, and has an important library collection, there were very few other sites available for art exhibition until the establishment of the Ghaf Art Gallery in 2006, owned by Jalal Luqman and Mohamed Abdul Latif Kanoo*.  The Al Qibab Gallery, specializing in Iraqi art, opened in 2007. Artworks in Abu Dhabi were previously showcased in the Hemisphere Art and Design Center**, and in shops that also sold art and other items, such as post cards and kitsch, as well as in the Abu Dhabi Mall, particularly during holiday periods. But more recently high-end art, such as the Islamic Arts exhibition and the Picasso exhibition, which were followed by Arts Paris have been held at the Emirates Palace Hotel.

As many of the contributors to this edition of ArteEast ArteNews note in their critical analysis of the state of the arts in the United Arab Emirates, the U.A.E. was established in 1972. Art movements in neighboring countries, such as Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq, among others, where there was a much longer history of involvement with art and cultural production, followed the three stage trajectory outlined by Dr. Wijdan Ali, in which artists first “catch up with Western art [by adapting] to its traditions and aesthetics,” then attempt to “bridge the gap [between] their artistic creativity [and] local subjects and themes.”*** Finally, in the last stage of artistic development, artists turn back “to their own history and an exploration of the ancient civilizations that had once flourished in their countries.”  But the artistic traditions of the Gulf Arabs in the Emirates are rooted in Bedouin culture, and are thus different from the traditions found in many other countries in the region.  Nevertheless, in the middle of the 1970s, some artists from the U.A.E. were granted government-sponsored scholarships and trained in programs in other countries in the Middle East (Egypt, Iraq, and Syria), as well as in England and the U.S.  Once they returned home, many found employment in the Ministry of Education and “other government bodies concerned with culture and youth.”****

Art training and sponsorship are critical to the development of artists, particularly female artists, many of whom face obstacles if they wish to enter programs far from family.  The establishment of universities with art departments in Sharjah, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi created opportunities for them to develop skills in art, design, new media, and print media through training in Departments of Art & Design and Communication, as well as additional art programs such as Latifa College which, after being established in 2003 under the patronage of HH Shaikha Alia Bint Khalifa Al Maktoum, transitioned into a satellite campus of Zayed University with faculty from the university teaching the eleven students of the college.


Latifa Makhtoum, Toughts 2 2006, Photograph on paper, Courtesy of The Third Line Gallery in Dubai

The New York Film Academy is now open and taking students in Abu Dhabi, and the 2008 Middle East International Film Festival was held in Abu Dhabi in October. Sponsorship of art, poetry, and communication students through encouragement and prizes and in other ways, all of which is provided to Zayed University students by Mrs. Hoda Kanoo, helps to create familial acceptance for budding female artists, writers, journalists, and television personalities.  This issue of ArteNews  reflects the multifaceted development of the contemporary art and culture scene in the U.A.E. and in Abu Dhabi and Dubai in particular.


Latifa Saeed, Delight of a New Reality (1) 2006, 1118.9×84.1cm, print on smooth fine art paper, Courtesy of The Third Line Gallery in Dubai

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