Summer 2013 | ArteZine

Critical Issues in the Development of Printmaking and Young Emirati Female Artists


The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has only been established as a country for 36 years, and to date has had a very short and modest history in the visual arts, art education and art appreciation.

Printmaking, which is a relatively new medium in the UAE, is not widely practiced. The few printmaking studios in the country are situated within a small number of institutes of higher learning in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. Because there are no private or public print shops artists can access once they have graduated from university, the expansion of this medium is adversely affected.

Nevertheless printmaking has proved beneficial to the artistic development of emerging Emirati female artists who have been introduced to the medium, particularly through the broad exposure of their work in both local and international artist communities. The introduction of these artists and their work is especially critical in a time where, despite the rapid growth of the art-scene over the last five years in the UAE, and  in spite of  the astounding investment in cultural commercial enterprises in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere in the Emirates, there has been only limited support for local artists.

Outnumbered significantly by an expatriate labor force, Emirati nationals have routinely been excluded from participating in international events in the UAE, and are under-represented at the local level in general in galleries. This is slowly changing, but the change is primarily driven by expatriates who work in art education directly with nationals. Therefore, the role of the educator is vital in motivating and facilitating exposure of these young artists.

As an educator working with local artists over the last six years, I have witnessed the successful staging of emerging UAE artists through printmaking exchanges and exhibitions. The nature of printmaking – multiples and on paper – make it easy and inexpensive for artists to disseminate their work extensively. International exhibitions and print exchanges have offered this first generation of indigenous UAE artists a sense of belonging to a global community of practitioners. This is especially important for artists who do not have the opportunity to travel to experience this sharing first hand in the form of artist residencies and so on.  Print exchanges, both traditional and digital, offer opportunities for students to learn about international artists with minimized effort and cost and allow them to feel they are part of a continuum of art practitioners.

In 2007, I was the curator of an exhibition of works, at the Lessedra World Art Print Annual in Sofia, Bulgaria, of forty-two emerging UAE national artists. Their prints were exhibited after the UAE was selected as the special country of representation at the Annual. The Annual, which brings together print artists from around the world, attracted the works of over 600 artists from over 50 countries last year alone. A parallel exhibition took place in the city of Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, where over 50 UAE artists exhibited their work at the Rafael Mihailov Gallery at the University of Veliko Tarnovo.  A catalogue was published of the annual event, and was distributed worldwide to each artist; this catalogue is also housed in various library collections. This exposure of the work of Emirati artists has opened numerous doors for future projects, and has gained UAE artists international and local recognition because of the large amount of media press it received.

The interest generated by the popularity of the Bulgaria exhibition resulted in First Impressions, an exhibition at the Jam Jar Gallery in Dubai in the fall of 2007. The suite of prints exhibited at the Jam Jar Gallery, were the First Impressions created by students who have taken printmaking for the first time. On display at the exhibit was also an array of tools, papers, and matrixes from which the prints were born, in order to educate the viewer on how the works were created. With the increased interest and acceptance of this medium in the local community, it is my hope that local print artists can garner support to initiate a local community of printmakers. Through the media coverage in newspapers, magazines, television, and radio, we have already taken the first step towards achieving this goal.

The request to participate in international printmaking portfolio exchanges has also skyrocketed since the Bulgaria exhibitions. Different Cultures Common Thoughts Among Women, is a recent portfolio project co-coordinated by Melanie Yazzie, Associate. Professor of Art at the University of Colorado, Boulder,  and myself. The collaborative portfolio (edition of 22) of works is comprised of 10 UAE artists and 10 USA artists working on the common theme of women’s thoughts and women’s issues. The experience of interacting with a team of professional artists from another country toward one common theme and project has been eye opening for both the UAE and USA artists. Misconceptions were dispelled, and friendships were made, both personal and professional.

As most participants in the USA are faculty of various universities, they have a commitment to host an exhibition at their respective institutions. The work is also planned to be on exhibit at Zayed University, and the goal of the UAE artists is to find other exhibition venues in their country. These may include the Sharjah Museum, and the Dubai Cultural Council. The portfolio is also planned to be on exhibit at coming international printmaking conferences.

Due to the success of the Bulgaria exhibitions another project of this nature is being coordinated for UAE artists in Japan. It is my hope that the existing printmakers in the UAE  will also attempt to organize such events in order to bring about more awareness of printmaking and print artists in the UAE, and abroad.

The personal and professional impact on these young artists who have participated in the above printmaking projects has been immense. I believe that learning to integrate and find their position in the evolving and complex social and cultural context occurring in their own country will provide an inspiring and bright future for art and for printmaking in the UAE.

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