In recent years we have been watching the arts and culture sector in the UAE froth with growth, with the state pouring much strategic effort into its development.
Interestingly, most of the major art institutions and initiatives flowering across the country are being spearheaded by women, such as Antonia Carver, former Art Dubai director and current head of Art Jameel, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, president and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum, founder of Tashkeel, and of course, Noura Al Kaabi, the Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, whose appointment in 2017 was seen as a significant marker of women’s importance in the UAE’s cultural branding and evolution.
While we have been seeing women shift tides in their various roles, from top to bottom, within cultural entities, foundations and galleries, there also has been a steadily growing crop of female Emirati artists whose practices and work reflect their deep and complex relationships with the nation and their social and artistic identities. Arguably one of the UAE’s most notable and well-known female artists is 31-year-old Farah Al Qasimi, who works primarily within the mediums of photography, video and performance. Represented by The Third Line, a renowned Dubai-based gallery which includes the likes of Hassan Hajjaj and Zineb Sedira on its artist roster, Al Qasimi divides her time between Dubai and New York, producing work while teaching at Pratt, NYU and the Rhode Island School of Design. Her oeuvre is heavily influenced by her upbringing in the UAE, exploring notions of aspiration, materialism, individuality and social norms, and challenging the viewer to question and interrogate their own relationships with each of these concepts. She features soap a lot, because of its intimate proximity with the naked body, the close encounters we have with it, the idea that it is a mere, compact cleaning tool yet still soft, slick and melty like an emotion. Soap is her vehicle for talking about social taboos without mentioning them at all.
Al Qasimi’s visual world is near-lurid, often cluttered, loud and zany, with all the qualities of the shade of pepto-bismol pink – the color of a Barbie-like cheer that edges at eerie, even unhinged. She plays with our ideas of what is tacky and gaudy, and our unspoken binaries between cheap and sophisticated, turning these on their heads and distorting their aesthetic “value” in her imagery. Undoubtedly, this is inspired by conceptions and experiences of the Gulf itself and the see-sawing perceptions of the UAE as artificial or capital-obsessed or Kardashian chic or plainly, a brand, for better or worse. One prominent work, titled Um Al Naar (2019), which translates to “mother of fire”, is Al Qasimi’s first feature-length film, inspired by jinn folklore in the UAE. The artist uses ritualistic tradition embedded within the UAE’s cultural heritage to talk about its modern state; how do we navigate the past within the hyper-material present that is simultaneously infatuated with the glitter of its own future?
Al Qasimi is one leader among the trail of Emirati women artists behind and beside her, whose practice has flourished with time and the instrumental polish of major international (read: Western) training and recognition. There is 35-year-old Khawla Darwish, commonly known as The Heartist, has a more singular approach, or niche, in her practice. Darwish lost both her brother and father to heart complications, traumas which led to nearly a decade of reinventing her artistic and visual style, in which the heart has become her central motif, catalyst and vehicle for expression. She is most known for her cardiovascular symbols and representations in her work, which are informed by her own deep interest in and following of cardiological research.
“The mission behind my art is to save a heart,” she states on her website, which resonates both literally and figuratively. Darwish often makes sculptures of the heart from plaster and acrylic in different shades, adorning them with flowers or glitter and other paraphernalia. One limited-edition sculpture is the star dust heart, painted like a sequined night sky. Something about Darwish’s sculptural form invites audiences to feel like they could pick up one of her pieces and wrap their fingers around them, enclose them in their fist or cradle them gently. They lean into our impulses to feel a sense of control and agency over one of our most mysterious, delicate and important organs, the central vessel for our emotional and physical health. Darwish’s practice, in contrast to Al Qasimi’s, is more inward and interior, and resonates with audiences on that same register.
Darwish and Al Qasimi are well into their careers, occupying different but still high levels of establishment. With arts education also beginning to boom in the country, alongside the industry it prepares students for the growing number of younger, emerging Emirati women in the arts. Take 19-year-old Abu Dhabi-based visual artist Roudha Al Mazrouei. Painting works centered on her relationship with her country since 2016 and specializing in the medium of oil, Al Mazrouei’s most recent project has actually been curatorial. Along with Fatema AlRomaithi, in 2022 she curated Emaratiya, an exhibition at the Cube in New York University Abu Dhabi’s (NYUAD) Arts Center. The show’s aim is to explore Emirati feminine identity through both historical and contemporary lenses, and to destabilize typical and stereotypical notions of Emirati womanhood. The four featured artists are Safiyah Al Tayer, Noor Aldabal, Sondos Eatamadi, and AlReem Al Beshr, all younger practitioners themselves.
“One of my many goals is to work more behind the scenes in curatorial practice, in one of the many leading museums or art institutions here in the UAE,” Al Mazrouei explains. What her story also demonstrates is the vital incubation role that institutions, such as NYUAD, can play in the seedling stages of younger art practitioners’ careers. They can provide them with physical space, mentorship, peer support and collaborative opportunities to build on their work and expand their practice across different roles, such as Al Mazrouei choosing to learn and practice curation while being an artist.
Together, Al Mazrouei, Dariwsh, and Al Qasimi, who in 2022 also has a solo exhibition, titled General Behaviour, at Abu Dhabi’s Cultural Foundation, form just a tiny cross-section of the burgeoning movement that is Emirati women in the arts. By discussing and spotlighting their stories, practices and trajectories, we can begin to document and archive, in real time, an exciting upward trend in not only women’s creativity and leadership in the Gulf, but also a beautiful and much-needed dimension to UAE’s heavily self-invested cultural image. This is a community that is often misunderstood and misrepresented, with half-baked, lazy and often Orientalist assessments of their image in global media. The onus lies on us to engage more directly with their own work and take the empathetic step of seeing through their unique lenses, trained on themselves and the complexities of their womanhood within an Emirati context.
Vamika Sinha is an arts and culture writer, poet, and photographer based in the UAE. Originally from India and Botswana, she holds a BA in Literature & Creative Writing from NYU Abu Dhabi and is the co-founder of Postscript Magazine. Her interests include cosmopolitanism, jazz studies, contemporary novels, and cultural criticism through media, literature, and visual arts. Vamika's work has been published in The National, Canvas Magazine and Wasafiri, among others, and she was the first writer-in-residence at Bayt Al Mamzar, researching South Asian artists in the UAE.