Past Forward: Its Context and Meaning

The United Arab Emirates has a growing, vibrant art scene that emerged in the 1950s and is flourishing today. The UAE is not only filled with galleries, museums, and grassroots creative spaces that inspire younger generations of artists, but it is also expanding its cultural venues. In Sharjah, visitors can experience over a dozen museums and learn about archaeological and artistic treasures of the region. Abu Dhabi’s new Saadiyat Cultural District will house the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and the Zayed National Museum, while Dubai will be home to a new Modern Art Museum & Opera House District. These important institutions will provide wonderful opportunities for the people of the UAE, the region, and the rest of the world to experience culture in our country.

To better understand Past Forward: Contemporary Art from the Emirates, it is necessary to comprehend how the art world in the UAE has evolved over the last fifty years. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, promising Emirati artists traveled to nearby countries, such as Egypt, Iraq, and Kuwait, as well as the United Kingdom, to complete their high school degrees while others taught themselves the fundamentals of art. One of the Emirates’ pioneering artists, Abdul Qader Al Rais, returned home after graduating from high school in Kuwait City and started observing daily life, which led to his early portraits of neighborhood children.

The 1970s and 1980s marked a turning point for the UAE art scene. While artists Dr. Najat Makki and Obaid Suroor worked diligently during that time to finish their educations abroad, others, such as conceptual artists Hassan Sharif and Mohammed Kazem, began shaping the artistic landscape that exists in the UAE today. In 1980, established Emirati artists, Arab nationals, and other art practitioners residing in the UAE came together and formed the Emirates Fine Arts Society, the first organization of its kind in the country. It sought to protect artists’ rights and bring artists from across the country together through its annual exhibitions, workshops, and lectures. A year later, the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation was established as a center for art workshops, exhibitions, lectures, and film screenings. Today, these institutions follow their founding principles and continue to play a vital role in supporting emerging artists.

The UAE is also home to a number of well-respected art schools including Zayed University, the College of Fine Arts & Design at the University of Sharjah, and Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. Beyond the art education system, the UAE hosts a multitude of festivals, artist residencies, symposiums, and other annual events. In the past decade, two major international art fairs – Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi Art – have showcased artists from around the world. The Abu Dhabi Festival, organized by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation, brings performing arts and music to the capital city. These events introduce Emirati artists to classical as well as contemporary art from both the East and the West. They have fostered an environment in which Emirati artists can build on their own traditions and thrive both at home and internationally. In addition, Sharjah, the third largest emirate, is home to the Sharjah Biennial – a cultural event organized by the Sharjah Art Foundation since 1993. Perhaps one of the greatest cultural achievements for the UAE has been its participation in the Venice Biennale since 2009. This world-renowned show is the international art equivalent of the Olympics.

While these events have all raised awareness of the UAE’s vibrant cultural scene to regional audiences and art connoisseurs, this is the first touring exhibition of contemporary Emirati art shown in the United States. In that regard, I am honored to have co-curated Past Forward: Contemporary Art from the Emirates. This exhibition represents a selection of artworks that encompass various mediums – from Mohammed Al Qassab’s aluminum sculpture to Ebtisam AbdulAziz’s video art. Al Qassab examines issues of trade and consumption through his insect-like creature created from aluminum milk containers commonly used in the past. I also admire the work of AbdulAziz, specifically how her video art performances tackle ideas about consumerism and an individual’s identity through numbers.

While immersed in a fast-moving, transitional space continually being updated with the latest technology and modern architecture, Emirati artists remain deeply connected to their traditions. Illustrator Salama Nasib and video artist Alaa Edris both depict the significance of oral histories in the United Arab Emirates through allusions to well-known fables in their works. While Nasib portrays the infamous tale of “Bu Daryah,” a supernatural being that captures sailors from their pearling ships, Edris reinterprets these traditions in a collage of film footage she has either created or collected. Today, artists such as Nasib and Edris aspire to preserve these traditions before they disappear as a consequence of rapid development.

Past Forward also presents the artists’ individual reactions to the UAE’s fast transformation. Graphic designer Khalid Mezaina recontextualizes his surroundings with vivid drawings that embrace the aspects of modern living and popular culture in the Emirates alongside the beauty of Arab traditions. Mezaina is not alone. Shamma Al Amri’s pinhole photography, a technique that creates vintage-style images, references the past and future of Abu Dhabi. Hamdan Buti Al Shamsi features historic and present-day views of his hometown, Al Ain, by combining found images and newspaper clippings with forms alluding to local and modern architecture in his digital artworks.

In the works of Maitha Demithan and Lateefa bint Maktoum, I see the negative spaces surrounding their subjects as representing the silence and the noise that change has created, almost as if the past is whispering to the future while we are standing in the present. Demithan depicts symbols of tangible Emirati culture by scanning these elements to create a digital collage that enhances their attributes. Bint Maktoum uses digital technology to produce surreal landscapes that capture the reality and dreams of her surroundings. Emiratis’ stories, memories, and ability to adapt to change are embraced in these and other works in the exhibition.

In creating Past Forward, it was not difficult to discover similarities between Emirati and American culture. Mohammed Saeed Harib, for example, found inspiration from his hero Walt Disney to create character sketches and storyboards for his critically acclaimed animated series FREEJ. Shaikha Al Mazrou’s fascination with technology, as witnessed by her artwork created from computer motherboard remnants and other discarded electronic equipment, correlates with Americans’ preoccupation with their high-tech devices. It is for similarities as simple as these that I invite visitors to find their own associations and experiences with artworks in the exhibition.

It has been my pleasure to work with all the artists involved, some of whom I have known since they were in art school, or longer. I especially cannot express how humbling it has been to work with the UAE’s pioneering artists, Abdul Qader Al Rais and Dr. Najat Makki, who mentored many emerging artists, including some featured in Past Forward. Furthermore, they have been sources of inspiration and encouragement for my own artistic endeavors. When discussing the future of the arts in the UAE, Dr. Makki said, “We have paved the way, only for you and other artists to continue the journey.”

I have always believed that art brings people closer, and the opportunity to create this exhibition is one of a kind. Since graduating from American University in Washington, D.C., a decade ago, I have taken part in and witnessed the artistic growth of the UAE. Being a part of the contemporary art scene enables me to challenge the ideas and notions of what art will be in the future. Past Forward represents my second collaboration with the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Washington, D.C., and this project, in partnership with Meridian International Center, has been an insightful and rewarding experience. The diversity of medium and subject matter seen in this exhibition is a testament to the UAE’s art scene and its great possibilities moving forward. My hope is that Americans will experience the UAE through the artworks and narratives presented in Past Forward and gain a deeper understanding of my country, its culture, and people.

Noor Al Suwaidi
Abu Dhabi