Telling the Emirati Story through Cultural Diplomacy

The Meridian Center for Cultural Diplomacy is pleased to present Past Forward: Contemporary Art from the Emirates, an exhibition of more than fifty artworks by twenty-five Emirati artists. These paintings, photographs, sculptures, and other media reflect how the United Arab Emirates has embraced rapid economic development over the past forty years, while simultaneously maintaining its rich heritage. Past Forward shares the UAE’s national story with American audiences and epitomizes Meridian’s commitment to increasing international cooperation through cultural diplomacy.

Cultural exchange is a powerful tool in finding common ground, building more stable relationships, and fostering genuine respect. For over fifty years, Meridian’s programs have transcended cultural divides and facilitated international understanding by creating neutral environments where people from around the world can learn to appreciate one another. Our exhibitions introduce U.S. audiences to the history and traditions of other countries, as well as provide viewers abroad with insights into American culture. In developing these programs, we forge strong partnerships that evolve into lasting friendships. Past Forward has been no exception.

To organize this exhibition, Meridian’s Director of Exhibitions and I traveled throughout the United Arab Emirates. While working closely with the UAE Embassy and Noor Al Suwaidi, our co-curator in Abu Dhabi, we experienced firsthand the country’s vibrant art scene. We not only learned about the UAE’s rich history and local customs but also came to appreciate its unique and evolving culture. We discovered the ubiquitous role that art plays in paying tribute to traditions and looking forward into the 21st century. Together we identified a diverse group of Emirati artists who create works that characterize the past, present, and future of this dynamic nation.

Our Emirati hosts introduced us to cultural leaders, artists, collectors, museum and foundation directors, gallery owners, and others involved in the UAE art world. The artists we met are experimenting with innovative techniques and creative approaches across media. These men and women, who share a deep sense of cultural heritage and tradition, are creating artworks that also draw on the ever-changing urban landscape and globalization affecting the region. They have maintained a sense of Emirati identity, distinguishing themselves within the UAE and beyond, while also promoting their vision and aspirations for the future.

During our travels, we were repeatedly reminded of the nexus between Emirati culture and contemporary life. In Dubai, art and business come together at the International Financial Centre where attractive galleries line the lower floors of towering skyscrapers. Visitors from around the world flock to Dubai because of the city’s cosmopolitan atmosphere and interest in the arts. In Ras Al Khaimah, we learned about the country’s long history of pearling, a theme that continues to appear in Emirati art. At Al Ain, we toured the beautifully restored Al Jahili Fort and strolled through a local oasis. We explored the ancestral home of the UAE’s first ruler, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. One cannot fully grasp the country’s history without knowing about this leader and the moderate principles he bestowed upon the Emirati people.

The UAE is committed to culture and the arts. The country’s leaders – across all sectors – have created an environment that encourages young people to view art as a viable career. Numerous Emirati organizations are dedicated to fostering a healthy and robust arts community. The UAE, with its high-tech cultural centers and a new museum district on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, also hosts world-renowned international festivals.

This commitment extends beyond urban centers to regional museums that are working at local, national, and global levels. The country is a cauldron of cultural innovation where artists enrich the lives of Emiratis and the growing population of expatriates living there today.

Past Forward includes artworks that feature core elements of Emirati life and represent all seven emirates. While the overarching theme highlights the balance between moving forward as a nation and holding onto traditional roots, several other motifs emerge, as well. These include an emphasis on kinship and home, nature and landscape, and technology and innovation.

Emirati artists comprise a multifaceted group that has grown dramatically, very much like the country itself. Early proponents of contemporary art began creating notable work more than forty years ago, making the discipline a key aspect of modern UAE culture. The exhibition showcases works by several of these artists, such as Abdul Qader Al Rais, Dr. Najat Makki, and Obaid Suroor, who draw inspiration from the nation’s history, society, environment, and architecture. Their paintings underscore the foundation of contemporary art in the country. These pioneers are now role models for a new generation of UAE artists.

Today, young Emirati artists actively participate in a rapidly changing cultural landscape. They portray the psychology of modern life and technology through their work to express a dynamic identity. Shaikha Al Mazrou appropriates obsolete, mass-produced electronic waste – such as discarded circuit boards – in her art to highlight society’s predilection for replacing antiquated objects with newer models. While many Emirati artists employ innovative methods, they nonetheless produce works that are steeped in their local heritage. Zeinab Al Hashemi uses materials such as scanned UAE currency to depict fishing and pearling, which for millennia have been two of the country’s primary sources of sustenance and income.

The UAE’s accelerated development and emergence as a global hub have affected and inspired many artists. Depictions of rapid urbanization and nostalgia for earlier times permeate multiple works in the exhibition. In a photographic series, Lamya Gargash documents homes built between the late 1970s and early 1990s that are about to be vacated or have already been abandoned. Maitha Demithan employs modern techniques, such as scanography – a process in which the artist digitally manipulates images captured on a flatbed scanner – to make intimate portraits of her relatives and family friends. According to Demithan, “A portrait does not only represent a person, but can also represent a past, present, and a future.”

The creation of Past Forward has been an educational journey. It permitted Meridian’s curatorial team to delve deeply into the Emirati psyche, while encouraging our UAE counterparts to think about their own culture from an outside perspective. This collaborative approach resulted in the most comprehensive exhibition of Emirati artworks ever displayed in the United States. Many people in both countries worked together to bring this exhibition to fruition. Special thanks are owed to His Excellency Yousef Al Otaiba, UAE Ambassador to the United States, for his vision and support. We are likewise grateful to Dana Al Marashi, Head of the UAE Embassy’s Heritage and Social Affairs Department.

Past Forward would not have been possible without our co-curator Noor Al Suwaidi, whose knowledge of the contemporary Emirati art scene, strong relationships with artists, and logistical skills ensured the success of this project. I am also pleased to recognize Meridian’s Terry Harvey, Director of Exhibitions; Lindsay Amini, Exhibitions Coordinator; Athena Hsieh, Cultural Programs Associate; and Abdul Kanu, Development and Grants Associate for Cultural Programs, who worked on all aspects of this undertaking.

Past Forward: Contemporary Art from the Emirates is a far-reaching, bilateral effort that seeks to deepen the relationship between our two countries. We hope that this exhibition not only introduces U.S. audiences to the United Arab Emirates, but also serves as a platform for Americans to experience the UAE’s complex and diverse heritage. We envision exciting opportunities for programs, exchanges, and partnerships as Past Forward tours communities around the United States, building a foundation for greater understanding between Americans and Emiratis.

Welcome to the show!

Dr. Curtis Sandberg
Senior Vice President for Arts and Cultural Programs
Meridian International Center