Artistic Unity: Art in the UAE. Interview with Munira Al Sayegh

This article appeared in The Artistic Unity Issue #67 that was dedicated to the art scene in the UAE in which we unravel the threads of unity by exploring the perspectives of various stakeholders within the UAE’s art community. Through insightful interviews with galleries, art institutions, and auction houses, a vivid mosaic emerged, depicting how unity has been woven into the fabric of the art scene.

Based on your experience, how have you seen the art scene in the UAE change over the years?

I’ve been in the field for almost the last 11 years. I started off working with NYU Abu Dhabi. When I left, it was a pivotal moment. I started working for Art Dubai as a co-curator of a residency programme, where I got to meet a pioneering artist named Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, now a dear friend. I remember sitting down with him, and learning from him via stories about how organic and raw the art scene was at the time. You begin to realise that there’s a lot of misconceptions around the art scene in the UAE from the outside in with the idea that everything is imported, fresh and new, whereas what is happening now is a continuation of what was happening in the past, where people – creatives, thinkers, writers, filmmakers, etc. – were organically coming together to produce within a conceptual space of thinking. What we see today is a lot of movement and progression in continuation to the past creative movements initially from a more topdown approach. In this sense the government has highlighted and taken into consideration the role and importance of art as a soft power and utilized it as a visual language that speaks on behalf of the space that we inhabit, which is the UAE. It’s interesting to see how much the scene has matured in the last 10 years and how much things have changed. The change that I can point towards is within this space where people are much more organised, and there are more outlets for experimentation and collaboration, etc. What we have begun to see, in the last five or six years, is the return to grassroots movements, a rebirth of the creative scene, that is very strongly felt within the UAE.

You’ve done a lot of non-institutional work. How important is this and how has it changed over time?

I am from Abu Dhabi, and I used to work for institutions here. I left considering this question of what it means to have these major institutions, yet there being a separation between them and the ‘ground’ that is creating. I always return to this metaphor of you don’t plant a seed in the sky, you plant it in the ground, and then you have to cultivate it. I left my nine to five in the cultural institutional space in 2017- 2018 and I started to really take this into consideration. What does it mean to curate outside of an institutional voice? What does it mean to curate independently? And what are you going to be curating? I think art is a tool that reflects society. If you open up that dialogue, then you will have visual archives via these exhibitions that tell a story that exists within the framework of society. I started to test this idea, slowly but surely. Initially, I was told, you’re never going to make it – you have to be in an institution, if you’re ambitious and want to get to places. For me, it wasn’t about the places that I wanted to get to, it was more about the stories I wanted to tell via my exhibitions. These institutions will not have vigour, if the ground is not planted correctly. My belief is that you have to create a bridge between these two spaces. Accessibility became really important to me very quickly. If art is for the people, then how do we make it an inclusive space? I ended up opening up my space, Dirwaza Curatorial Lab. The word dirwaza refers to the small door set in a larger door in the gates that traditionally existed outside houses. This word of Indian origin that migrated to usage in the Arab Gulf is interesting to me because of the relationship between the two regions historically and also today. My mother was talking to me about the dirwaza of the house she grew up in, and the visual of this little door inside a big door stuck with me. The intimacy of it served itself for the space. Since the launch of Dirwaza, alongside my team of three, Dania Al Tamimi, Hessa Al Nuami, and Anita Sheshani, I’ve curated shows across the UAE and internationally. The international experiences, brought to light just how highly politicised, and most often misunderstood, the Gulf region is. So, these exhibitions became a really important place for me to play with narratives and introduce a social bridge of sorts, to attempt a connection. How do you bridge one culture with another? How do you also elevate a culture that’s always misunderstood? Then through art you see how it becomes an active tool of storytelling, and how people’s perceptions can change via the stories that are told.

My argument is always to make the language around an exhibition digestible for any visitor and allow everybody to participate in the narrative discussed within an exhibition. How do you make it inclusive? How do you humanise the language and the vocabulary around it? The power of stories is what I personally believe in, and what I am seeing is that a lot of people gravitate towards that. Moving away from institutions gave me the freedom to explore my personal belief system within the art world. I was able to think, explore and then expose these ideas, which have been very well received. And working with various artists along the way is extremely rewarding.

What kinds of artists do you work with? Do you have a specific medium, are they established or up and coming?

Generally, my practice focuses on artists in the region and specifically in the UAE. That’s where my interests are because these are the stories and the histories that I know and that I want to tell. I always encourage people to use the term artists based in the UAE or UAE-based curator, because that’s the kind of language that becomes encompassing, one that doesn’t glorify a specific citizenship over the other. I don’t curate or prefer a particular medium; it just depends on if the artist fits the narrative I am working on.

What types of challenges have you encountered with Dirwaza, exhibitions or other institutions?

Within the framework of day-to-day challenges, I think it becomes interesting how much of an educational force you must be as an individual or a space, especially when you’re working alongside non-arts institutions or even other arts institutions where you have to always be patient. I tell my team, take a deep breath, take a step back and realise that this person perhaps doesn’t know or hasn’t been told otherwise. As much as it is a challenge, it’s a lot of unlearning and relearning, how to really formalise the space and what it means to be working with a curatorial group or with artists. I always play the devil’s advocate. If something doesn’t sound right, I will explain why it doesn’t and in the hope that we can carry a conversation from which both sides can learn. I think there’s a lot of excitement around what it means to be a creative in the region, let alone in the UAE, but that the infrastructure is still being built alongside us. I guess these infrastructural issues are slowly starting to fade away, but then at the same time you have other issues. For example, when I opened up Dirwaza, my legal license was for an interior decorating company. I remember having this conversation with the individual that I needed to open up Dirwaza, and there was so much back and forth. I said, “I will refuse to put interior decorating company on my license!”.

He replied, “This is what is available, and this is the closest thing to what you do. You tell me that you put together exhibitions, which means you put art on walls, and interior decorators do that, too”. These are very innocent challenges and I’ve seen it opening up in the past few years. A freelance license has become super easy, but opening up a bank account, for example, has been a nightmare that continues to haunt me. You try to explain what you’re doing, but you realise the banking sphere works very differently to that of the creative field. You also have what I would call the challenges around perspectives within the region and the UAE, which have been and will continue to be interesting. People come with their preconceived notions. They just assume that the only culture that exists are camels and Bedouins.

The reality is that the history of the UAE, let alone the Gulf, is very rich and extremely diverse. The peak of it was when I was in Basel in Switzerland opening this exhibition that I had worked on relentlessly for three years with the artists. I had people ask me the strangest questions, like: “Oh, were there people in the Gulf or in the UAE before they found oil?” This is wilful ignorance, because, in this day and age, the world is at your fingertips, to research and get to know the reality of things, if you are that interested or invested. In contrast, arriving in Tokyo and putting together a show, people were very attentive and did not come with preconceived notions. Year after year, exhibition after exhibition, art has really proven to be a powerful source to correct these kinds of challenges.

How do you see it evolving in the next 10 to 20 years?

At the pace it’s going, the creative sphere is going to mature very quickly. I think that people have begun to cultivate the ground and lay the foundation stones that lead to a particular path. I’m expecting to see more and more innovation within the cultural and creative sphere. I feel governmentally there’s a lot of attention being given to this creative sphere, understanding the role of it socially and its impact. I think the push of soft power through culture is going to become much more elevated. I really do hope that culture continues to exist in a way where the doors are open to anyone and that it does not become a space just for the elite. You see that in the many individuals coming in and out of the main art schools in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, or public government universities, creating the next frontline of creatives. I feel it’s moving in the right direction, and I hope that it continues to formalise in the spaces that it needs to and open up in the spaces that it needs to.

Can you tell us more about Tabari Artspace and the show you’re curating with Hazem Harb?

I started working with Hazem give or take a year ago. The show was meant to open a long while ago before all the serious events that started to take place in Gaza. Hazem was an artist that Maliha Tabari insisted that I meet. I knew him from a distance and from things that I had read, but then we started to get to know each other through what we were aiming for in relation to the initial exhibition. I become very interested when I work with an artist who thinks and feels in Arabic. All our conversations were in Arabic, and that space is much more freeing, as the Arabic language is richer and denser.

For me, the persistent question was how to tie the beginning of Hazem’s work to what we see now, which is very polished. What’s interesting is at the beginning of his practice you see the brush or the work controls Hazem, and then in the present what we see is Hazem taking control of the work. In the beginning, his work almost engulfs you and drowns you. When you see his work today, it’s very architectural. You begin to understand the human through the work, that there is a sense of stability within the self that he reached. Now, since the escalation of violence that has taken place, what you see is this return to a space outside control. And then if you had seen the work that he presented at Abu Dhabi Art, he went back to utilising his hand, with charcoal or a brush, to directly reference his feelings on paper. It looks like his older work, which is quite interesting. It was his departure from Gaza to Rome when he started to move slowly towards a more pristine space. Hazem’s work is highly research based and it’s very powerful. But then there is a power when you outpour your own emotions into a space or spheres. What initially became interesting was how to tie all this together, but also how do we break away from the things that we already know?

And how does this older chapter really bring us closer to understanding his practice outside of the framework that we use to know his work by? I always ask him, “What does it mean to romanticise a place that you left? You sought refuge elsewhere for your own reasons?” We haven’t revisited any of these questions since the event started. It’s not easy what he’s going through. We’re not trying to glamorise anything that’s taking place in Gaza through this exhibition, but sometimes it’s not up to you how an audience is going to take in a space or an exhibition. Most of the time you can never nail someone to an opinion that you wish they would have. So, it’s interesting to bring forth this exhibition with, given the timing, the extremely loaded emotions, and see how an exhibition that wasn’t going to be politicised or political has become even more politicised in a very escalated way because of things that have changed. For me, I think overcoming the initial heavy emotional reality is going to be really important as to how we continue to define the way the exhibition is going to be presented.

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