Artistic Unity: Art in the UAE: Interview with Safwan Dahoul

This article appeared in The Artistic Unity Issue #67 which 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.

What personal experiences or artistic influences drew you into the vibrant UAE artist community, and how have these connections contributed to your growth as an artist in the region?

To be honest, I have been living in Dubai for 12 years but haven’t had any direct relationships with Emirati artists, only encounters at exhibitions or art fairs happening in the Emirates. But the major influence isn’t necessarily from Emirati artists as painters; it could be from architects. What I am always drawn to in the Emirates is the architecture, whether old, modern, or contemporary. My work belongs to architectural photography or drawings because the composition must be very strict, architecturally speaking. Therefore, the biggest influence on my work during this period of 12 years is the architecture that exists and that I observe daily. Subconsciously, it has influenced my architectural approach to constructing a painting.

Reflecting on the evolution of the UAE’s art history since the 1990s, can you describe the ways in which your artistic journey has intersected with this transformation, and in what manner have you actively participated in shaping the evolving art landscape?

Undoubtedly, the movement of fine arts in the Emirates and the Arab world in general has changed significantly from the 1990s until now. For the Emirates, the most important thing is the establishment of fine art institutes and colleges, especially the College of Arts in the city of Sharjah. I visited it a while ago and saw the professors and curriculum producing new generations. This will play a significant role in the future of the fine arts movement in the Emirates. As for me, my participation was undoubtedly as a resident artist. I have continuously participated in exhibitions in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I have engaged in these artistic events throughout my residency here. The city’s fast pace alters your rhythm, and you must keep up. Art fairs in the UAE bring artists from all over the world, and we are always challenged. Consequently, it influences the development of our work positively.

Safwan Dahoul, Still Dreaming, Ayyam Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, installation view, 2016. Courtesy of Ayyam Gallery.

Art often serves as a reflection of the cultural and societal shifts within a region. How does your artwork capture and convey the historical and cultural nuances of the UAE, and what specific themes or narratives are central to your artistic expression?

Each region has its own specificity in art, which impacts the artist’s work. But more important to this topic is artistic language. Whether my being Syrian in Syria or in the Emirates, or even if I were French, British or from anywhere in the world, this language is common. Therefore, the approximation to what is happening in the world today, the connected world, is completely different from the past. Consequently, this language has become more unified. The most important thing in a painting is the artistic language. Thus, each artist presents their own narrative through their research, knowledge, studies and the evolution of their artistic career. My art merely mirrors my thoughts, emotions and truths, which are often affected by international narratives and themes. Therefore, this always reaches my work, whether consciously or not.

Collaboration and engagement with fellow artists often foster creativity and community growth. Could you share instances where you’ve collaborated with other artists in the UAE, and how have these collaborative efforts contributed to the diversity and advancement of the local art scene?

The most notable collaboration was with the Road and Transport Authority, where a group of Emirati and Arab artists, including myself, painted on the metro. The scale of the project was challenging, spanning approximately 70 metres in every direction. Taking on such a responsibility is significant for any artist. The painted metro ran in Dubai for about two years. Its association with the artist’s name adds to the weight of the responsibility. The experience was truly invaluable for me.

Looking ahead to the future of the UAE’s art scene, what prospects or challenges do you find most exciting, and how do you envision your role in driving continued development and innovation within the UAE’s art landscape?

Of course, the future of the art scene in the Emirates needs further development. As I mentioned, the most important thing is the establishment of fine art colleges and institutes. That said, the immense development that took place in the last 10 to 15 years is impressive – the opening of the Louvre and Guggenheim, along with many foundations and institutions across the Emirates. Sharjah does a fantastic job with great programming through its museums and foundations, biennials, and Architecture Triennial. The commercial art scene is growing rapidly; local and international galleries have now opened beautiful spaces in Dubai especially. Art always takes time and it takes years for an art scene to reveal itself. Support for the young generation will shape the future of arts and culture in the Emirates. We must wait for local talents to emerge, and they will certainly appear in this positive climate.

About Safwan Dahoul

Residing in Dubai for more than a decade, Syrian artist Safwan Dahoul draws inspiration from the local architecture while actively contributing to the UAE’s evolving art landscape.

Safwan Dahoul. Courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery.



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