Artistic Unity: Art in the UAE: Interview with Salwa Zeidan

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.

Rima Nasser: Can you share your journey into bringing art to the UAE? How did it start, what inspired you to do so and what were the challenges?
Salwa Zeidan: Salwa Zeidan Gallery, the first art gallery to open in the United Arab Emirates, specifically in Abu Dhabi, began its journey in January 1994. With the esteemed patronage of Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed, who is recognised today as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the gallery embarked on a mission to showcase the rich and diverse art scene of the region.

Salwan Zeidan Gallery, 1998. Courtesy of Salwa Zeidan Gallery.

In its early days, Salwa Zeidan Gallery played a vital role in shaping the art landscape of Abu Dhabi, paving the way for contemporary artists to express their visions and creations. The gallery became a platform for local talents as well as international artists, fostering a vibrant exchange of ideas and cultural dialogue.

Salwan Zeidan Gallery, 1994. Courtesy of Salwa Zeidan Gallery.

Over the years, Salwa Zeidan Gallery has had the privilege of exhibiting works from renowned artists, both emerging and established. From captivating paintings and sculptures to thought-provoking installations, the gallery has curated a diverse range of exhibitions, each with its own unique narrative and artistic expression.

During its inception, the art scene in Abu Dhabi was in its nascent stages, with a growing interest and appreciation for Contemporary art. Salwa Zeidan Gallery played a pivotal role in nurturing this burgeoning art scene, offering a space for artists to showcase their works and attracting art enthusiasts, collectors and connoisseurs from across the region.

As the first art gallery in the UAE to open its doors, Salwa Zeidan Gallery remains a beacon of creativity, pushing boundaries and promoting artistic excellence. Its legacy continues to shape the ever-evolving art landscape of Abu Dhabi, inspiring future generations of artists and art lovers.

RN: Which artists were the primary focus of your efforts? Did your choice change over time?

Hussain Sharif, Faces, in Manarat Saadyat, 2016. Courtesy of Salwa Zeidan Gallery.

SZ: As both an artist and the gallery owner, I had the opportunity to showcase my own work through the first solo exhibition at Salwa Zeidan Gallery’s opening. This served as a stepping stone for me, allowing me to establish myself within the art community. Alongside my own artistic journey, I had the privilege of collaborating with some of the most influential names in the UAE art scene today. One of the notable solo exhibitions held at the gallery was that of Mohammed Kazem, who has risen to become one of the most renowned artists in the UAE. Additionally, I had the honour of working closely with other prominent artists, such as Hassan Sharif, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, Hussain Sharif and Mohammed El Mazrouie, among others. These artists have significantly contributed to shaping the art scene in the Emirates, leaving a lasting impact on the local and international art community.

Curated by Salwa Zeidan in Abu Dhabi in 1989 Maha Beirakdar and Ambassador of Lebanon. Courtesy of Salwa Zeidan Gallery.

Throughout the years, my gallery has provided a platform for numerous museums and private collectors to enrich their collections. I have had the privilege of collaborating with many art enthusiasts, assisting them in acquiring remarkable artworks and fostering a deep appreciation for art. Notable among them are Fairuz and Jean Paul Villain, Ramin Salsali, Dr. Zaki Nusseibeh and many other private collectors whose names I can’t mention but whose collections today stand as a testament to their pride and passion. Additionally, I had the privilege of curating and creating an exquisite private collection from scratch for the Rakolta family, whom I first met during Art Abu Dhabi 2019. After they developed a deep appreciation for Middle Eastern art, we embarked on a journey to build a remarkable art collection. This year, they will be establishing their very own private museum to showcase this extraordinary collection.

In addition to this endeavour, I had the pleasure of curating another outstanding art collection for the Fishers family. Starting from the ground up, I meticulously selected approximately 40 pieces from the most prominent names in the art scene. These works resonated with their unique aesthetic sensibilities and personal taste.

As someone passionate about building art collections from the ground up, I am fortunate to have strong connections with esteemed galleries and talented artists who are my friends. This invaluable network makes it much easier for me to curate exclusive collections that truly capture the essence of art. Having developed an eye for exceptional art, I’ve been able to form a strong bond of trust with the collectors I’ve worked with. This trust has allowed me to help talented artists gain confidence and ascend within the art scene. By recognising their talent and providing a platform for their work to be showcased, I have played a part in nurturing emerging artists and contributing to the growth of the art community.

RN: Could you outline the key elements of your gallery programme and how it evolved?

Ayman Baalbaki. Courtesy of Salwa Zeidan Gallery.

SZ: One incident that truly left a mark on me was after the opening of Mohammed Kazem’s first solo show. At the young age of 19, Mohammed’s talent shone brightly, and the exhibition was a resounding success. However, what followed was an unexpected and rather funny turn of events. After the opening, I tried to reach out to Mohammed as he had to drive back from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, where he resided. To my surprise, there was no answer to my calls. Concerned for his well-being, I continued calling him the next day and in the following days without any luck. Eventually, I discovered the reason behind his unavailability – he had been detained in jail for driving too fast! It turned out that in his excitement from the success of his solo show, he had unknowingly exceeded the speed limit and ended up in trouble with the law. It was a hilarious story, as he tried to explain to the authorities that he was returning from his exhibition, filled with joy and enthusiasm. This incident not only provided an amusing anecdote but also highlighted the passionate and adventurous spirit of the artists I worked with. It was a reminder that art and creativity often transcend boundaries, including the need for speed limits!

Hussain Sharif, 1993. Exhibited at Salwa Zeidan Gallery, 1994. Courtesy of Salwa
Zeidan Gallery.

Another incident that left a lasting impact on me was the first major group show I curated in 1989, titled Contemporary Lebanese Art. This exhibition took place during a tumultuous period in Lebanon’s history, amidst the backdrop of a civil war. The purpose of the exhibition was to express a resounding ‘No to war’ through the collective voice of the participating artists. I carefully selected some of the most influential names in Lebanese art, including Paul Guiragossian, Mohamed El Rawas, Hussein Madi, Rima Amyuni and Rose Husseiny, among others. Additionally, I also included a few promising up-and-coming artists. The artworks were shipped to the venue in Abu Dhabi and the exhibition itself proved to be a powerful statement against the ravages of war. However, fate had a unique twist in store for us. Shortly after the opening, the airport closed due to the ongoing conflict, leaving us stranded in Abu Dhabi. Determined to return to Lebanon, we embarked on an extraordinary journey, boarding boats from Cyprus to make our way back home. This unforgettable experience served as a testament to the unwavering spirit of the artists and their commitment to their craft, even in the face of adversity.

RN: In what ways has this endeavour played a role in nurturing the art scene in the UAE?

Ogata Water Mark, Monumental sculpture exhibited at the Abu Dhabi International Sculpture Symposium. Courtesy of Salwa Zeidan Gallery.

SZ: Before I delve into my thoughts on the art scene in the Emirates today, I must highlight one of the most significant initiatives undertaken by Salwa Zeidan Gallery. In collaboration with Zayed University and the Municipality of Abu Dhabi, we organised an international sculpture symposium in 2009, which stands as a pivotal moment in the gallery’s history. This ambitious project brought together 13 esteemed international artists who were invited to create monumental sculptures in Abu Dhabi. The logistics involved in shipping the stones from Turkey and hosting the artists as our guests for two months were complex, but it was undoubtedly a labour of passion. The symposium was graced by the presence of our guest of honour, Adam Henein, and witnessed a grand ceremony attended by Sheikh Nahyan and numerous VIP guests. It is important to note that this monumental initiative was made possible through the generous funding and under the esteemed patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed, who now serves as the ruler of the UAE. This project not only showcased the gallery’s commitment to pushing boundaries but also highlighted the UAE’s dedication to fostering creativity and artistic expression on a global scale.

RN: Can you provide an overview of the current state of the art scene in the UAE?

Serwan Baran. Courtesy of Salwa Zeidan Gallery.

SZ: The art scene in the Emirates today is a vibrant tapestry of creativity and cultural diversity. Over the years, it has evolved into a thriving hub that nurtures and showcases local talents while also attracting renowned international artists. One of the most remarkable aspects of the art scene in the Emirates is the continuous support and investment in cultural institutions, such as museums, art foundations, galleries, art centres and art festivals. These platforms have become instrumental in promoting artistic expression and fostering meaningful dialogue. Moreover, there has been a remarkable rise in the number of emerging artists who are pushing boundaries, experimenting with new mediums and sharing thought-provoking narratives. This influx of fresh perspectives has led to an exciting and dynamic art scene, where traditional techniques fuse with contemporary themes.

The Emirates has also become a destination for international art fairs and other cultural events, attracting art enthusiasts, collectors and curators from around the world. This global exposure has not only elevated the local art scene but has also catalysed cultural exchange and collaboration on an international scale. In essence, the art scene in the Emirates today is thriving, diverse and brimming with creative energy. It is a testament to the rich cultural heritage of the region and the unwavering passion and dedication of artists, curators and art enthusiasts who contribute to its growth and success.

RN: What are your expectations regarding the evolution of the art scene in the UAE over the next two decades?
SZ: In closing, I would like to extend my deepest gratitude and admiration to the visionary rulers of the UAE. Their unwavering commitment to the promotion of art and culture has had a profound impact on society. Through their initiatives, such as the establishment of four museums and the support of more than three major foundations solely dedicated to the arts, they have elevated the cultural landscape of the country. Their belief in the power of art and culture to inspire, educate and foster unity is truly commendable. The rulers’ dedication to providing platforms for artists and incorporating art into the fabric of society has created an environment where creativity and expression can flourish. I am honoured to have witnessed and been a part of this incredible journey, and I look forward to the continued growth and development of the art scene in the Emirates under their wise guidance.


About Salwa Zeidan

Salwa Zeidan, Founder of Salwa Zeidan Gallery.

Salwa Zeidan, founder of the first UAE art gallery in Abu Dhabi, has played a crucial role in shaping the city’s art landscape, fostering local and international talents. Caption featured image: Hassan Sharif. Exhibited at Salwa Zeidan Gallery in the show Contemporary Emirati Art, 2009. Courtesy of Salwa Zeidan Gallery.

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