Artistic Unity: Art in the UAE. Tabari Artspace interview with Chafa Ghaddar

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.

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?

I arrived in the UAE six years ago from Lebanon with a practice that is very focused on personal and historical themes. Working with frescoes, I explore notions of skin, body, landscape, and time. It was interesting to be able to continue working on those themes after a complete shift to a new city, geography and community. The first thing I realised is that the community here and the conversations, especially in the first years, resonated with me a lot and allowed me to sustain my interest and interrogations in my practice.

Throughout this time, engaging in programmes such as Campus Art Dubai and Tashkeel’s CPP and the SEAF Fellowship in Abu Dhabi exposed me to various communities and conversations across the UAE. Over time, you start paying more attention to the experience of being here every day – of driving, taking the highway, the landscape, and even the humidity. A lot of things increasingly became a source of inspiration, even though at the beginning, unconsciously, I started finding similar views in the paintings or landscapes I was creating. I began to be inspired by the dynamic of being between different places, whether between Lebanon and the UAE or between my home and studio in the UAE.

In the last year, I’ve moved to so many different studios, which has been a bit unsettling. Usually, a wall or a fresco is a promise of stability and of grounding in a present space. This therefore made me reflect on how we can think of a mural in a portable way. My inspiration is not only related to the specificities of this place, but at the same time to my own experience as an artist here and as a woman and mother. The place marks your experience, but you also can leave your mark on the spaces around you.

Chafa Ghaddar, Beneath Latent Skies installation view at Tabari Artspace, 2023.

Can you describe how your artistic journey has intersected with the evolution of UAE art? And in what way have you actively participated in shaping the evolving art landscape?

I think it’s important to mention that when I arrived in Dubai, I came with the intention of being aware rather than simply being parachuted into this place. Whenever I was trying to learn about the art community here, the history of art here, or to be part of conversations, I was sensitive about the fact that I had just arrived and not to act like I knew everything or could understand it fully. In a way, because I was focused on my practice, it gave me the distance to assimilate and understand what’s going on. It took some time, but I was just being extra cautious. That gave me a lot of room to learn and to build an idea about the type of growth that exists here, which has been happening on such an ambitiously large scale across the UAE.

In terms of how my practice intersected, I can talk about a project that will be unveiled soon. This is a work of public art that was commissioned as part of Art Dubai in 2017, but which experienced major bureaucratic delays. This raises a lot of interesting questions about what it means to create public and permanent artwork in a city like Dubai and to address questions related to heritage or building things that don’t exist. This was a really interesting moment because I was fresh to the UAE and given a project that addresses the history of the building and the architecture of the Safa Library. That experience and the delays that happened due to different types of bureaucracy make you question how we can build projects like this and to what extent the artists are involved. For example, what are the boundaries between the artist’s involvement, the commissioner, the institution and the government? There is still a lot of room for evolution in this field. In the city there are a lot of public artworks, but there are always some loopholes or things that need to be enhanced, and they are a work in progress. When we unveil the project, I will talk more about this and the challenges. I’m hoping that together we can pick up on this conversation and talk about how we can enhance this experience for an artist to create something public and permanent in a city like Dubai.

Another experience worth mentioning is through having my studio based at Tashkeel for the last four or five years, I was continuously part of the community and experiencing critiques, conversations, meeting people, sharing works and taking advice. Being part of the SEAF fellowship made me closer to a community of fellows with whom I was engaged in a program for 9months. I’ve also collaborated with the Alserkal Foundation on a couple of reading sessions, and we have an ongoing conversation with the team about potentially similar public programming or reading sessions that gather people to discuss things that are crucial to us as human beings or as practitioners in the city. Even if these are informal discussions, they are happening in safe spaces. Their impact and the density of what is being shared is quite remarkable and make you feel that you are part of a community that is evolving in so many ways. It’s through such activities that amazing things can happen that go beyond a tangible artwork and make a difference.

I’m also currently part of the Teaching Artists Fellowship in Abu Dhabi. This is a new programme that takes you in-depth into methodologies as a teaching artist, how to think about providing all the tools, strength, confidence in skills and ways for an artist to navigate this ecosystem as a teaching artist and be able to propose and submit to institutions because there is a real demand for this here. Being in the first year of this fellowship is an incredible chance for me to be part of this new experience in the city that hopefully the next generations of fellows will also pick up on so that it will become a shared experience across communities.

Chafa Ghaddar, Beneath Latent Skies installation view at Tabari Artspace, 2023.

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?

My art practice is more about language that I’m suggesting, a language very much invested in deep notions of time, historical precedent practices, and their effect on how contemporary artists have been produced and the potential for this to be a contemporary language. You could relate it to art history. When you bring it down to the places we live in, you realise that even if it’s not necessarily narrating a literal personal experience, it takes a lot of hints from this. In my work, you will see violence, time, nostalgia, motherhood, love, intimacy, architecture, nature. There are themes, but they’re never linear, and they’re never feeding a particular topic. Every time this work is presented to communities, whether through a reading group or an exhibition, everyone can relate to it in a way because it invites you to experience something that is very visceral, that relates in one way or another to a personal emotion or experience beyond geography. I want to believe that this will impact people whether they are in the UAE or elsewhere.

When you produce and you are part of a community, and you’re conversing about what you’re producing, particularly with others, you are making culture and you become the culture. So that’s why even if my themes are not necessarily narrating historical things about Lebanon, if we look at them, from the context that I am an artist from Lebanon, they are narrating indirectly. If you are from a place and you are invested in that place, your work will echo that. I want to believe that eventually that similar experience will translate into being a person who produces culture and knowledge, while being invested in this place here.

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? 

A beautiful and sweet collaboration was with a fellow artist from the SEAF programme, Zahra Mansoor, who is also an architect. The nine-month SEAF programme creates a community of people who collaborate or support one another whenever required. For my first solo show at Tabari Artspace, I collaborated with Zahra, bringing her in as an exhibition designer. The way I present my work is very architectural, or sculpture-like. When I was preparing for my solo show with Tabari, I had an idea of how to present, but I needed the know-how of an architect who at the same time could relate to my practice as an artist. Working with Zahra was beautiful because we were not producing one artwork together but rather a collaboration of ideas in terms of the placement and how it would make sense.

Another meaningful collaboration was with Jill Maggie, the educator, artist and poet who was one of my mentors when I was part of the CPP programme. During the months of mentorship, we had many conversations about work. As this was at the time of Covid, she left for the States, and we continued our conversations. When you are physically not next to the work itself, the conversation moves to different horizons. We decided that instead of doing a talk after the show we would do a poetic duet, utilising images and sentences around the colour blue. We brought them together by doing a nonlinear structure of how a poem visually and in written format could be between two people. We did a performance on Zoom and that was a really beautiful collaboration that I’m super proud of. We are looking to turn it into publication or maybe a two-way performance now that we are freed from the constraints of Zoom.

Looking ahead to the future of the UAE 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 art landscape?

I think there a lot of really good opportunities for artists in the UAE, a lot of programmes and a vibrant scene that’s evolving, but there are always some challenges. For example, I feel there need to be more serious talks about creating studio spaces for artists. There’s a lot of demand, but not enough supply. Plenty of artists find themselves struggling to find a place to work because the city is very expensive, and not everyone can afford to rent. As a result, they have to go through institutions. The level of care towards artists and having the right infrastructure so that artists are able to produce is something that needs to be talked about more seriously. There is a shift that I can sense already, and things are becoming a bit better. For example, artists would often be invited to do things with the expectation of doing it for free, whereas right now there’s more of an understanding that this is work. At the same time, as I said before, on the level of public art and the contractual side for artists, because of my own personal experience, I realised that there is a limitation on what the contract covers. I still believe that up to this point no one has addressed this in-depth.



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