As Maisoon Al Saleh clearly knows, it pays to think outside the box in the art world. Aged just 23, she’s already grabbed the attention of the region’s culture fans, with her slightly unsettling, morbid-looking, skeletal portraits one of the biggest talking points of groundbreaking show Emirati Expressions. Encouraged by the show’s success, the young Emirati is pushing the boundaries further for her latest project, which sees her heading underwater to create her most innovative work yet.
So, underwater art – how does that work?
I’m the first Emirati to create artwork underwater. I got my scuba-diving licence back in May last year, just so I could work on this particular project. I use a canvas that is treated in a special way to make it water-resistant, and therefore a lot easier to work with under the sea. On this, I use a kind of crayon to make my marks. I had a lot of difficulty when I first started – I kept moving from side to side because of the movement of the water. When I was training to get my scuba licence, my trainer kept helping me to stabilise myself. So I had about two months of underwater training before I actually started creating any art.
What sort of images do you create?
There are about five boats and an aeroplane sunken in the Gulf region. So I dive to the sites of these wrecks and create work based around the events that have happened at these particular places. For example, there’s a boat called Titanic Al Khaleej that sunk in Abu Dhabi, I think in 1986, and nearly 200 people died.
Before your underwater work, a lot of your art depicted human figures in skeletal form. Is this something you’ve left behind?
No, not at all – the underwater series is actually the same sort of thing. But while the first series was in black and white, the underwater series is going to be in colour, based on the colour of the reefs in the region. The other difference between the underwater work and my older work is that the figures in the current series have a sort of transparent skin on top of the skeletons.
How healthy would you say the art scene is in the UAE? Are there enough Emirati artists making their voices heard?
Yes – we’re having Emirati Expressions [starting October 19 at Manarat Al Saadiyat] in Abu Dhabi very soon! Sadly, I won’t be participating in it this time, since it’s focused on digital artwork and photography. But the last show [held at Gallery One in early 2009] was great. People really didn’t suspect that I was the artist when they were passing by – I was standing by my work and they would just pass by me, then I would tell them that I was the artist and they would say like, ‘I can’t believe it, you look so young!’ Also, people kept walking closer to the artwork and backing away from it – my work was acrylic on canvas but they thought it was photography! When you get really close to the canvas you can see the brushstrokes.
What is your ultimate ambition as an artist? Is there any one thing you want to achieve more than anything else?
I’m documenting the history that’s happening in the Emirates. At the same time, I want to send out a message to future generations to learn more about what’s happening around us. Every piece of my artwork reflects a story that has happened in reality.
Keep your eye on Time Out Abu Dhabi or visit our website www.timeoutabudhabi.com for news of Maisoon’s upcoming exhibitions.