Emirati Expressions

Time Out looks behind the scenes at Emirati Expressions, the new culture-defining exhibition at the Emirates Palace

‘I just saw an advertisement in the newspaper and called them,’ Salah Al Mazouqi tells me, gesturing to his work on the wall, a rather striking photograph entitled ‘The Plant’. It is a sentence I hear time and again that afternoon.

The idea for Emirati Expressions began back in February of last year; submissions were accepted in September. Around 500 artists of all standards. working across every media entered. It was only then that the real work began, as Rita Aoun-Abdo, Art & Cultural Advisor to TDIC explains.

‘We didn’t know if we would find enough artists to fill the space, but it was far easier than we thought. At the beginning we started through the Fine Art Society, who were contacting the artists individually, and then we had this open call in the news. You know how it is: each person telling the other. Then in October we had six days of committee meetings with the curator going through every single piece, brainstorming and inviting artists down and trying to understand the idea behind the work.’

For many of the artists, the whole experience is something new. Salah Al Mazouqi is in his third year of an art course. This is his first exhibition, he explains, eager to share his methods and style. Speaking to Anne Baldassari, the youth of many of the artists proved problematic when making the introductory video for the foyer.

‘It is a story, a way for them to be aware of him or herself. The recording was very difficult for them. It was the first time many had been asked to sit and say, ‘I am an artist’, and explain why I am an artist. What is an Emirati artist? We know more today.’

Baldassari is the director of Mussée Picasso and an interesting character to boot. A light laugh and a penchant for digressing mid-sentence into rather cryptic non sequiturs make her both an endearing and infuriating interviewee. But having previously spearheaded the highly successful Picasso exhibition and now transformed the Gallery One space into a giant ink-black box, she is clearly a curator who gets what she wants. She also sees Emirati Expressions as something of a cultural experiment. ‘It will invent the future of Abu Dhabi culture,’ she declares in a strong French accent. ‘It is a laboratory for the future; it is a place for artists to meet each other and a way for the young – and a lot of them are very young – to be an artist.’

The generational divide ranges from the old guard of Emirati contemporary art such Abdul Qader al Rais to a number of new faces. I meet Wasel Safwan, someone who has exhibited across the UAE, but remains an architect by trade. He applied in the same way as his friend, Salah, via the great artistic cattle call, and now stands proudly in front of a giant painting entitled Asr. He painted it in his garden in Al Ain, he tells me, and across the large canvas great swathes of blue, white and yellow ache into one another. He talks in an excitable manner about using space, and at 29, he is still young, and looks even younger, but is clearly excited to be a part of the event.

The exhibition certainly feels exciting. The jet black room creates a certain tension. It’s like being in some dark, creative womb. It also helps distract from the vast variety of styles on offer in the 165 works on display. From Alya Al Sanad’s unnerving photo portrait to Abdul Rahim Salim’s dark brooding paintings, to the performance art of the cat-suitted Ebtisam Abdul Aziz, who is making impromptu performances throughout the exhibition’s run, there is much to see.

A lot of the talk surrounding the exhibition has been about the future of Emirati art. Naturally, being a TDIC backed exhibition (the investment company behind Saadiyat Island), the impending 2013 opening of The Louvre and the Guggenheim is a recurring theme. The feeling surrounding Emirati Expressions is that it is just the start: ‘This is the groundbreaking, and now we are building,’ Rita Aoun-Abdo tells me. Earlier Anne Baldassari had told me that ‘Artists invent society’, but in this case it is rather the other way round, and in creating this exhibition there is a sense that those in charge are building for 2013. But in the meantime, this remains a fascinating and curious example of an artistic community finding its feet.

Emirati Expressions runs in Gallery One, Emirates Palace until April 16.

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