UAE's diversity celebrated in US capital art exhibition

Emirati curator Munira Al Sayegh presents the work of 12 artists from the country in a new show at MEI Art Gallery

Tarek Al-Ghoussein's Abu Dhabi Archipelago – Island Making (2015) is on display at the MEI Gallery. Photo: MEI Gallery
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The flat December light is setting into Washington, but the MEI Art Gallery has shut out the winter gloom with artworks that trill in bright blues, baby pinks, candy yellows and, soft, almost touchable greens.

Between the Sky and the Earth: Contemporary Art from the UAE opened on the UAE’s National Day on December 2, and is nominally an exhibition presenting 12 artists from the country to an audience in the US less familiar with the art scene in the Emirates.

But at the heart of it is a celebration of colour, pure and simple: Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim’s fantastically painted creature-like sculptures, in stripes and designs of bright blues, greens and pinks; a 3D star-like wooden sculpture, painted as if tie-dyed in mauves, purples, oranges and blues by, Ebtisam Abdulaziz (Focal Illusion, 2019); or an interior of the Indian Club in Abu Dhabi suffused in mossy, faded green in Lamya Gargash’s photograph The Court, The Indian Club (2014).

And the wide blue UAE sky crosses all the works, from Tarek Al-Ghoussein’s Odysseus (2016–ongoing) series, his attempt to photograph all of Abu Dhabi’s islands, to Augustine Paredes’ Sunset at the Mina Zayed Parking Lot (2021), with its stripe of dusky blue: “Let us go then, you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky,” as TS Eliot – not Paredes, though he publishes poetry too – once wrote.

The sky was, in fact, curator Munira Al Sayegh’s inspiration for the show.

“Between the sun and the sky is an idea of possibility, the idea of growth,” she says. “It is very relevant to what the UAE feels like for us, the active generation in the arts, and that quickly began to frame what I was looking at. A lot of places feel like they are stagnating right now, but in the UAE things are moving forward very quickly.”

Al Sayegh deliberately chose artists who work in the UAE – both Emirati and non-Emirati residents – to represent the country. She also selected a variety of generations, from older artists such as Abdulaziz and Mohammed Kazem to younger ones such as Alaa Edris and Afra Al Dhaheri. She even manages to coax a colourful work out of Al Dhaheri’s typically monochrome palette: the beautiful St Ives Hair Drawing 8, 2019, made while the artist was in a residency in St Ives in England, another city marked by the encounter between sky and sea.

In setting up these intergenerational encounters, a curious effect emerges: the lines between generations, so often in contention as the UAE art world reckons with its explosive growth, fade away.

“There are a lot of artists who are crossing over with the next generation, such as Tarek Al-Ghoussein,” Al Sayegh says.

Al-Ghoussein is a long-time professor in the visual arts department at NYU Abu Dhabi and has been recently named programme director for its new masters of fine arts. "We can’t even ignore his presence among the creatives working today – both those that he’s taught and even those that he hasn’t. To have him in the show, alongside Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, someone that I correspond with on a daily basis about contemporary ideas, shows that these connections are not about history, they’re about continuation.”

The idea of continuation is a specific reference in the context of UAE’s art history: Al Sayegh is referring to the idea that there was an unbridgeable gulf between the early 2000s work of the so-called Five – the artists, including Ibrahim and Kazem featured in this show, who often exhibited with Hassan Sharif – and the explosion of contemporary practices in the 2010s to the present.

Indeed, thinking retrospectively, one of the most interesting aspects of historical Emirati art was its diversity; the artworks did not coalesce into a rigidly set language and each artist his or her own style. The same comes across in Between the Sky and the Earth: Al Dhaheri’s material-led sculptures, which investigate memory and identity, are set alongside Shaikha Al Mazrou’s colourful formal experiments, in which material plays second-string to the trompe l’oeil visual effect her sculptures create.

Kazem’s durational experiment, in which he documented the laundry hung outside his window (Windows, 2019-2020), sits easily alongside Al-Ghoussein’s own exercise in performative documentation in Odysseus. Hashel Al Lamki’s expressive paintings The Day We Met Thomas (Diptych) (2021) depict the natural environment – as does the work of Solimar Miller, but in a craft-oriented mode of her textiles, such as Milieu, also made this year.

And instead, cross-generational connections emerged behind the scenes. Over the past two years, Al Sayegh has been setting up the Dirwaza Curatorial Lab, an independent project that acts as an incubator for emerging curators. The current cohort of six curators collaborated with her in putting together Between the Sky and the Earth, which was also organised with assistance from the NYUAD Art Gallery.

“I’ve been feeling extremely inspired and grateful to have all the opportunities I have had in the UAE,” she says. “It was important to extend that to the young curators I’m working [with] and to the artists we put forward in this exhibition.”

Between the Sky and the Earth: Contemporary Art from the UAE is at the MEI Art Gallery in Washington, DC until March 31, 2022

Updated: December 14, 2021, 10:16 AM