Emirati artist Sheikha Alyazia’s first UK solo exhibition opens in London

I Met a Traveller from an Antique Land connects cultures and time periods through art and poetry

Sheikh Mohammed bin Nahyan Al Nahyan, the UAE's ambassador to the UK, Mansoor Abulhoul, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and curator Janet Rady attend the opening of the exhibition at Pi Artworks. Jonathan Milton
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Emirati artist Sheikha Alyazia bint Nahyan Al Nahyan’s first ever solo exhibition in the UK opened on Tuesday, representing another milestone for the UAE’s cultural outreach programme outside of the Gulf.

I Met a Traveller from an Antique Land, curated by Janet Rady, is a collection of 23 art pieces, which exemplify Sheikha Alyazia's love of connecting cultures and time periods together, and is on show at Pi Artworks in London's Fitzrovia until July 7.

The artist, who is based in Abu Dhabi, spoke to The National in London over the phone ahead of the opening to discuss her thoughts about her solo UK debut.

A key theme of her work is mixing the antique with the modern, hence the title of the exhibition, a line from Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's 1818 work Ozymandias. In the poem, Shelley looks back to ancient Egypt although he was from the nineteenth century. Shelley's work is shown alongside translations of famous works by Arab poets including Zuhair bin Abi Salma.

The theme is shown in her modernisation of the classic board game Carrom, which has been loved in the UAE for years. Sheikha Alyazia has transformed the carrom chips to look like modern video game controller buttons, which travel across a shadow of multiple arrows on the canvas.

Carrom Station by Sheikha Alyazia bint Nahyan Al Nahyan. Jonathan Milton
Carrom Station by Sheikha Alyazia bint Nahyan Al Nahyan. Jonathan Milton

The work represents two contrasting ideas, whether it is better to know where you are going but not be moving there or to be in motion but have no direction.

“These are all easy ideas,” Sheikha Alyazia said. “The process I took, was not overly thought through. Not too much overthinking.

“I just want the experience to be nice for the viewer and for them to feel whatever is in the moment.”

Everything in the exhibition is connected to the theme of “mishmashing” cultures and putting the old with the new. In a series of paintings, Sheikha Alyazia takes coins from the present day and the past and revitalises them with symbols. In one painting, she transforms the Emirati dirham by painting on symbols of oil rigs.

A particular highlight for The National was the Mishmash Trails, a series of marble works, a play on treasure hunting. A piece of treasure, an ancient coin, is set within the marble, signifying a cave. Misleading "X" marks are placed far away from the coins.

But Sheikha Alyazia believes the treasure is not necessarily the ancient coin. “A treasure could be a person, a piece of knowledge, or many different things,” the artist said.

While Sheikha Alyazia was unable to attend the opening herself – her children are in their last week in school – she was represented by a number of Emirati officials who came to the exhibition to show support for the artist’s expansion into the British art scene.

The officials attending included Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, Sheikh Mohammad bin Nahyan Al Nahyan, Sheikh Salem Al Qassimi, the Assistant Undersecretary for the UAE Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, the UAE Ambassador to the UK Mansoor Abulhoul and Abdullah Al Kaabi, the Cultural Attaché at the UAE Embassy.

Emirati art is gaining a lot of attention at the moment, with artists like the late Hassan Sharif (a hero of Sheikha Alyazia) having their work sold for hundreds of thousands of dirhams at auctions sales in London.

For Sheikha Alyazia, who is the daughter of UAE Minister of Tolerance, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the upsurge of interest in what the Emirates has to offer to the art world is no passing fad. She believes it is the result of years of careful investment in cultural projects finally coming to fruition.

“We have a lot of support from the leadership and a lot of doors are opening because of that support,” she said.

“Projects showcasing work from not just the Emirates but the wider region began many years back. Now we are seeing the benefits.”