"Being an artist requires holding some sense of dialogue with peers," Zara Mahmood says.
Mahmood is one of seven artists living in the Emirates exhibiting new work in UAE Unlimited's annual group show, this year entitled Tashweesh: Material Noise, which opens at Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah on Saturday. She says the event helps artists to "be open to exploration as opposed to making a commissioned piece in isolation".
Spotlighting home-grown talent
It is the fifth exhibition from the Abu Dhabi-based satellite platform that supports the development of emerging artists, which is itself supported by the Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development. Established in 2015, UAE Unlimited is supported by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Khalifa, a prominent art patron and a collector of the arts. It was co-founded with his art advisor, Shobha Pia Shamdasani, who also serves as the platform's executive director. The co-founders work together to define and put into effect the organisation's mission, and to continuously widen its scope.
Shamdasani says the event is unique in terms of mission and model: "We have heard from respected curators that we are the only model of this kind globally, and no other platform has our unique precedent," she says. "We hold our annual exhibition in a different city in the UAE each spring, with a collaborating institution which we return to every three years. Every year we commission a different curator, senior guest artist, group of artists and writers."
Looking back over the list of people who have been involved, it reads like a who’s who of the current UAE art scene. “We have been able to identify very promising, young, home-grown talents, who through exposure in our exhibitions have caught the attention of art institutions, galleries and collectors,” Shamdasani says. “Some of our artists have gone on to work on projects with Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Sharjah Biennial, Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi Art, and have participated in the UAE National Pavilion in Venice.”
Indeed, guest artist Nujoom Alghanem, who presents a new mixed-media installation titled Around Us, hung in the stairwell at Maraya Art Centre as part of the exhibition, will represent the country in the Venice Biennale for art in May.
The programme has mentorship at its heart. That is hard to enforce, but if through such an initiative a natural connection is forged, it can have a major impact. The diverse range of organised activities for this year's exhibition have run from last August until this month, with six workshops by Alghanem, as well as sessions by artists Tarek Al Ghoussein, Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian. In the absence of post-graduate art courses in the UAE, to have access to leaders in the field is immensely valuable for artists embarking on the next stage of their careers, as is the prospect of having their artwork join a prestigious collection.
It is this factor that most excites artist Hashel Al Lamki, one of the founders of Bait 15 in Abu Dhabi, when it comes to participating in the programme. He points out that Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Khalifa's collection "will be looked at in years to come as defining a vital generation of artists and thinkers practising in the UAE during this current moment".
Other elements of the commission were inspiring for the artists. Mona Ayyash describes how working with a generous production budget allowed her to make bold moves with her video practice, which manipulates sports coverage, slowing down frames and creating beauty out of glitches.
For Groupings, she has added raked seating in front of her pair of screens, playing with the role of the audience. In developing the piece, she welcomed the working relationship with curator Laura Metzler. "This is my first time working closely with a curator and I learnt a lot about how that relationship develops the work and the show," Ayyash said.
Bringing together a community
Metzler was a senior advisor for last year's UAE Unlimited exhibition Ishara and is on home turf this time around, as she is full-time curator of the Maraya Art Centre. Commenting on how the exhibition relates to Maraya's programming, she says: "It's a great collaboration and fits into our role as an emerging arts centre perfectly.
"UAE Unlimited is particularly special because it sets up a framework that makes it necessary for the curator to bring together artists from across the different communities that are in the UAE and aren't necessarily crossing paths otherwise."
Her artists span the Emirates, from Abu Dhabi to Ajman. Several of them have day jobs at universities or art organisations, so planning studio visits has been a juggling act. “I do what I do because I love working with artists, so being able to be part of these early processes is rewarding,” she says.
Metzler cites how Ayesha Hadhir, an artist who lives in Abu Dhabi, made a departure from her previous work with her new commission Plant the seed before the soil returns, an installation using embroidery and furniture to play with forms of algae. Tor Seidel has developed his practice with soap, treating it as both a malleable, colourful material and one loaded with memories. Memory is also central to Rawdha Al Ketbi's practice, exploring abandoned sites in Abu Dhabi.
Artists are first selected by committee and then asked to prepare an initial proposal responding to the given theme. This year, that theme is tashweesh, or "white noise": an investigation into everyday systems, materials and the commonplace, which is often overlooked in our busy lives. For some, the topic was a natural fit.
"The connection between my practice and the concept behind Tashweesh has been fairly strong from the start," says Mahmood, who produces sublime digital prints on acrylic sheets and studies of natural light. "My practice has always had undertones of the overlooked. It predominantly constitutes a body of work that has dealt with creating a visual language composed of mundane forms to facilitate a narrative."
Metzler has selected previous works by the artists to enrich the exhibition, many of which are strikingly different to the commissioned works and yet share a connection. With this iteration, UAE Unlimited has once again spotted major new artistic talents and captured the spirit of now.
As Mahmood says: "Given our fast-paced lifestyles, not just in the UAE but globally, Tashweesh is a relevant topic that requests us to switch to a rhythm that is slower, to heighten our awareness of our surroundings and to awaken our senses."