Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 29 October 2020

From watercolour works to designing trophies: meet Emirati artist Ashwaq Abdulla

Her work will be presented at the oldest women's-only tennis tournament in California on August 4

Emrati artist Ashwaq Abdulla will be going to California to hand in the trophy she has designed for the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic (MSVC), the longest running women’s-only professional tennis tournament in the world. Courtesy of Mubadala
Emrati artist Ashwaq Abdulla will be going to California to hand in the trophy she has designed for the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic (MSVC), the longest running women’s-only professional tennis tournament in the world. Courtesy of Mubadala

It’s hard to pin down ­Ashwaq Abdulla’s material of choice. She employs the traditional – watercolour and acrylics – as well as the gastronomic – coffee paintings and her own version of latte art. Her subjects are just as disparate, from portraits of UAE leaders to symbol-laden drawings inspired by Arabic love songs, as seen on her Instagram feed, where she shares most of her work (@ashwaq.abdulla). Now, she has become the first Emirati artist to design the official trophy of the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic, the world’s longest-­running women’s-only professional tennis tournament.

Co-founded by tennis legend Billie Jean King in 1971, the Silicon Valley Classic marks the first stop of the women’s US Open Series. The likes of Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Navratilova have been crowned champions of the tournament, which has undergone many a renaming over the years, most recently with the sponsorship of Mubadala Investments Company in 2018. Since then, the Abu Dhabi company has set out to commission a unique trophy design for each tour. With the goal of selecting an Emirati artist this year, it approached Abdulla, who is a decade-long Mubadala employee.

Emirati artist Ashwaq Abdalla examines closely the trophy she has designed for the Mubadala championship. Courtesy of Mubadala
Emirati artist Ashwaq Abdulla examines closely the trophy she has designed for the tournament. Courtesy of Mubadala

“My professional job is in marketing, but art has always been my passion. That’s why I never gave it up,” she says. It seems this commission has brought together her two sides. “I don’t usually combine art with my job, but sometimes I try to support the team to make our work more artistic. The team suggested that I collaborate with them on the design for this trophy, and I thought it was a great chance to participate.”

Abdulla, who lives in the capital, studied interior design and graphic art at the city’s Higher Colleges of Technology, and has worked on several commissions in the past, including a series of soft-hued paintings for Saadiyat Rotana Resort and Villas that depict the emirate’s wildlife. In 2016, Abdulla completed a large-scale mural of Sheikh ­Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, as part of Dubai’s Street Museum initiative. She’s also tried her hand at sculpture, producing seven works to represent the seven emirates for the Four Seasons Abu Dhabi.

Asked to create a trophy that represents the link between the UAE and the US through tennis, Abdulla, who had never designed an award before, turned to her experience in sculpture to guide her through the creative process. “I was looking at the trophy more as a piece of art,” she says. “I like to design sculptures with modern outlines and contemporary shapes, using an architectural point of view. That’s part of the reason why they commissioned me for the project.”

The outcome is a rather elegant piece. Two pearlescent loops mimicking the shape of racquets intertwine, with a golden tennis ball as its nucleus. “I tried to look at tennis from a different perspective. Not just as a competition, but about a unity between players when they start playing,” she says. The minimal curves come together to resemble a pearl in an open shell, and the artist notes how her use of colour underscores this intention. Named the Pearl of Partnership, the trophy is both a nod to the tournament’s East-West connection and the UAE’s pearl-diving history. Made of painted steel and bronze, six pieces, all locally manufactured, will make their way to San Jose, California, and will be awarded to both the champion and finalists on Sunday, August 4.

“I never did a project with art and sport together, so it was a great chance,” says Abdulla It is empowering for her as a woman to design the trophy for an international women’s tournament and for it to coincide with Emirati Women’s Day in August, she says.

This sentiment hints at her larger artistic concerns, particularly in addressing Emirati culture and society. Her work combines heritage with a bit of nationalistic flare, such as her watercolour tribute to the UAE’s martyred soldiers.

Ashwaq Abdulla's watercolour tribute to UAE soldiers
Ashwaq Abdulla's watercolour tribute to UAE soldiers. Courtesy of the artist

Referring to herself as a “social artist”, her Instagram following has grown in large part due to her drive to illustrate these issues. “When I started my social media presence I started to communicate with the community through art and respond to social events through art. It’s very important. Now it’s a huge responsibility. If I don’t do it, people contact me to say, ‘Produce some art and talk about it’”.

Abdulla is working on her first solo exhibition centred on Emirati women and local culture.

Updated: July 30, 2019 10:44 AM

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