'It's a moonshot': UAE community art project seeks 2,020 works by June

A Dubai art consultancy has asked artists and amateurs to submit their pieces, which will be transformed into large-scale murals

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Sam Saliba knows she has started an ambitious undertaking. Along with her team, the founder of art consultancy Art Painting Lab seeks to create a community-wide collaboration that will bring in 2,020 submissions of works by June. After that, the goal is to transform these artworks into large-scale murals across the country.

Titled United Art Emirates, the initiative began with an open call for artists and amateurs – anyone living in the UAE with an inkling towards art – to submit works, which will then be reviewed by the Art Painting Lab team, which is comprised of artists and creatives in Dubai.

These works can range from painting and drawing to photography, digital composites and collages. With no mandated theme, the subjects can be varied – and the submissions so far are exactly so: sunset landscapes, cartoons and portraits, mostly by amateur artists. Saliba says that since the announcement of the open call on April 20, they have received 70 submissions via email and through social media.

The idea came out of collective self-isolation amid the coronavirus pandemic, Saliba says. “We are seeing how people are being creative in quarantine, some people are baking, painting, playing music, writing poems and calligraphy. We thought, ‘where is all this creativity going afterwards? Is it just going to stay in people’s homes?’,” she says. The open call is a way “to translate this creativity back to the public on a public platform”, says Saliba.

According to her, once the entries have been collected by June, the Art Painting Lab team will then draw elements from each artwork, weaving them into a larger mural composition, and begin production to paint on buildings and public spaces. Her company has completed similar projects before, working for Emaar to decorate The Dubai Mall parking lots and with a real-estate developer in Ras Al Khaimah to beautify its buildings.

Out of very difficult times, people can be very artistic and creative

Saliba is now in talks with government entities and real-estate developers to secure funding and find a place for the murals once the compositions are finalised. She hopes to create at least one large-scale mural in every emirate. So far, no final agreements have been reached.

This is perhaps why she describes the initiative as a “moonshot”. There are a number of uncertainties at play, including the ability to reach the goal of 2,020 submissions, receiving funding and executing multiple murals with her team of 15 artists. All in the time of a pandemic that is causing psychological and economic woes for many.

Still, Saliba is convinced that art can bring people together and offer some respite in troubling times. The success of United Art Emirates, she says, will depend on how the community responds to the open call. “Out of very difficult times, people can be very artistic and creative. It shows that art can be the least important thing or the most important thing … It depends on how the community is going to grab hold of this project.”

A submission by interior architect Sana Maarrawi. Art Painting Lab

It is preferable, she says, to launch a creative endeavour and let it pick up steam before bringing in public and private entities. In this way, it would feel more “by the people, for the people”, as she puts it.

Saliba also hopes that if the initiative does move forward, it will put a number of regional artists back to work, as she aims to hire a few to help with completing the murals.

For the moment, she and her team will keep their eyes on submissions from social media under the hashtag #UnitedArtEmirates and spread the word about their mission.

“I hope that people will come together for something in the UAE, something that has not been advocated by interest groups. I think it will give people a sense of belonging,” she says. “If it does not happen organically, then the value of this project is nil. It has to come from the community. That is the whole point.”