If you want to know what's next in the UAE art scene, the annual Seaf exhibition is a good place to start. Short for the Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship, the initiative, set up by Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan, has been helping young artists in the UAE develop their practices through a 10-month educational programme created in partnership with the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). The artists attend lectures, seminars and reading groups, as well as go on studio visits and trips to see shows abroad.
Every year, the programme culminates in a group show called Community and Critique, in which participating artists exhibit their works to the public.
How artists are chosen
Now in its sixth year, the latest exhibition is on view at Warehouse421 until Friday, November 22. It is not a curated show, but rather a presentation of what the artists in the programme have been working on over the past year. The result is a glimpse into the themes young local artists are dealing with today and the mediums through which they choose to express them.
Every Seaf cycle fosters the next potential wave of mid-career or established artists from the UAE and there have been a few names who have completed the programme and found success abroad, including Farah Al Qasimi and Vikram Divecha, artists who now live in New York.
"The fellows are chosen through a rigorous selection process by a committee who believe that they are committed to having a life-long art career," says Khulood Al Atiyat, manager of arts, culture and heritage at the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, the organisation that set up the fellowship in 2013. This year, the applicants were narrowed down from 200 to 15, which Seaf refers to as a "cohort".
The artwork being presented
There's a strong representation of installation art in Cohort 6, including WHERE IT BEGAN by Sultan Al Remeithi, who has rendered his experiences in London's music scene to an immersive environment of sensory overload: paintings crowd the walls, lyrics are graffitied on the floor, posters and papier-mache heads dot the room and soundscape pulses from the speakers. At one end of the room is an iridescent sheet that splits the space in two and obscures a video projection playing on the other side.
In the vibrant chaos, it can be easy to overlook his painting skills, but they are worth paying attention to. His energetic mixed media pieces depict musical figures against vibrant backdrops, showing a characteristic style that borrows from street art and illustration.
In another room, Christopher Benton's homage to Al Satwa in Dubai – where he lived for two years when he first moved to the UAE from the US – is anchored by a video work that chronicles the lives of the neighbourhood's residents. The film is a collaborative effort, with Benton lending a camera to a local tailor who used it to capture his daily life.
Hung on a wall is a telling tapestry of embroidered fabric scraps, which were found by the artist in an abandoned tailor shop. Held together by safety pins, the patches are logos from different stores, restaurants and salons that many UAE residents would recognise. The piece represents the country's service industry and, more importantly, the labour force that keeps it running.
Stepping into Ayesha bin Khadia's monochromatic imaginary bedroom, a sense of unease descends. The black bed looks more like a tomb, while the soft white carpet creates a textural contrast. The work mimics the clinical feel of Abdulnasser Gharem's installation The Safe, presented at this year's Art Basel. Bin Khadia's focus, however, is not about the political but the personal – her insomnia.
Her installation piece is a departure from her previous works, which were focused only on pottery, playing with the malleability and fragility of the material. Bin Khadia says the programme pushed her to explore new mediums. "Throughout these 10 months, Seaf helped us get out of our comfort zones," she says. "I've always had this interest in installation and set design, so I wanted to display my insomnia."
Material-based practices feature predominantly
What ties these works together, and perhaps what makes them most compelling, is that they are rooted in the artists' personal experiences, rather than attempting to encompass the universal, which runs the risk of work becoming too generic.
As was the case in last year's cohort, material-based practices feature predominantly in the show, though these are perhaps less interesting in their ideas. Latifa Saeed's glass and rebar structures comment on the impact of construction on nature. Her materials – steel, sand, glass and water – become metaphors for these elements, and the artist has moulded the hard material to undulate like flowing water. Shortly before the exhibition opened, however, parts of glass shattered and shards were simply left on the floor. During a panel discussion, Saeed offered little explanation for the cause except to say that "glass breaks", as if the material were some ever-mysterious phenomenon that could not be understood or mastered.
Rawdha Al Ketbi's work (Cu.6H202) features a copper dome repeatedly subjected to mist in order to hasten the process of oxidisation, producing a green-blue rust. The artist relates this controlled decay to her own memories and emotion, though any sense of narrative and feeling becomes lost in the scientific process.
There's also Shamsa Al Dhaheri's cocoon-like chandelier made of patterned fabric, crystal and chains, which contemplates issues of excess, waste and luxury in the UAE. Focusing on her surroundings, Dhabiya Al Romaithi prefers the use of natural elements such as soil, as seen in her hanging sculpture that evokes tension and territory.
Drawing on the idea of landscape to investigate borders and geography, Saba Qizilbash produces very fine and minute charcoal drawings of disputed territories. Inspired by the division between India and her native Pakistan, the artist focuses on places of transit, no-man’s lands and boundaries, such as abandoned railways and border fences. Experimenting with green resin, Qizilbash has transformed these drawings into objects that resemble semi-precious stones.
More traditional approaches include Fatima Farah's unframed canvases crammed with sullen figures and Zeina Al Kattan's bizarre yet memorable collage-style paintings that recall the fragmented images cluttering our social media feeds and our minds every day. Other artists in the exhibition include Aruaa, Layan Attari, Shamma Al Bastaki, Wid Al Bayaty and Rashed Al Falasi.
Having completed the programme, these artists have the option to pursue further studies, which will also be supported by the foundation. The ultimate goal for Seaf, however, is to ensure that they keep the local art ecosystem going.
"Our goal was that if every year we take up to 16 artists, the rigorous programme would prepare them to apply for graduate studies," says Al Atiyat. "We're hoping that over the years, these people will come back and become established artists in the UAE. They will start opening up artist-led spaces, galleries, come back and teach, start to give back to that community."
She notes that two artists from the first cohort (2013-2014), Asma Belhamer and Afra Bin Dhaheri, now teach at Zayed University, the latter developing a textile art department at the school. There's also the artist-led space Bait 15, established by graduates of the programme Hashel Al Lamki and Maitha Abdalla, who currently has a solo exhibition at Warehouse421.
"Those are some of the earlier results, and I hope that continues to happen," says Al Atiyat. "Because that's where meaningful dialogues happen and where generations are going to grow."
Community and Critique: Seaf 2018/2019 Cohort 6 is at Warehouse421 until Friday, November 22. More information is available at warehouse421.ae