This year, the programme commonly known as Seaf – short for the Sheikha Salama Emerging Artist Fellowship – turns five. Set up by the Abu Dhabi-based Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, which supports cultural, heritage, health and education projects, the programme has become one of the top post-graduate courses in the UAE – a country which, technically, has no post-graduate art education. But like much in the art world here, private initiatives have outstripped public ones, and, alongside Campus Art Dubai and Tashkeel's Critical Practice Programme, Seaf has taken the model of discursive, critical engagement with art and theory, and started seeding it throughout the UAE art scene.
Each year, 16 local artists are selected by the programme and its partner, the well-respected American art school Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), among those nominated by the art community. For the next ten months, they attend intensive seminars, lectures, studio crits and international trips to see major shows – a period, as the title of the exhibition by this year’s cohort has it, of Community and Critique. After graduating, the students have the opportunity to go on to complete an MA at an international art school, which, like the Seaf programme itself, is fully funded by the Sheikha Salama Foundation. Already, the programme has produced some of the UAE art scene’s strongest artists, such as Farah Al Qasimi, Vikram Divecha, and Walid Al Wawi – and, interestingly, a number who now straddle the divide between artistic production and curation, such as Alaa Edris, now at the NYUAD Art Gallery; Hind Mezaina, who curates adjunct film programmes for Louvre Abu Dhabi; and the three former Seaf students, Maitha Abdalla, Hashel Lamki, and Afra Al Dhaheri, who set up the artists’ space Bait 15.
The atmosphere at the opening of this year’s exhibition at Warehouse421, was that of a reunion. Past graduates reconnected, showed off new babies, and passed congratulations on to the latest cohort. Despite not being a curated show, the exhibition hangs together neatly, with a clutch of common themes. Organic, biomorphic, and anti-form works dominated, such as Sharifa Horaiz’s tactile, abject creature; Zayed Tammash’s casts of his own face, arranged as vertebrae of a spine; Asma Khoory’s mosaic of stained tea bags; and Xeina AlMalki’s attempt to recreate slime in clay. Horaiz’s work, which looks – there is no gentle way to put this – like a skin condition gone wild, with two horse tails at either end, was set reverently upon a cushioned velvet bench, in an oval room painted a soft pink: Horaiz says she wanted to find just the line between beauty and repulsion.
Others created Mark Manders-esque architectural assemblages that represent social and emotional sensibilities in city-like form. Nadine Ghandour, for example, creates a grey plasticine village of distracted life on the move: thin, curving sculptures suggest the bending shapes made by glimpsing shadows while driving at 120km an hour; other shapes suggest what’s seen through peripheral vision as we navigate the world fixated on our phones. On the whole, this was a formal show, with the key moment of encounter between artwork and visitor primed by the material and its arrangement, but there were discursive pieces as well, particularly those that positioned the UAE within its international matrix. Mohamed Khalid showed a portrait of himself and Dubai drawn from Dubizzle ads (deck chairs, Burj al Arab posters, Villeroy and Boch plates); Ameena Khalfan Aljarman, in a story-telling-like installation, references the historical slave-and-pearl trade between the Arabian Gulf and Zanzibar; and Cristiana de Marchi creates a suite of unsendable letters – posted with made-up stamps – to unreachable international figures.
“It’s been extremely rewarding to see the concepts and creative visions of our latest cohort come to life at this year’s exhibition,” says Khulood Al Atiyat, Manager of arts, culture and heritage for the Sheikha Salama Foundation. “At Seaf, we identify and select artists who are pursuing a lifelong, sustainable studio practice and, by supporting them, we can play a part in nurturing our local creative ecosystem. These artists have worked side by side for 10 months in a studio-based community, supporting one another by exchanging critiques, having shared experiences and developing strong bonds amongst themselves and with the Seaf faculty beyond the programme. This being our fifth year, we’ve been able to look back and see the program’s impact not only on our alumni, but also on the ever evolving creative community and the future of artists in the UAE,” she adds.
Cohort 5 is on show until November 4 at Warehouse421