"It is like a wave coming and lifting all the boats," says Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi of the number of women working in the art world in the UAE.
Art and culture are often seen as female fields, with rows of women staffers but, as often as not, men at the helm. According to figures provided by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, for example, women run only a third of major American museums but make up the bulk of the workforce. In the UAE, however, women head most of the country's art institutions – both large and small.
For this article, we canvassed several cultural figures to celebrate the women who have shaped the creative landscape of the UAE today: from Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo, who set up the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation in her living room 20 years ago, to Manal Ataya, who oversees the 16 museums that make up the Sharjah Museums Authority. In addition to these top figures are the engines – to use Al Qassemi's term – the women who power the institutions.
The Sharjah Art Foundation, Art Jameel, the New York University Abu Dhabi Art Gallery, the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, Tashkeel, the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi – a vast majority of staff at these organisations are women. On the commercial side, too, many galleries are female-led, such as Isabelle van den Eynde’s eponymous space on Alserkal Avenue, Sunny Rahbar at the Third Line and Yasmin Atassi at Green Art Gallery, as are both the UAE’s key art fairs, Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi Art, directed by Myrna Ayad and Dyala Nusseibeh respectively.
Why is the UAE such fertile ground for women in the art world?
What makes one field receptive to women, and others forbidding? What creates workplace culture, and how entrenched – or conversely, how malleable – are norms to do with gender roles and appropriate gender fields? There is a clearly a sense, for many, that cultural bias has contributed to the predominance of women in art in the UAE. “Art is a field that has not been masculine,” says Al Qassemi, who established the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah. “Men did not want, for example, for the sake of appearance, to be in the field. Thanks in part to male arrogance, women have flourished.”
For the UAE, women in leadership positions feels particularly pertinent because of the widespread foreign perception that women lack political or social power in arenas beyond the home. Antonia Carver, the current head of Art Jameel and the former director of Art Dubai, notes that while at the art fair, she regularly fielded questions from international journalists "about the place of women in society and in the workplace. Their expectations would be that women are somehow struggling to find a place for themselves. It couldn't be more opposite".
In recent years, the UAE has very conspicuously promoted women – especially young women – to key ministerial positions, and in 2015 set up the Gender Balance Council. May Al Dabbagh, an assistant professor at New York University Abu Dhabi who studies women and work in the Gulf, points out that the contemporary art and culture scene is a relatively new space in a young country. As such, the UAE is not seeking to redress historical imbalances but has the opportunity to populate the field from a new template. There is also a convergence of aims between the promotion of women and the art field, which both signal the country's modernisation efforts.
Carver says that the period post-2000, when the UAE art environment began to morph into its current form, was when growing numbers of Arab women began graduating from universities.
"In the early 2000s you had this double whammy of post-9/11 restrictions on travel for Arab youth, which meant that people started to stay and study at home," she says. "Plus local universities were opening, and opening up to women en masse. Before that, it would have been only the most liberal, academic Gulf families who encouraged their daughters to travel abroad to study. At the time as these bright, ambitious women started to graduate through the 2000s, the cultural industry itself grew as a field where women could work."
Carver recalls that at Art Dubai, “we used to have a lot of interns who would bring their parents to the fair, and say, ‘I want to work in this field’, and point out the government ministers and members of the ruling family who were coming, and supporting. It turned around very quickly from being seen as a fluffy pastime to an industry that lends itself to national representation”.
The appointment last year of Noura Al Kaabi as Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development was seen by many as a significant recognition of the role that women play in culture. “It means so much for women in the workplace to have a woman representing the entire cultural sector of the nation,” says Vilma Jurkute, director of Alserkal Avenue.
"She's become a role model for so many of us." Al Kaabi has pressed for improving maternity leave, which now stands at three months for government employees (fathers get three days' paternity leave), and 45 days of maternity leave in the private sector, in Abu Dhabi and Dubai – this can be a significant hurdle in the already difficult balance between career and parenthood.
Gender blindness rather than affirmative action
Although maternity leave is a live issue, on the whole gender is not a frequent topic of discussion among women here. “I don’t really think about it,” says Laila Binbrek, the director of the UAE National Pavilion. “Sometimes I step back and realise, yes, most of the people on my team are women, but it’s not something I feel normally conscious of.”
Perhaps because the UAE did not engage with feminism either as theory or as a popular movement when it began in the 1970s, or simply because female empowerment in the cultural field is already a norm, most of the women I spoke to were surprised that being a powerful woman would even be worthy of note.
Rather, the prevailing mode seems to be one of espousing gender blindness, rather than affirmative action. The Sharjah Art Foundation has often shown the practices of women artists – and all the principal curators for its biennials from 2009 to 2017 have been women – but these decisions are taken as part of a wider attempt to broaden a narrow art-historical canon. Reem Shadid, deputy director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, says: “Hoor [Al Qasimi] and I have never actually had a conversation about working with so many women artists, but we are both definitely aware of the number of women whose work we have shown in our various programmes and exhibitions. We have certainly taken a conscious decision to present the work of under-represented women artists who have or have had important practices. It’s also important to note that our programmes have also included under-represented men with important practices, such as Rasheed Araeen, Robert Breer and Latif Al Ani.”
Al Kaabi concurs. “I am proud to be a supporter of this thriving art scene that emulates a good gender balance in many of its aspects,” she says. “What is so wonderful about the cultural sector is that it all boils down to talent. Talent, and not gender, is what should define you in the art world.”
10 influential voices
Sheikha Lateefa bint Maktoum, founder Tashkeel
Sheikha Lateefa founded art organisation Tashkeel upon her graduation from art school, and it has since become a major site for engagement and dialogue in the art and design community, with studio spaces, exhibitions, workshops, and teaching programmes. The daughter of the late ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Maktoum, Sheikha Lateefa has used her public status to help normalise art as a profession for young women. Working mostly through the medium of photography, she has helped to capture the changes that Dubai has undergone – as well as the changes to her own life, with her last cycle of works chronicling her personal transition from bride to mother.
Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, president and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, and Reem Shadid, deputy director
Sheikha Hoor took over the Sharjah Art Biennial in 2003, and quickly made it one of the most important events on the international circuit. Working with Reem Shadid, her deputy director – who was part of the Sharjah Art Foundation’s founding team in 2009 – the two then went on to make the Foundation a year-round entity: a serious investment in the local art scene of the UAE. The Sharjah Art Foundation is widely considered the highest calibre contemporary art organisation in the UAE, for its contemporary and modern programmes, support for local practices, and for the discursive events and biennials that remain internationally relevant.
Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development
To the delight of many, Noura Al Kaabi was appointed last year as UAE Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development. She is the chair of the Media Zone Authority and twofour54 – which she established – where most media and entertainment outlets are based in Abu Dhabi. She enjoys deep levels of support in the art world, where she is a visible supporter of cultural initiatives and has emerged as a strong advocate on the issues facing the art sector as it evolves.
Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo, founder of Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation and founder and artistic director of Abu Dhabi Festival
Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo was one of the first to establish cultural foundations in Abu Dhabi, with the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation more than 20 years ago to, she says, “create a platform for UAE talent to gain experience and ready themselves for opportunities at the international level.” She has also pioneered international collaborations, particularly through the Abu Dhabi Festival, which unites music, art and theatre, and which she began in 2004. “I’m proud to say that our great nation and its visionary leadership, starting with Sheikh Zayed, has always made concerted efforts to support women’s empowerment,” Kanoo says. “We witnessed Emirati women gain experience and rise to the forefront of their creative, artistic, and cultural industries.”
Antonia Carver, director, Art Jameel
The United Kingdom-born Antonia Carver took over the directorship of Art Jameel two years ago, at a particular moment for the Jeddah-based organisation, which is a long-time supporter of arts and heritage activities. The organisation recently announced two major building projects: Jameel Arts Centre, on Dubai Creek, and Hayy, a centre for cultural organisations in Jeddah. Carver’s job is not only to oversee the programming for these institutions, but also to manage Art Jameel’s many partnerships with iconic museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Prior to Art Jameel, Carver was the director of Art Dubai, where she helped develop the identity for the fair – one of which was welcoming to international, young galleries – and to co-create platforms, such as Campus Art Dubai and the Global Art Forum, with intent on both content and criticality.
Salwa Mikdadi, Associate Professor, Practice of Art History, New York University Abu Dhabi
The Palestinian curator and art historian is one of the foremost experts on modern Arab art – a history she has helped to write and to bring to wider attention, whether in the timeline of Arab modernisms that she supplied to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2004 (at the time, the first comprehensive timeline of modern Arab art yet compiled) or in her current role as associate professor in art history at NYUAD. Mikdadi has also been instrumental to the development of the arts in Abu Dhabi. From 2009 to 2013, she was head of the Arts and Culture Programme at the Emirates Foundation, and then led the professional practice programme at Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, now called Department of Culture & Tourism – Abu Dhabi. She also recently co-curated the current show at the NYUAD Art Gallery, on the works of Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti.
Vilma Jurkute, director, Alserkal Avenue
“We are going to start creating our own definitions for non-profits,” says the Lithuanian-born Vilma Jurkute, the director of Alserkal Avenue. “The western models just don’t work here, and this is the moment to embrace change.” Alserkal Avenue, the arts district, has grown to be the major Dubai site for commercial galleries, international exposure, and community development: at first an arts district in Al Quoz, next an organisation that provided support to the galleries and other organisations, and then as the cultural body that developed a commissions programme, residencies, and Concrete, the exhibition site at the centre of Alserkal Avenue. Jurkute joined the team as it was first starting, after moving to the UAE from London in 2012, and has helped to manage Alserkal Avenue’s remarkable transformation.
Laila Binbrek, director, UAE National Pavilion
The Arab-Canadian curator is the director of the UAE National Pavilion, which co-ordinates the UAE’s representation at the Venice Biennale, the highest visibility international art event. She joined the National Pavilion at the end of 2013, moving from the Third Line Gallery, where she was one of the directors. She has worked to make the UAE National Pavilion into a top-class contemporary exhibition, and is seeking to expand the visibility of the shows back in the UAE. The art programme last year was complemented by a range of local events, and Binbrek has plans to showcase the exhibitions within the UAE, underscoring the visibility of these “untold stories” at home as well as abroad.
Manal Ataya, Director-General, Sharjah Museums Authority
Manal Ataya has been at the Sharjah Museums Authority since 2006, overseeing the network of 16 museums in Sharjah, which range from art heritage museums to institutions of science and natural history. Ataya also works with the international museum community to encourage best practices for the museums and to foster collaborations, and has focused particularly on professionalising staff, who, because of the lack so far of museums programmes in higher education, often move to museums with degrees in other disciplines. Ataya herself has a master’s degree in museums studies from Harvard.