One evening recently at the colonnaded Cultural Foundation in Downtown Abu Dhabi, it was all very quiet. Security guards sat idly in the grand entrance hall downstairs. A sand-coloured sculpture by Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim stood as if isolated, desperate for anyone to look at it. The cover was down on the grand piano. But on the very top floor, a group of boxy, messy rooms thrummed with activity.
Zayed Tamesh fussed with a new artwork, in which two mirrors reflected each other. "I want to make it about identity," the artist, who lives in Abu Dhabi, said. "How it can be split, or fractured." He mused about turning it into a video, wondering if it might be too narrative as an installation.
The celebrated Dubai art trio of Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, and Hesam Rahmanian waltzed in, checking on Ayesha Hadhir in advance of Tashweesh, the UAE Unlimited exhibition they were advising on. When the show opened, a month later, Hadhir had transformed a piece of fabric inspired by erosion in the seabed into a full-scale installation about the effects of entropy.
A new residency programme launched
Rabi Georges, curator of the Cultural Foundation's new artists' residency programme, was rushing about trying to get all four artists on the programme to stay in one place. They were due to fly out the next morning to visit exhibitions in Bahrain, and that night, they were also shooting a video for the Department of Culture and Tourism, which oversees the Cultural Foundation. At one point, Ahmad Saeed Al Areef Al Dhaheri, one of the artist's in residence, wearing a dark blue kandora perfect for the chilly night, made his own assessment of the evening's plans and slipped outside to film the DCT interview. Georges looked back at me in mild panic. "These artists," he said. "They have a lot going on."
When DCT re-opened the Cultural Foundation in December last year, it aimed to relaunch the programmes that made the site so important to the city of Abu Dhabi, where for over two decades it had been the centre of the capital's artistic life. It hosted film clubs, theatre plays, poetry readings, book fairs, and art shows over its four floors, with a spirit of production as much as exhibition. Local artists taught courses in a variety of media in what was, at the time, effectively the only place either to learn or show art.
The new residency programme aims to activate this legacy, giving four artists access to the Cultural Foundation studios for four months. Currently, those artists are Ayesha Hadhir, Ahmad Saeed Al Areef Al Dhaheri, Saoud Al Dhaheri (the pair are unrelated) and Zayed Temash. They are leading art workshops open to the public, as well as taking part in an ambitious programme that Georges, a Syrian-German curator and former artist, put together after taking stock of what artists in the UAE needed in comparison to those abroad. "There are a lot of programmes to support artists in the UAE," he says. "But few ready them for international exposure and the market beyond the region."
The goal of the programme
His goal is not just to provide a space for the artists to work, but to think through how a programme can help launch UAE artists to the international circuit. "Some of the things we've learnt have been really simple," says Al Areef Al Dhaheri, who has a growing profile in the UAE, but lacks a similar level of recognition abroad. "Like standardising the spelling of our names in English: is the "A" in "Al" capitalised? Is there a space between the "Al" and the rest of the name?"
Modules have focused on building portfolios and learning to speak about artworks to curators and gallerists – a skill set that art educators in other countries are also seeking to build. The four have also had studio visits with local art figures such as Maya Allison, chief curator at the New York University Abu Dhabi Art Gallery, and Bill Bragin, artistic director of the NYUAD Arts Centre, and have travelled abroad.
“Young artists in the UAE have opportunities that artists in other countries don’t,” says Georges. “They’re very lucky in that respect. But often that means they don’t learn skills such as filling out grant applications – because often they’re approached by funders.”
The shared theme of identity
In one sense this is a paradoxical move for DCT, which has emphasised local capacity building in the emerging UAE art world by, for example, helping to train young curators at Louvre Abu Dhabi. Georges's programme, in contrast, seems positioned to help UAE artists leave the country. "The UAE can only rise to the next level if artists participate on the market and in biennials," he says. "I'm grateful that DCT allowed me to develop the programme in this way."
The four artists are at various stages of their careers, from Saoud Al Dhaheri, who lives in Al Ain and did not go to art school, to Temash, who graduated from the Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship programme last year and whose work bears the influence of International artists, such as Korean sculptor Do-Ho Suh.
Despite these differences, identity has emerged as an important theme across all their work. Saoud Al Dhaheri has made a series of collages and self-portraits wearing a gas mask, responding to regional conflicts such as the Gulf War. His studio-mate, Al Areef Al Dhaheri, likewise looks to his native country, using the folk tales he heard from his grandmother and grand-aunts to create the figure of Lady Lioness, a fictional character who represents the UAE. A skilled draughtsman, he is currently developing the project as a digital animation.
'The heritage of the UAE is something we live'
When I visit him in his studio, he pauses to listen to the Al Ayala drumming at Qasr Al Hosn next door. "The heritage of the UAE is something we live," he says, but clarified that real Emirati heritage was at times more complicated than what tourists experience. "The stories and songs that my grandmother knew are full of powerful animals and death," he says. "But people don't know about them." His Lady Lioness project in part, pays homage to his grandmother, who helped raise him, and is a way of paying respect to a more complicated understandings of the UAE and its folklore.
Though some of the artists remember coming to the Cultural Foundation as children, they were too young to experience it as the main artistic centre. For them, the site itself is material as much as folklore is: a history to look back on and mine.
Hadhir, whose work deals with natural processes, used the residency period to create a work from the Cultural Foundation itself. During the renovation process, the centre's famed fountain in its southern plaza had to be retiled. Hadhir salvaged the old tiles, and used them to create a path in the desert that will battle the inevitability of time's decay.
Somewhere in the Liwa Desert is now a sky-blue path, ridging the top of the dune until the wind blows and it disappears into the sand.