Young Emirati artists head to Art Basel Hong Kong on cultural exchange

Ten Emirati students head to Art Basel Hong Kong tomorrow for a week-long exchange programme. Anna Seaman speaks to one of the aspiring young artists and the trip’s organisers.

Left to right, Aysha Alkhoori, Ameena Al Jarman, Lamya Alshamsi, Mitha Altamimi, Amna Bin Thaneya, Marieh Sharaf and Mariam Albinali will all travel to Hong Kong. Mona Al-Marzooqi / The National
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It’s always been Ameena Al Jarman’s dream to see the Hong Kong Museum of Art. As a double major student in anthropology and visual arts, she’s fascinated with both creativity and the environment, and the Far East is somewhere that she feels fits perfectly with this joint interest.

She never imagined that she would have the chance to travel there until after she finished her studies at Zayed University in Dubai. But Al Jarman is one of 10 female Emirati undergraduate students who have been selected to take part in the Sheikha Manal Art Exchange Program. She leaves for Hong Kong tomorrow.

“It is a dream-come-true kind of trip for me,” explains the 24-year-old. “The urban environment there, the colours and the signs, is something I have always wanted to experience and see. Plus, I have read so much about the museum, I am really excited about finally ­going.”

The art exchange programme was founded by Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the president of Dubai Women Establishment and the newly established Cultural Office. It began in 2008 with a trip to Art Basel in Switzerland and continued in 2009 when a group of students visited Frieze in London.

Since the Cultural Office was started last year, the team decided to relaunch the programme on an annual basis to increase the opportunities for Emirati students to experience art and culture in an international arena.

Mona bin Kalli, the director of the Cultural Office, explains that the feedback from the past students was “phenomenal” and it was one of the primary reasons that they decided to restart the programme.

“One of our main roles at the Cultural Office is to build a platform for the young pool of talent we have in UAE and help them to realise the potential in arts and that it can be a great career,” she says.

“We want to show them this by exposing them to many different influences and by getting them out of their comfort zone and putting them in an environment they have never experienced before.”

In Hong Kong, the students will visit the Art Basel art fair, which runs from May 15 to 18 in the city’s exhibition centre, where they will also have the chance to meet organisers and gallery owners. Other than the fair, they will follow an intense schedule where they will travel to museums and heritage areas, visit universities and conduct workshops with art students as well as learn about the history and culture of the country.

“It is more than just a trip; it will be a life-changing experience,” says Nazneen Shafi, who is one of the facilitators on the programme.

In this role, Shafi has helped to select the 10 girls through an intensive process of four interview rounds. Alongside three other panel members – Abdul Rahim Salem, Patricia Millns and Khalid Al Shafar – she took recommendations from the deans and professors at art universities all over the country and began whittling down a shortlist.

Once they had selected 21 for the shortlist, the interview process ­began.

“We tried to focus on the character of the student as well as their experience,” explains Salem, an Emirati artist. “We had to make sure we chose the girls who fit best into this programme.”

The 10 girls come from institutions in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Sharjah, and once they return from Hong Kong, they will be asked to participate in workshops and create a final piece of art, to be displayed in the Dubai Ladies Club in October in a group exhibition.

“The programme is really about nurturing talent and combining the curriculum that already exists with real-life experience. We will take the city as an urban studio and it is set to be a truly transforming experience,” says Shafi.

The art exchange programme complements the Sheikha Manal Young Artist Award that runs every year and the students receive full support throughout the process.

“We feel a great responsibility towards these students as well as a great deal of pride,” concludes Kalli. “Sheikha Manal is truly our inspiration – she really cares and this is a source of encouragement and support both for us and these young students who want to go out there and make a name for themselves.”