Constellation of shooting stars: Gulf artists in FotoFest exhibition as part of Abu Dhabi Festival

Abu Dhabi Festival FotoFest makes its regional debut in Abu Dhabi on March 20

Lalla Essaydi (Morocco) Harem Revisited. Courtesy of the Artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York
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In 2003, when the Emirati artist Ebtisam Abdulaziz decided to wear a black jumpsuit covered in green printed numbers and take a series of self-portraits in public places in Sharjah, she made regional artistic history.

Not only was this pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable for an Emirati woman to do in public, it was also stretching the limits of contemporary art in the UAE. Today, more than a decade after she began the project, the images remain relevant.

Autobiography Part II, 2008 is one of 140 photographs to appear in View from Inside: Contemporary Arab Photography, Video and Mixed Media Art, an exhibition in collaboration with FotoFest set to open this weekend as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival.

FotoFest is a non-profit photographic-arts-and-education organisation based in Houston, Texas. Founded in 1983 by Frederick Baldwin, Wendy Watriss and Petra Benteler, it established its first biennial of photography in 1986 and has since continued to grow and expand. Although there have been several international exhibitions since its inception, this is the first time FotoFest has come to the Middle East.

That’s not to say it has only just turned its focus here, however. “We have wanted to present the contemporary work of the Arab world for some years,” says Watriss. “We started working on this project about four years ago.”

In collaboration with Karin Adrian von Roques, a German curator with more than 20 years' experience working with Arab artists, institutions and publication, Watriss curated the first iteration of View From Inside for the 2014 FotoFest Biennial in Houston. That event featured more than 700 pieces from 49 artists. While the Abu Dhabi Festival version is on a much smaller scale, the quality has not been compromised.

“We have made a careful but reduced selection that preserves the spirit of the original exhibition,” explains Watriss.

Alongside Abdulaziz are four other Emiratis – Karima Al Shomely, Mohammed Kazem, Khalil Abdulwahid and Lamya Gargash – and many regional names who have become internationally established in recent years.

“It was extremely important to show the leading artists who are already highly respected in the Arab world,” says Watriss. “It has been a very enriching ­experience.”

Gargash will be showing two images from her Majlis series (2009), which showed a collection of empty reception rooms in Emirati houses, exploring the dichotomy between the defined public and private spheres of UAE society. With the rooms being empty, the viewer sees sofas, air-conditioning and televisions and vivid colour schemes or ornate features.

“It is very interesting to look at the development of contemporary photography in the region,” says Von Roques. “There was a big shift in the 1990s towards new media, and I found that because the region is less steeped in a deep history of fine art than other parts of the world, the artists were freer and did some wonderful things with photography.”

Also in the exhibition is a series of self-portraits by Youssef Nabil, an Egyptian-American, who like Gargash, is represented by Dubai’s The Third Line gallery. Nabil’s characteristic technique of hand-colouring silver gelatin photographs reminiscences about old Egyptians film and also recalls the fascination of the region with Photoshop to remove the blemishes of reality. The self-portraits taken between 2005 and 2011 show him as a performer and a visitor to those places and address the notion of belonging to a place, which is at the heart of most of Nabil’s work.

Ahmed Mater, a medical doctor and artist from Saudi Arabia, whose work has brought him much praise over recent years, will show two pieces from his Deserts of Pharan series – photographs of the holy city Mecca under heavy construction.

“It is important not to forget the original purpose of art, which is that it has a role to inform people about the culture of a place,” says Von Roques.

With nine artists from the kingdom, it’s the highest concentration from any Arab country ­represented.

“Certainly within Western audiences there still seems to be a proliferation of negative stereotypes when it comes to the whole region,” says Von Roques. “That’s why I have been working for years to make people familiar with Arab art and to show them there is a rich landscape of education, science, culture and art here.”

Watriss agrees. “Although audiences in Abu Dhabi will see it with different eyes to the West, my hope is that with this show people will be able to see the breadth of their own sophistication and their place within the rest of the world’s art scene.”

• View from Inside: Contemporary Arab Photography, Video & Mixed Media Art in collaboration with FotoFest runs from Saturday until April 20 at the The Gallery, Emirates Palace. The VIP opening is on Friday from 7pm to 9pm. Visit