Sunday interview: Woman on a mission

Salwa Mikdadi talks about running the Emirates Foundation's arts and culture programme and her ambitions for a new scheme that seeks to help young Emirati artists, get a foot on the ladder

Salwa Mikdadi freely admits that when she first took up her position as the head of the Emirates Foundation's arts and culture programme she was overwhelmed by the avalanche of cultural initiatives swirling around her. It took her months to sift through them and work out a plan of action and she's only just coming up for air.

With her own formidable background as an art historian and museum curator - she conceived, planned and curated the very first exhibition of Palestinian art at Venice's 53rd Biennale last year - she was irresistibly drawn to the challenge of seeking out and nurturing burgeoning artistic talent in the UAE. The problem was where to start. She was at home in Berkeley, California, when she received the call from the chief executive of the Emirates Foundation, Dr Peter Cleaves, offering the job, and she started work exactly a year ago. "I thought it was a challenge and I love a challenge. I didn't have preconceived ideas," she says.

"If you had asked me for an interview this time last year I would have said 'No'. I'm an Arab, I've been here before and I speak the language but it was still all very new to me. It's amazing here and the changes are happening so fast that it's hard to catch up. It's like a meteorite fell down and there are all these splatters everywhere and I'm trying to grasp them. It's only in the past two months that I feel I am getting to grips with it all. When I arrived they had 13 projects on the go and I scaled that down to six. You hear about something happening, but as soon as you start to investigate you find it has moved on," she says.

Sitting in her office in the splendid Al Mamoura Building in Abu Dhabi, where the philanthrophic foundation has its home, she is preparing to launch the new Young Emirati Artists Grants to be announced today that will help young Emirati artists, filmmakers, musicians and writers produce their first films, books, theatre productions and exhibitions. In short, it will help young talent, under the age of 35, get a foot on the ladder of achievement.

It's a competitive award with six categories and Mikdadi hopes that it might produce artists whose work she will follow for years to come. "The most important part of the job is identifying the need and fulfilling that need. That in itself is a huge task, identifying creative talents and awarding them opportunities to advance their professional competencies and produce art work that otherwise they wouldn't be able to do. What makes it unique is that we take a risk with young artists," says Mikdadi, who is eagerly looking forward to going through the entries.

Her background in Palestinian art and experience in the field of art and museum curating throughout the Arab world makes her uniquely qualified to drive the foundation's arts programme. Like many Palestinians born after 1948, she has lived in several different countries - Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the US - although she still thinks of her mother's native Jerusalem as home. She has lived and worked in the US since 1972 and has two grown-up sons and a daughter. Her father was a historian and her mother a teacher, and she thrived in an intellectual and cultured environment both at home and at the American University of Beirut in the early 1970s and later, when she went with her husband to Berkeley, where he was studying.

"By 1972 we looked around and realised that the situation in Beirut was getting worse so we decided to stay and become Americans. Berkeley was the next best thing in terms of the atmosphere of intellectual freedom and political activism that I grew up with." Her interest in art was piqued at high school by an artist friend and mentor Sophie Halaby, who died in 1998. "I always enjoyed watching her paint and I realised there was a whole world out there that I didn't know about. Later I wanted to show the world that there was an artistic life in Palestine."

At university she put together her first exhibition of Palestinian art before she even knew the meaning of the word "curator". She would travel around the refugee camps at Shatila and Burj al Barajni seeking out artists and watching them develop their work under the most difficult of circumstances. Field research is still an essential part of her work as an art historian and museum curator and she establishes long-term relationships with the artists whose work she follows.

Over the past 15 years she has worked as a United Nations Development Programme consultant to the new art gallery Al-Hoash: The Palestinian Art Court in Jerusalem. She has been a consultant for Bethlehem Historical Museum, Dar El Tifel Museum and Birzeit University Museum on a variety of projects such as exhibition development, training and education. She has also organised educational programmes on contemporary Arab art for leading universities and cultural institutions in the US.

She is scathing about artistic stereotypes and dislikes terms such as "Middle East art". "The world is round so middle of what, east of what?" she asks. In the early days of the world wide web, she was instrumental in helping to break down some of those stereotypes and introducing the world to contemporary Arab artists. "When the web first came along I typed in the words 'Arab art' and up came a whole lot of pictures of Arab stallions. That's what Arab art meant to the world. So in 1994 and 1995 I wrote profiles of Arab artists with images of their work, in a collaboration with the University of Arizona who put them up on the internet."

She spent five years seeking out and interviewing female artists, talking to museum curators, gallery owners and art historians and viewing private collections, and in 1988 put together the most comprehensive exhibition of contemporary Arab women artists at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC in 1988. Sponsored by the the International Council for Women in the Arts, a non-profit organisation based in California and dedicated to promoting in the US the work of female artists from the developing world, it brought together works by 70 artists from 15 Arab countries including painters, photographers, sculptors, ceramists, photographers, installation artists and filmmakers.

Mikdadi is a firm believer that all disciplines need to work together. It's a concept she is keen to introduce to the UAE,where artists tend to work in isolation. "What interested me a great deal in Palestine was the relationship between the poets and the writers and artists. I don't see that now unfortunately. "The world of art has changed. New teaching in the UK and US has changed. There needs to be more integration in the study of the visual arts. There is a need to learn about conceptual art, theories and literature. This is really lacking here in the UAE. What they have to understand is that literature must not be separated from other art forms. We need to go into the interdisciplinary studies and not just painting separately to sculpture or ceramics."

Designing and producing the Palestinian exhibit for the Biennale last year was a real labour of love. Mikdadi felt passionately that it was something she simply had to do and she put it together over a three-year period, working closely with selected artists. "I didn't want it to be a space that was funded by western organisations, but the reality was that there was no funding from other sources. However, I managed to find someone who believed in it equally and helped me raise the funds, a wonderful patron, the Palestinian curator Rana Sadik. It was something I did because I believed in it and because I felt it had to be done. There was a strong emotional attachment. My one proviso was that it was reproduced in Palestine at the same time. "

In many ways she started with a blank canvas in Abu Dhabi. With Palestinian art there are often obvious points of reference allied to the human and political struggles of a displaced nation. There are any number of reference books and essays on the subject, but in a comparatively youthful nation such as the UAE, all that is lacking. A large part of Mikdadi's work involves drawing up strategies and assessing every project forensically to gauge its value. She has already spotted a vital need for researchers and curators.

"It's important to nurture young people in the field of research, teach them about methodology and curating and make them passionate about something that will benefit the country. We want to focus on research about Emiratis. Where are the Emiratis within this jungle of things happening? "We need to find answers to some puzzling questions," she says, adding that when her three-year commitment comes to an end she hopes she will be replaced by an Emirati.

One thing she is sure of is that the talent is here. She just needs to find it. "Women are far ahead of men in painting here. I'm following ones who are emerging, although there aren't that many. There are very few artists doing it as a full-time job." The foundation is already supporting writers with its annual International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), which aims to reward excellence in contemporary Arabic writing and encourage the reading and translation of Arabic literature. Like the other projects it supports, the prize is managed by others: in this case the Booker Prize Foundation, but the translation and publication of the winning books is funded by IPAF.

Last year's winner, Yusuf Ziedan's novel Azazel has been published in Italian, Greek, German, Romanian, Bosnian, Indonesian, Croatian and the English version will be published in August next year. Creative writing workshops for emerging Arab authors have also been a great success and the foundation also funds internships abroad for artists, filmmakers, musicians and writers. "It gives them the chance to go to conferences where they can exchange ideas and develop their presentation skills, as well as represent the UAE," says Mikdadi.

This summer the foundation paid for three Emirati poets, Khalid Albudoor, Khulood al Mu'alla and Nujoom al Ghanem to participate in festivals in London's South Bank and in Ledbury, Herefordshire. Since its inception in 2007 the Emirates Foundation has sponsored 48 films, 28 books, 11 exhibitions and 12 visual arts projects as well as the literature prize. Another urgent need that Mikdadi has identified is for qualified Emirati curators, with the building of the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim and Louvre museums just a few years away.

She was encouraged by the excellent response to a five-month online course in Sharjah, created by the foundation in collaboration with the John F Kennedy University in California, to address the need for museum professionals. Mikdadi stresses that it's not the foundation's job to train people but to show them what they need to learn in order to become professional curators. "We had 94 per cent participation, which was amazing. We are not training museum professionals, but we are introducing them to what is required. They need at least 10 other art courses. From that course we had two going for their masters degrees, two for their PhDs and another two for internships."

Part of her work is the supervision of grants given by the foundation. "For many years I was on the other side of the process, appealing for grants for one project or another. It's interesting to be on this side but we don't just hand out grants. They have to be scrupulously costed, line by line." She is constantly frustrated by the lack of benchmarks and research and is continually hunting for specialists to help her assess proposed projects outside her particular area of expertise.

"Without research and data how can I come up with a plan? What are the priorities and how do you strategise and figure out benchmarks? I can't find any studies on art in the Emirates or film production or literature. I love Arabic literature but it's not my field so I'm always looking for specialists in different areas. If someone says a film is going to cost so much, I have no idea if that's the case."

"The mission is to strengthen civil society. We are building and establishing roots and we want cultured individuals, but it takes time."

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