Women artists show the acceptable face of UAE street art scene

Female expression in the form of murals is at the heart of a flourishing creative scene

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It may be a controversial form of expression, but one British artist hopes to encourage more women to pick up a spray can by showing her street art at the Mother of the Nation festival in Abu Dhabi.

Maddy Butcher, a professional artist, began spray painting murals shortly after arriving in Dubai from New York in 2011.

Now commissioned for private work and also for murals in public spaces such as Sheikha Fatima Park in Abu Dhabi, Ms Butcher said the genre is slowly winning greater acceptance and respect.

Street art is the legal side of the scene, whereas graffiti is the more underground version, ruled by an unwritten set of rules and point scoring among rivals
Maddy Butcher, street artist

“There is both an underground and overground street art scene in the UAE,” she said.

“I used to live in New York and would design stickers and tags when I moved to Dubai.

“In 2011, I started going to hip-hop themed nights at a hotel in Barsha and met some graffiti artists there.

"The scene has changed since, but a lot of people I met then are still working here now and have created artworks all over the region.”

Maddy Butcher, street artist with her artwork at her villa in the Springs in Dubai. Pawan Singh/The National

The legitimate side of street art is usually funded by marketing firms and brand managers to add an edge to a product launch or new venue.

The other side of street art is graffiti, which is prohibited in the UAE.

Tough measures are in place to outlaw offensive messages and profanity in public areas.

Artists face a year in prison and can be fined up to Dh10,000 in Abu Dhabi, Dh1,000 in Dubai, and Dh1,000 in Sharjah for defacing surfaces with graffiti.

Street art versus graffiti

“Street art is the legal side of the scene, whereas graffiti is the more underground version, ruled by an unwritten set of rules and point scoring among rivals,” Ms Butcher said.

“These guys won’t speak about what they do, but they are from all different nationalities and will be in a lot of trouble if they are caught out. They risk that for their art.

“A lot of their work is in abandoned construction sites or buildings due for demolition.”

Maddy Butcher, street artist with her art work near her villa in the Springs in Dubai. Pawan Singh/The National

Banksy, the secretive artist from the UK, uses street art to convey his commentary on society.

Artworks have included the plight of refugees crossing to the UK from France, the West Bank Wall in Palestine, as well as more general themes of war, greed, capitalism and imperialism.

A recent work on the side of a prison in Reading, England, where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned from 1895 to 1897 for gross indecency was attributed to Banksy.

It is set to be sold off for millions to allow the disused prison to be turned into a community arts centre.

An exhibition of art inspired by Banksy’s work at the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai is further evidence of street art becoming less of a taboo subject.

Community engagement

More community engagement events to educate people how to use spray cans safely and effectively shows there is more acceptance, Ms Butcher said.

“As a female artist, it can be quite challenging,” she said.

“When we do live events with others, it is the women who get interrupted by people asking about what we are doing.

“They think we are more accessible than the male artists, and are not taken as seriously.

“It’s nice people show an interest, but it can take a lot longer to finish a piece of work than the guys.

“All of the ideas are in my head.

“My favourite thing is a blank wall with no idea what I’m going to do until I open the cans.”

Ms Butcher has a form of synaesthesia, a mild neurological condition in which information meant to stimulate one sense stimulates several at once.

In her case, listening to music brings vivid colours to mind. Although scientists do not fully understand synaesthesia, it can help inspire artists to be creative.

Jazz and drum and bass music inspire her, as does Stevie Wonder, but audiobooks also occasionally encourage her creativity to paint.

The 2016 Dubai Walls project commissioned artists from around the world to display their creations on the side of shopping malls and restaurants in City Walk.

The project generated huge interest in the scene, and inspired a generation of artists living in the UAE with a renewed sense of hope that their passion would win mainstream acceptance.

Giant artworks have since appeared across Sharjah, and heritage pieces that acknowledge the district’s fishing past adorn walls in Jumeirah.

Huge murals in Abu Dhabi painted by Ms Butcher and other artists from the UAE including Fathima Mohiuddin, or Fatspatrol, show progress is also being made in the capital.

Mohiuddin is one of the UAE’s most famous street artists, whose latest 100 metre mural adorns a wall next to Etihad Arena on Yas Island.

“There are brilliant artists in the UAE who have a lot to say but they are reining-in their message,” Ms Butcher said.

“There is more opportunity to make an income or a career from street art than there would otherwise be elsewhere.

“Because of that, we are softening our voices and artists could be a bit noisier.

“We can be clever about it and deliver the message in the right way.”

Updated: December 16, 2021, 3:00 AM