Images that defined the rise of a nation

Research project aims to discover why certain images were chosen as part of the UAE's visual identity between 1965 and 1975.

The dhow, the palm tree and the falcon are all recognisable as symbols of the UAE, but a study aims to investigate how the country's visual culture emerged through its banknotes, cash and government crests.
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SHARJAH // Falcons, wind towers, palm trees and dhows are all familiar symbols that represent the UAE, seen on stamps and banknotes to the crests of government bodies.

So prevalent are they today that, as the country prepares to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its birth, we perhaps take them for granted.

But how, in 1971, did a new nation come to be represented by these images? That is what a research project by the Sharjah Art Foundation hopes to find out.

The study, titled An Archeology of Visual Identity: The History of the UAE Visual Identity in the Formative Years (1965-1975), will explore how the country's visual culture emerged in the period immediately before and after the federation was formed.

The investigation is being carried out by the researchers Sharmeen Syed and Uns Kattan under the supervision of Nadia Mounajjed, an assistant professor of architecture at the American University of Sharjah. They are looking at how Emiratis in those 10 years used visual symbols to distinguish themselves and their culture from other countries and express their values and ambitions.

To do this they are studying a wide range of items including photos, stamps, flags, banknotes, books and newspaper articles. Many of the traditional symbols such as pearls and camels are seen repeatedly on different types of material, although in the period under study, one strikingly modern element was becoming common - the oil rig.

The team is interviewing experts on the subject, as well as involving the community by distributing surveys.

"The project is focused on researching visual identity in the UAE," Ms Mounajjed said. "The period from 1965 to 1975 was a transitional moment and we wanted to look into the impact that this kind of change, in terms of moving to independence, had.

"We're looking at different elements that describe the visual landscape of the UAE, whether through the production of visual imagery or architecture, the urban landscape, stamps, photography or book covers."

Ms Kattan said: "Naturally, as a new country they had to establish modes of representation that included things like stamps, the flag and the currency."

The team is not principally concerned with building up an archive of visual material or even writing papers. Instead the researchers are developing a database listing where items such as the stamps and banknotes they are studying can be found in collections held by other institutions.

Another aim is to develop techniques for gathering information about visual identity.

"We're trying to find methods where we can engage the community," added Ms Mounajjed. "We're interviewing experts who can try to define what visual identity is or help us to define what it is.

"We're looking into community outreach in terms of trying to understand how people perceive visual identity, or what the image of the UAE is in their mind. And we're thinking of doing workshops with children."

Ms Syed said: "We talked to a lot of different people. We asked academics who were doing very focused research in the context. We talked about their projects and also the kinds of themes we are interested in finding out about."

The open-ended study is at an early stage. Ms Mounajjed added: "Maybe in two years we'll have a clear answer to what visual identity is in the UAE, but it's complex and layered."

However, already one clear trend has emerged - if you ask people what image they associate with the word "UAE" they invariably say a picture of the father of the nation, Sheikh Zayed.