US is given artists’ impressions of UAE life with travelling exhibition

More than 50 works of art by 25 Emirati artists will make stops in Texas, California and Washington state, among others, as the exhibit travels the country over the next 18 months.

Yousef Al Otaiba, right, UAE Ambassador to the US, at the launch of the Emirati art exhibition in Washington. Evelyn Hockstein for The National
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WASHINGTON // A major exhibition by Emirati artists has opened in Washington DC, the first leg of an 18-month tour of the US.

More than 50 works by 25 Emirati artists, selected to be accessible to American viewers, will also visit Texas, California and other places.

“This art is intended to break down boundaries and help Americans understand the UAE and its people, and show what is important to them, through art,” said Noor Al Suwaidi, an Abu Dhabi artist and co-curator of the exhibition, which is part of the UAE embassy’s cultural diplomacy programme.

“I’m hoping people walk away understanding, ‘Oh, I know where the UAE is, I know something more about the country, and I’m actually surprised about the kind of work that is being produced’.”

“Past Forward: Contemporary Art from the Emirates” spans three generations of artists, from eminent painter Abdul Qader Al Rais to video artist Maitha Al Mehairbi.

Four artists whose work is represented in the exhibition were present for the launch. Last week they gave workshops at Washington schools and a children’s hospital.

“People here have only heard of Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s big projects, so they’re surprised when you explain to them that there is a grassroots scene in the UAE,” said Dubai artist Khaled Mezaina, 29.

Mezaina is showing his black-and-white prints outside the Middle East for the first time.

Like many of the artists taking part, his work questions how he can reconcile his generation’s cosmopolitan upbringing with the more traditional culture of Emirati society.

“I’m not the most traditional Emirati, so how do I build my own culture?” Mezaina asks. “What do I preserve and what do I take from the changes that are going on in the country?”

While the UAE has emerged in recent years as a major regional centre for art and cultural production, with critically received galleries and international events including the Sharjah Biennial, Past Forward gives established and emerging Emirati artists a platform in the US.

Al Mehairbi, 25, said her video installation was a meditation on a trunk that belonged to her mother, which she found to be full of pictures and mementos.

It also looks at the ways the Bedouin lived, an experience she will never be able to fully share with her parents.

“I’m very much raised by a Bedouin woman and a Bedouin father. But at the same time, I’m part of a completely different world and I missed that time,” she said.

“Are they her memories or my interpretation of her memories? I am also not trying to romanticise her past and look at it as if it was a better time.”

The pieces were chosen and commissioned to “find connections and tell our story”, Al Suwaidi said.

The exhibition was launched at US capital’s historic Meridian House, which is home to the Meridian International Centre.

The centre is a non-profit organisation that works with the US state department and American embassies worldwide to create lasting international partnerships through cultural exchanges.