High-rise buildings and bleak desert landscapes — these are the images that often come to mind when outsiders think of the UAE.
But those scenes were thin on the ground at “Between the Sky and the Earth: Contemporary Art from the UAE”, an exhibition in Washington featuring artists living in the Emirates.
It was curated by Munira Al Sayegh of the Middle East Institute’s (MEI) Art Gallery, and has attracted hundreds of visitors since it opened in December.
The show's paintings, photos and sculptures reflect a changing UAE, with one foot in the past and the other in the future. The 12 artists featured in the show embody a generational leap in the Emirati art scene.
“It really challenges the standard narratives that are dominant about the UAE,” Lyne Sneige, director of the Arts & Culture Centre at MEI, told The National.
Ms Sneige sees the intimate and reflective nature of the featured work as “a counter to that rapid urbanisation” while also being “a very personal outlook on the society".
The works featured in the show focus on themes including urbanisation, cultural shifts and empty spaces.
A photograph by Emirati artist Lamya Gargash depicts an abandoned home, one of the forgotten spaces in Emirati society, capturing its emptiness and desolation in a society in transition.
Urbanisation is a subtle theme in a canvas painting called Neighbours by second-generation Emirati artist Mohammed Kazem, which shows laundry day at a labour compound. The landscape mirrors many street corners in the UAE, with well-known urban marvels fading into the backdrop of a story taking place in a working-class neighbourhood.
A similar theme comes through in Tarek Al Ghoussein photograph Abu Dhabi Archipelago (Massnoua 3), in which a man sweeps an empty street across from a vacant building. The work elicits an examination of identity within a context of inaccessibility and loss.
Solimar Miller's The Trees of the Emirates series, meanwhile, turns away from urbanisation to focus on nature. The colourful trees, with their intricate detail, evoke the love of the natural world that is so palpable in the Emirates despite the country's embrace of technology and the future.
A big public favourite is Focal Illusion by Ebtisam Abdulaziz, a multidisciplinary artist and writer. The painting is a colourful display that employs themes of Islamic geometry in its use of layers and mathematical structures, interweaving the past, present and future in a single piece.
“The exhibit reflects the diverse art ecosystem in the UAE,” Ms Sneige said.
And this message has resonated with American audiences, particularly as April is Arab-American heritage month in the US.
As the exhibition concluded, Ms Sneige described it as “a labour of love” and a prelude to more regional shows to come.