Abu Dhabi Art: Creators united, the world invited
December 5, 2018 | 12:40 PM
by Gautam Viswanathan

It is often said that a thousand-mile journey begins with the first step. Sure, there may be those who laugh at you, those who don’t believe in your dreams, those who question your motives, but as long as you stay true to your goals and do not waver in the face of opposition, no matter how overwhelming, you will get there in the end.

10 years ago, as part of its long-term goal to establish itself as a regional centre of art and culture, the government of Abu Dhabi hatched a plan to invite artists from the world over to showcase some of their best exhibits, hoping their works would speak to the artistically inclined in the region, helping create their very own artistic oasis in the desert.

At the time, people may have scoffed and the more cynically entitled would have rolled their eyes, but 10 years on, Abu Dhabi Art is among the region’s biggest art fairs, and regularly draws crowds from across the globe.

T-weekly recently attended the 10th anniversary of Abu Dhabi Art, and it’s an experience that everyone simply has to be a part of. HE Saif Al Ghobash, the Undersecretary of the Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi, took us on the journey Abu Dhabi Art had been on to get this far.

“Abu Dhabi Art has always welcomed the works of the finest artists,” he said. “This year, we have 43 artists from 19 countries and many new pieces of art. 10 years of Abu Dhabi Art has seen us play witness to many developments of art. We believe this this is a model to be followed, because we want this to be seen as a vision of the UAE’s tolerance and vision to share this with the world.

“Leading artists come here to showcase their masterpieces, and this leads to the development of art in the region through individual commissions and exhibitions,” added Al Ghobash. “This creates diverse art dialogues at events that are popular to the public, and inspires new generations in pursuing passions and inspiring and motivating them all.”

Dialogue was definitely on display at Abu Dhabi Art. Several of the pieces showcased by artists reflected the rampant consumerism and corporate culture many of us seem to accept as a normal part of our lives.

One particularly stunning piece at Manarat Al Saadiyat art museum was made by an Iranian artist, featured a mashrabiya – the Islamic screen designed to give people privacy – made from used fruit and vegetable crates, behind which was a background made from used cereal cartons and soap boxes. Backlit from a distance, the two elements combined to produce a lovely piece of art, which was only enhanced by the backlight, but move closer and you see the work for what it truly is.

This art installation was one of many that were indeed thought provoking, as were so many others at Abu Dhabi Art. One that seemed to catch the attention of those who attended the fair was a series of works by Lebanese-Dutch artist Munira Al Solh, who took the time to interact with Syrian refugees interned in her country, and then share their expressions in the form of sketches drawn on pieces of cotton fabric.

The installations may have been simple, but the message behind them was truly profound. It also went some way in shattering the myth that today’s people don’t care or are out of touch about the realities of their world, torpedoing the stereotype about millennials only being interested in that which looks good.

“One major theme to emerge is that millennials tend to be more socially and environmentally conscious than their parents, from choosing sustainable products to pushing companies to take a stand on social issues,” said Audrey Choi, Chief Sustainability Officer and Chief Marketing Officer for Morgan Stanley. “Millennials’ social and environmental preferences can create real, meaningful differences that echo throughout the economy—and the world. They know it, too: 75% of millennials believe that their investments can influence climate change; 84% believe that their investments have the power to help lift people out of poverty.

She added, “Millennials tend to be less affiliated with formal institutions. This scepticism may be responsible, at least in part, for their desire to hold companies accountable, rather than assuming that various institutions are acting in the public good. Pair that with their belief that they have the power to bring about change and it makes sense that some members of this generation may feel that positive social change rests on their shoulders.”

Over in Dubai, at the newly opened Art Jameel centre, a group of artists had banded together to form an exhibit called ‘Crude’, which opened the book on how the Middle East had changed after one of its most importance sources of income was discovered – oil.

Curated by artists from all over the Middle East, the exhibit charted the economic, social and environment impact that oil had had on Arabian economies. Yes, oil had brought previously untold wealth and prosperity to people in the region, but at what cost had it come? It is a message that seemed to tie in with the current generation holding corporations and companies to be more accountable and responsible toward the people they served.

Black and white photos that showed huge swathes of oil slick covering otherwise usable land now rendered dead told a poignant picture of the devastation oil could cause, and if that wasn’t enough to showcase its impact, photos of birds, their feathers and lungs clogged with black gold, was a stark reminder of what oil could do.

But other photos showed the plus side of the oil boom: Iraqi children, whose parents were now employed by the oil corporations, could send their children to school and feed them nutritious food. One particularly impactful photo was a little Iraqi boy, clutching a bottle of milk close to him, worried about whether it would run out. It was the first time he’d seen milk in such a form. Another aerial photo showed the prefab houses that had been built for workers. This was the 1980s, and many of them were living in modern homes for the very first time.

“It is really about connecting people, so it’s about artists and art curators and art professionals from here connecting with their international counterpart,” said Dyala Nusseibeh, Fair Director for Abu Dhabi Art. “There is an element of exposure in providing a platform for works to be seen, but also about connecting people. That is what we really try and do. It really is important for artists to pursue their passion full-time and not be afraid to go for it.”

Dr Nada Shabout, a professor at the University of North Texas and the Coordinator of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Initiative, was one of the many art analysts invited to share their thoughts of Abu Dhabi Art. Artists, she felt, were very important, particularly in today’s world, to tell people stories that they needed to hear.

Artists, simply put, were unafraid to tell the truth, an important characteristic in a world where many of us choose to surround ourselves by the things that make us comfortable, because sometimes, it can be hard to face an unpleasant truth.

“If we look at civilisations, what do we see?” she asked. “We see their artists. This is the best of humanity. Artists see what is not seen by others. They see what is not revealed in culture, but they also anticipate how culture develops. This is an important factor in who we are, how we see ourselves and how we move forward. I would urge all families to allow that talent and that creativity to take its place, because it is an activity that is just as important – if not more so – than engineering and medicine.”

“When we say the Middle East, there are variations between artists who practice in Cairo, in Beirut or in the Gulf, and the extent of how religion is a challenge varies, but it is a challenge in some places. This is why we have institutions that help artists navigate their way through challenges like this. It is the challenge of the Arab World that people here face. I think it is do with infrastructure. We need to have more programmes that show artists where and how to navigate.”

Art sometimes has the stereotype of only being available to the snooty, snobbish elite. Those who look down upon you as they peer quizzically at you through their crystal monocles, waffling away at their latest exploit. But as with all things in the art world, this is but an unjust, unfortunate façade. The truth is that the works of art on display at Abu Dhabi Art raised several pertinent questions, one that needed to be asked and answered, even if doing so was not easy.

But then again, nothing that’s ever easy is worth doing, is it?

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