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Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo: A cultural ambassador

The driving force behind Abu Dhabi’s pioneering cultural initiatives talks about her journey and her vision for the future

  • Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo, founded ADMAF in 1996 and ADF in 2004Image Credit:
  • Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo receives the highest French civilian honour, Order Of Knight of the Legion of HonourImage Credit: Supplied
Gulf News

The 15th edition of the Abu Dhabi Festival (ADF 18) is enthralling audiences with an exceptional programme of musical concerts, dance and theatrical performances, art exhibitions and other cultural events, including special presentations from India, the Country of Honour this year. The month-long festival is the UAE’s leading celebration of arts and culture and the largest such event in the region with partnerships with some of the world’s most influential cultural institutions including the Institut du Monde Arabe, Institut Francais, Edinburgh International Festival, Royal Opera House and Carnegie Hall. It is organised by the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation (ADMAF), which is among the oldest, non-profit cultural organisations in the Arabian Gulf.

The driving force behind these pioneering cultural initiatives is Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo, founder of ADMAF and founder and artistic director of ADF. Alkhamis-Kanoo, who is of Saudi and Syrian origin, was born in Beirut, educated in Paris and has raised her family in Abu Dhabi after her marriage to businessman and artist Mohamed Abdul Latif Kanoo.

A dance extravaganza, Merchants of Bollywood, opened the 2018 Abu Dhabi Festival.

Besides founding ADMAF in 1996 and ADF in 2004, Alkhamis-Kanoo has contributed to the social and cultural development of the UAE in many other ways. She served on the Board of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage (now TCA Abu Dhabi) from 2006 to 2012. She is a member of the Cleveland Clinic International Leadership Board; the Advisory Council of the Arab Fund for Arts & Culture; the International Circle of the Reina Sofía College of Music; and the International Advisory Board of the Edinburgh International Festival. She also sits on the National Advisory Council of Zayed University: College of Arts and Creative Enterprises and is an Advisor to the Board of Directors of Ewa’a Shelters for Women & Children, an Abu Dhabi-based organisation that supports victims of human trafficking.

She has received several awards for her contribution to the arts, education and women’s development. These include The Abu Dhabi Award & Abu Dhabi Medal, Women Together Award, Puccini Festival Foundation Award, the Aspen Institute Emerging Voice Award for Cultural Stewardship, The Medal of Civil Merit of Spain, Commander of the Royal Order of Isabella the Catholic, the Bundesverdienstkreuz of Germany, Commendatore dell’ Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà of Italy, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France, the Belgian Officer of the Order of the Crown, The Gloria Artis Medal of Poland, The Order of the British Empire, The Commander of the Royal Order of Isabella the Catholic (Orden de Isabel la Católica), an honorary doctorate from the American University of Paris, and Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur of France.

Alkhamis-Kanoo spoke to the Weekend Review about her journey and her vision for the future. Excerpts:

What role has ADMAF played in the development of the UAE as a cultural centre and what is your vision regarding its role in the future?

ADMAF grew out of a mutual love for music, the creative arts in all its forms including performing and visual, and the desire to see more cultural dialogue in the capital and the UAE. It found itself as a unique homegrown, grassroots foundation that would promote, encourage and foster creativity, culture and multi-disciplinary arts in the UAE and the Gulf region. Since we started in 1996, our partnerships with cultural centres, schools and universities in the UAE have helped us to encourage young people to participate in the many new opportunities that were being created in the evolving art and culture landscape here and across the region. ADMAF primarily stands for the future through the country’s youth and in supporting culture and art of all forms ultimately uniting people through empathy and our shared human experiences. Today, ADMAF has established itself as a bridge between the past, present and the future, and as a beacon of cross-cultural understanding in the UAE and across the globe.

“I am extremely proud and honoured to be able to strengthen the UAE’s cultural presence and have always been a strong believer in the fact that anyone can be a force for change in taking the UAE’s cultural ethos to new heights.

What were the challenges you faced in the early years of organising ADF and what are the challenges now?

For the first edition of ADF we had a very small team and just 10 days to pull the programme together. It was a true labour of love and we worked around the clock to pull it off. But it was worth it because I knew that it would be the start of a new era for the cultural scene in the capital. That it has become a cultural platform for the UAE and the region is truly humbling. Today, the challenges are the ones we set ourselves each year. We aim to represent a true fusion of global excellence, to continue to create the opportunities to present the very best of Emirati and Arab cultural expression.

What do you consider to be ADF’s biggest achievements and what more would you like to do?

The festival began as a seed planted 15 years ago to give back to the country I am proud to call my home. It has steadily grown into the thriving annual cultural happening we see today. When we began in 2004, the aim was to establish ourselves as an incubator of talent, leadership and creative thinking in the UAE and the Arab world and showcase the capital and by extension the UAE to the world. The festival now extends around the world through co-commissions and the international presentation of innovative, contemporary and classic Arab creativity. By this, I sought to create a multi-disciplinary international platform that strives to deepen global cross-cultural dialogue whilst inspiring a deeper interest in the cultures of the world. The festival has become just that: engaging children, young people and adults while providing memorable and meaningful experiences for those who care and believe in all forms of cultural expression.

Emirati composer Ihab Darwish makes his debut with ‘Waves of My Life’

How have ADMAF and ADF helped Emirati artists?

The Emirati arts community is now more involved in the local, regional and international arts scene than ever before. This is a direct result of the growing confidence its practitioners exhibit. Non-profit organisations like ADMAF can work in parallel with official entities to provide all nationals, be they young talent, emerging or established artists, the support and opportunities to showcase their work to the world. For example, in October 2017 we organised the largest exhibition of Emirati art ever held in Europe through a dedicated exhibition, Portrait of a Nation, featuring 90 artworks at Berlin Art Week. Over 50 Emirati artists joined us for this in Berlin where they were able to interact directly with the public and absorb the art scene of the German capital. This year, we are hosting the very first exhibition of the Museum of Contemporary Art Barcelona (MACBA) in the Arab World titled, From Barcelona to Abu Dhabi. We invited 20 Emirati artists to prepare a visual art response and have exhibited their works alongside the masterpieces from MACBA’s permanent collection, many of which have never been exhibited outside Spain, establishing a deep dialogue that will renew and deepen the ties not only between Spain and the UAE, but also between the Western and the Arab worlds.

What does it mean to you to have the premiere of Emirati composer Ihab Darwish’s Waves of My Life at ADF 18?

One of ADMAF’s main priorities is to celebrate and support the wealth of talent that we have in the UAE and the wider Gulf. We pride ourselves on helping outstanding performers. Emirati composer Ihab Darwish represents the avant-garde of Emirati creative expression, so it is fitting that he should make his worldwide debut at ADF. We consider this a milestone moment in ADMAF’s mission and vision to bolster the UAE’s rich cultural landscape. Waves of My Life is the perfect marriage of East and West. Darwish has infused his heritage and personal history with the tradition of classical orchestral music and this exclusive, historical performance offered a new experience for all music lovers.

How is ADF18 celebrating the Year of Zayed?

ADF is proud to join the nation in celebrating the rich and wise legacy of the founding father in the Year of Zayed. This year, our theme reflects the ideals and path he envisioned for the nation and the prosperity of its people, including tolerance, unity, peace and the sharing of creativity, culture and art. We believe arts and culture are at the heart of the nation; they are the foundation on which a nation is built and the roots that allow it to flourish. The arts support tolerance and co-existence and are the means to further the UAE’s pioneering spirit. With the festival, we look to foster and nourish the next generation of Emiratis, focusing on their intellect and capabilities through art, music, culture and creative exchange.

“Today, ADMAF has established itself as a bridge between the past, present and the future, and as a beacon of cross-cultural understanding in the UAE and across the globe.

Why was India selected as the Country of Honour this year?

Each year, ADF recognises and celebrates a Country of Honour. The idea is to commemorate the vast and diverse culture of the chosen country through performances and to strengthen ties as we welcome esteemed guests and celebrate artistic expression. In 2018, the festival recognises the deep cultural wealth of India, reflecting on the historic exchange between the UAE and the Subcontinent, expressed through a long tradition of cultural exchange. We are excited to welcome artists from India across visual arts, film, theatre, music and dance to this year’s festival, inviting audiences to explore the beauty, spirit and diversity of contemporary Indian culture.

How do ADMAF’s year-round education and community programmes contribute to cultural development in the UAE?

The UAE has come so far as a nation. It is truly a hub of inspiration, innovation and of openness. It is our duty to empower, encourage and invest in the UAE’s youth to generate new ideas to contribute to the world stage. ADMAF’s year-round education and community programmes are all-encompassing and include the teaching, training and support in multidisciplinary artistic fields; from theatre, to film, to art and literature. Each year, ADMAF shares and facilitates prospects for Emirati artists, by way of commissions, exhibiting opportunities (solo and group), residencies and competitions. These programmes also work to enhance cultural identity with the artists and in the nation.

We continue to champion ‘STEAM’ education, which teaches the arts alongside science, technology, engineering and maths. I believe this is one of the best investments in the UAE’s future generations. Incorporating the arts into education drives growth in every area of society and unlocks a limitless resource of inspiration in our young people. By planting the seeds that swiftly blossom into innovation, engaging with the arts equips them to adapt to the global climate with creativity and initiative.

At ADMAF, we believe in investing in potential and aim to supply every art form to add value to the formal curriculum of schools, colleges and universities. Through a diverse range of projects — from lectures, workshops, field trips, exhibitions, concerts, productions and other initiatives — students receive hands-on experience. This enhances not only their educational performance but also their life skills.

What is ADMAF’s role in promoting art therapy and music in hospitals?

Medical research has shown that music can have a positive impact on patient recovery and ease the anxiety of hospital stays. As such, we believe it is crucial to advocate music within healthcare environments to break down social and cultural barriers through the universal language of music and to raise awareness of the joy and therapeutic benefits of live music in healing.

A performance by violinist Nicola Benedetti

ADMAF continues to spearhead therapeutic music initiatives for the UAE’s healthcare environments with our ‘Music in Hospitals’ annual programme. With this programme of interactive live recitals and performances in the lobbies and wards of hospitals, we are not only able to deepen an understanding of the power of music for good health and wellbeing, but also involve talented musicians from the local community, as well as visiting virtuosos, to reach and connect with people when they are most vulnerable. In doing so, we are also able to encourage communication and meaningful interactions and to elicit emotions and memories when it matters most.

With the current conflicts in the region, do initiatives like ADMAF and ADF become even more relevant and vital?

Culture is the language that transcends geographical borders and civilisation. It is the anchor that unites a nation, regardless of age or ability. This ambition lies at the core of all our projects and cultural undertakings at ADMAF, as we strongly believe in the fundamental right of every person to access and appreciate cultural expression. This understanding becomes ever more important at a time when prejudice and hatred are all too common, helping us to foster an ethos of intercultural dialogue and exchange.

Welcoming a symphony of global cultures each year through the festival enables us to connect audiences despite the boundaries of language or location and unite the community under the umbrella of cross-cultural understanding. Our year-round programmes connect to our past but, also to our future — reaching out to the country’s youth to help them find their own voices in envisioning our shared future. Such initiatives preserve the unity and collective culture of our nation, they weave a route of plurality, enriched by each culture that calls the UAE home. We aim to achieve this by supporting Arab artists living abroad, prioritising those who may be displaced. When they perform in their host countries, they stop being refugees and become welcome members of the community.

How does your association with international organisations such as the International Circle of the Reina Sofia College of Music, the International Advisory Board of the Edinburgh International Festival and others help you in visualising and organising the Abu Dhabi Festival and promoting Arab creativity internationally?

As a gateway for international artistic expression, the festival has undoubtedly enjoyed, and continues to benefit from a highly acclaimed international reputation. With the focus of promoting the unique role of music and arts in cross-cultural understanding, our valued partnerships with international cultural institutions and organisations have helped us realise Abu Dhabi’s vision as a global centre of cultural enlightenment, respect and tolerance. We achieve this abroad by our direct participation in co-commissions, visual arts exhibitions, and other methods. Locally, we focus on arts education, community arts and audience development. This allows us to extend our reach into the realm of cultural diplomacy by creating cultural initiatives that bring countries together and enable societies to understand each other better. Nurturing culture and creativity beyond the UAE enables ADF to bring the world to Abu Dhabi and take Abu Dhabi to the world; be it through world-class performances that uphold the culture of the Arab world, or commissions that truly encapsulate the vanguard of international creativity — each year we endeavour to share our wealth of creative talent onto the world stage.

Besides being a cultural ambassador of the UAE, do you feel that you have an added responsibility of representing modern Arab women globally?

Women continue to play an integral role in the political, economic, social and cultural development in the Arab world, and none of these momentous developments could have transpired without the continued support from the wider UAE society. I am extremely proud and honoured to be able to strengthen the UAE’s cultural presence and have always been a strong believer in the fact that anyone can be a force for change in taking the UAE’s cultural ethos to new heights. Culture is not limited to age or gender. It is, and should be, open to all.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.

For more information about ADF and ADMAF visit and