Dubai: She is a woman on a mission – to put South Asian artists on the global map. Today, Smita Prabhakar is a name well known in the UAE’s art circles.
As the Founder and Chairperson of the Ishara Art Foundation, it was perhaps her passion that led to its approval as the first non-profit art foundation for South Asian Art in the GCC.
Today, Prabhakar sits on the Advisory Board of Art Dubai and is also a member of the South Asian Acquisitions Committee at Tate Modern (London), the Middle Eastern Circle of the Guggenheim Museum (New York), and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Venice).
The Indian expat who came to the UAE four decades ago, speaks to Gulf News about UAE became her home, how she saw the art scene in the country grow.
1) Firstly, tell us a little about yourself…
I am an Indian; I came to the UAE 42 years ago. Before that, I was studying Psychology in Delhi University. When I moved to the UAE, initially it was a cultural shock. I lived in Kolkata at that time; my father was in the railways. The UAE was just starting up; we were in the throes of growth, becoming what we are today. At that time, for a young person to be here and make a life… it was hard work. It was a lifestyle that I never thought I would have to face. My husband, Ramesh and I, worked very hard.
When you live at home with your parents, you have everything on a platter. We come from privileged backgrounds in that sense. Coming here was a great life learner for me. I realised what potential I had. The opportunities that the country gave me were plenty… It was a startup in many ways.
2) When did you first start turning to art after coming to the UAE?
I think it was when I started my company in 1991. Before that, between the two of us, we were working very hard. I felt like I needed some time to do other things that interest me – reading, art, I used to volunteer at a library once a week, music.
I used to leave for work at 7:30am and come home at 9pm; it gave me no growth opportunities.
Once I got into working by myself, it allowed me to develop my interests. I remember going back to Delhi, and buying from a gallery at Connaught Place, my first two or three pieces, which I still have. They were my first acquisitions… I called them ‘buys’ then, now they are ‘acquisitions’. The world has changed… when you buy something, it is for selling. Now I am custodian of what I am ‘acquiring’.
I grew up loving art; I come from a family of artists. It is the love for everything beautiful. There was art even in small things around the house where I grew up – from the block-printed sarees, wall paintings, pieces of décor, to food. Clothes, music and art were the cornerstones of my grandmother’s and mother’s characters and interests.
3) What was your first formal foray into art in the UAE?
An Iranian carpet that I acquired – would that be deemed as my first foray into art? Art cuts across boundaries.
4) What is the Ishara Art Foundation?
I started Ishara in 2019. Very simply put, it is an international platform for artists from South Asia. I believe that artists from South Asia are world class, they are on a par with anyone showing anywhere in the world. They just don’t have the same opportunities that their counterparts across the world have. If we can provide even a small platform, where their art can be seen by people who need to see them – that makes a difference.
I am proud to say that we have non-profit status from Dubai’s Community Development Authority. We hope that because of the fact that an artist has the possibility of showing with us, they are seen by a worldwide audience, because that’s what the UAE caters to. We hope that they have the opportunity to be targeted by a gallerist, an institution or curator, who will include them in a gallery or collection. Our mission is to showcase young experimental artists alongside well established artists.
5) What’s next for the Ishara Art Foundation?
I hope we can make Ishara the go-to place for the entire population of the UAE. I hope we can become an indispensable part of everyone’s life – that people visit Ishara just as they visit the mall.
6) Tell us a bit about the evolution of the art scene in the UAE in the past 42 years.
The growth in the UAE is like an art lover’s dream. I wish we had such opportunities when we had first started out. But, looking back, it also feels good to have been a part of the growth and the journey of the country. Today, the UAE has the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, and the Alserkal Avenue in Dubai, where Ishara is. It’s amazing when you are a part of that growth.
7) Your other businesses initiatives are women-led; could you share a little insight on that?
Yes, I am for the empowerment of women at work. This makes society strong and is the best way to bring about change. The UAE has been a shining example with the recent celebrations about the achievements of the Emirati Woman.
8) What would be a tip you would have for someone stepping into art buying for the first time?
First thing, I would tell a person is to think, research, do, buy a print, not worry about market value. This ROI (return on investment) doesn’t work with art, It’s my journey as a person. It’s like photos, you look at these works and say, ah I went to Connaught Circus and I bought these two or three works, they are part of my life.