Elephants, Nadim Karam Image Credit: L’Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA)

The UAE capital is now hosting a unique art exhibition which will leave visitors entranced by not only the diverse techniques used but also the thought-provoking philosophies they inspire.

Organised by the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA), a Paris-based organisation, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, the exhibition, entitled “25 Years of Arab Creativity”, has more than 30 pieces of contemporary Arab art, including painting, sculpture, photography, video and installations.

IMA was founded at the beginning of the 1980s by France and a group of 18 Arab states who wanted to foster better relations between Europe and the Arab world and to promote Arab culture and civilisation in Europe. Its building, built between 1981 and 1987, was designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, together with Architecture-Studio.


“The show is defined by its universality ... its aim is to provide an overview of the main spheres explored by Arab artists in recent years, along with the inner sources of inspiration that create an art whose characteristics are gradually taking shape,” said Mona Khazindar, IMA’s director general.


The exhibition, being held in The Gallery at Emirates Palace as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival, is open to the public until the festival’s conclusion on March 31.

“We plan to showcase ‘25 Years of Arab Creativity’ in various locations, mainly in the region. Abu Dhabi was chosen to be the first city to host it not only because the Abu Dhabi Festival is a wonderful occasion to unveil it in the region but also because of the government’s commitment to building up art and culture [in Abu Dhabi],” Khazindar said.

Despite its title, the exhibition has no specific theme except that all the artists are either from the Middle East or of Arab origin. The pieces are scattered over an area of 1,500 square metres.

“I refused to have a specific theme because I did not want to influence the artists. Instead, I wanted to introduce an image or a perspective scene about the features of today’s Arab art,” Ehab Al Labban, its curator, explained. “To achieve that, I had to first pave the way for the artists to introduce their own philosophy, without imparting any external factor that would confuse their own individual thoughts. We set a certain framework for them to explore within and to work through,” he added.


Al Labban, who also curated the 2008 and 2010 Cairo Biennales, spent a year researching and gathering pieces that he believed best reflected the evolution of Arab art over the past quarter century.

“It is the same size as the exhibition in Paris. The only difference is that some of the original pieces were too large to ship here, so we asked the artists to provide alternative works,” El Labban said. “I chose 40 artists with different cultures, backgrounds and artistic styles to highlight the diverse creativity being produced by Arab artists.”

Among the pieces being exhibited are a series of seven stainless steel wall-mounted sculptures by Beirut-based artist Nadim Karam. It comprises three sections, ‘Dreams’, ‘War’ with an unoccupied closet/mirror between them.

“I called it ‘Closets and Closets’. The aim behind it was to show that the Arab world is made up of more than just terrorists. There are also many innocents who are suffering. The whole region is going through a period of great uncertainty,” Karam said. “That is why I included the middle mirror so that visitors can see for themselves which side they are drawn to more. Arabs, unfortunately, tend to look at peace while making war but in the Gulf, I am impressed with their daring vision to be progressive for both their citizens and expatriates.”

The Lebanese artist and architect also has a trio of elephants, laser-cut from stainless steel and ranging in height from 0.7 to 3 metres and are covered with multi-perforated etches. They can be seen on the entrance grounds of the Emirates Palace Hotel.

“The elephants, while having a dreamier quality than ‘Closets and Closets’, are also a reflection of the Middle East. Elephants have strong memories, like the people here who never forget the past. Also, they are a trio — the grandmother, father and child, referring to the strong familial bonds within Arab families,” Karam explained. “I always like to see people interacting with my sculptures, so I was quite upset when they roped them off. But I guess they were concerned that children might get injured, especially if they try to touch them on a sunny day.”

Among the captivating pieces in “25 Years of Arab Creativity” are two portraits created by Tamara Al Samerraei, a Kuwaiti artist who lives and works in Beirut.

“I am quite excited to be a part of this exhibition. When they first approached me, I submitted three pieces through the Agial Gallery in Beirut and two were chosen: ‘Behind this Wall Nothing Ever Happens’, which I created in 2012, and ‘Prop’, which I did in 2009,” she said.


Al Samerraei explained that the pieces were images, whether photographs or descriptions, that fascinated her in which she then had additional details incorporated.

“In ‘Behind this Wall Nothing Ever Happens’, I was tempted to create a narrative to a photograph of my paternal grandmother, whom I had never met. It is a very solitary photograph which was always hard for me to read and it made me very curious about her frame of mind in that moment. So I flipped the photo over and sneaked a creature in, a way to add action to the stillness of the photograph,” Al Samerraei said.

As for ‘Prop’, she said, “It is a piece that I had made as an adaptation to Peter Handke’s novel ‘The Left-Handed Woman’. I wanted to show the solitary mood of the main character and her son — the pillow — and then I felt the foot needed to move ... in a repetitive motion, so I chose an object which looks like a tail of a mouse, a worm, or even a piece of yarn, which makes it difficult to understand the level of destruction in the gesture.”

Visitors to the exhibition are also being offered an opportunity to view works created by 12 Emiratis in a special section entitled “Three Generations” as part of a special commission by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (Admaf), the organiser of the Abu Dhabi Festival.

“I am very excited to have been chosen to be a part of this exhibition, especially since I was also asked to give a discussion,” Ebtisam Abdul Aziz, an artist based in Sharjah, said.

Her series, “My Brain”, features scans taken by a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine.

“It is made up of three parts. The first and second are the MRI scans and a series of photographs of me where I had asked a friend to paint my face. The third is a short video of what happens inside the brain of a translator,” Abdul Aziz explained.

The artist, who also studied mathematics and science, added: “I have always been fascinated by how people think, and with this work, I wanted to show that no one, even doctors, know what’s happening inside my brain. It was a bit tricky getting the MRI scan, as I needed to explain to doctors that it was for an art piece and not for a medical condition. In the end, I went through a private doctor and was quite pleased with the results.”

In addition to viewing the artworks, members of the public can also take part in a range of activities. Among them, the “Family Art Studio” where images selected are showcased through zoetrope (a device that produces the illusion of motion from a rapid movement of static pictures in succession) and guided tours.

Once “25 Years of Arab Creativity” concludes its run in the capital, it will move to the National Museum of Bahrain for the summer. The possibility of additional locations, including Riyadh and possibly Baghdad, are being explored.

“Bahrain is the only confirmed country for now. However, I would love to see it showcased in as many places as possible, such as Lebanon and Morocco. Regrettably, there are some places where it would not be feasible — among them, Syria — but I hope one day we will be able to organise something in those countries as well as the rest of the Middle East,” Khazindar said.