Graham Sheffield Image Credit: Abdul Rahman/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: The British Council is working to expand its art involvement in the UAE.

Explaining this aim in the context of the organisation’s work in cultural relations around the world, Graham Sheffield, British Council’s global director of arts, on a visit to the UAE, spoke on why arts are so important for people and countries in their efforts to build bridges of understanding and mutual goodwill.

“Understanding other people’s cultures, you can only do that through the arts and I think that’s incredibly important,” said Sheffield.

“In terms of international relations (through arts), you begin to break down some of the prejudices and stereotypes that one side inevitably sees in the other,” he said.

Brought into the organisation around five years ago to reestablish the arts at the heart of the British Council, present in over 100 countries including the UAE, Sheffield said he is working on a framework of cultural showcasing. “[Art] is even more important in [today’s] world where there is so much intolerance and misunderstanding and misrepresentation of other people’s cultures,” Sheffield added, acknowledging that the idea [of arts as a synergist] may sound “pompous” but he believes in it.

The British Council, said Sheffield, is looking to set up long-term programmes in the UAE, concentrating on art work in public and outdoor spaces, a concept that could benefit both Emirati and UK artists.

He cited Warehouse421, an art space in Abu Dhabi that is exhibiting ‘Lest We Forget’, a showcase for Emirati heritage, as a perfect example.

“Warehouse 421 is a powerful show... a moving artistic approach. I think that would be very interesting for British artists and they can learn from that.”

With the setting up of the long-term programmes, Sheffield hoped the exchange of cultures between the UAE and the UK will accelerate. “There is beginning to be more of an international presence of Emirati artists in the wider world, that’s something to be encouraged.

“Building cultural connections leads to better relationships in general between two countries,” he said.

While subjects such as terrorism, intolerance and social issues dominate the global news, Sheffield believes it is particularly important at this time to promote the role of art in offsetting these negative themes. “Yes, people need water, healthcare, schooling. But they also need some kind of cultural nourishment. We need to aim high, particularly in this world that is becoming increasingly unstable,” he said.

He believes that “artists are more socially engaged than any other time I can remember, since the 1960s. They (artists) see the failed old solutions and I think people see the impact of arts in health, environment...”

Programmes required to achieve their aims, such as cultural and artistic exchanges, do not have to be big events but they need to be powerful and in line with the UAE government’s ideas, he said.

“You are not there to sell tickets but to change minds — through the arts. It’s a different mission from [wanting to] fill up a house. The trick is to build an exciting programme. You have to encourage people with good art.”