I met Christo close to a decade ago on one of his many visits to Abu Dhabi. From that very first moment, I could see that he had a passion for the UAE and an undying love for the majestic beauty of the Liwa.
I was intrigued by this and asked him what it was about this country and the Liwa that so captivated him. He revealed to me that his love for the country had been shared by his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, and that it had taken root in them both on their first visit here in the late 1970s.
He understood the new country held great promise, evident in the visionary message of unity and progress from the nation’s leaders, and he found the ardent enthusiasm of everyone he met in the UAE to be remarkable. It was clear that in each of this creative couple’s many ensuing visits, they would fall in love with the Liwa again and again.
It was in their intense devotion to the Liwa that the idea for the Mastaba was born. The epic sculpture was to be a magnificent creation that would rise from the orange and red sands of the deep desert to tower high over its great dunes.
It would use hundreds of thousands of multi-coloured oil barrels, built in the shape of a rectangular stepped pyramid, but with a design that respects and is a part of its natural environment.
The Mastaba was to be Christo’s only permanent installation, that, like an ark, would house a museum of his life’s work and become a destination in and of itself for the world to experience.
The sudden death of Jeanne-Claude left a deep void in Christo that only amplified the intensity of his desire to realise his Mastaba dream during his lifetime. It would be his monument to her and to the UAE, the country that they both loved.
A Centre for education and enlightenment, the Mastaba would have been a source of enthusiasm and inspiration for the youth, a place for them to dream and proof to them that nothing is impossible.
Its unique design was to have had minimal environmental impact, both in the Mastaba’s construction and in maintenance over time, and it would have encouraged visitors to learn about and appreciate the surroundings in which it was set.
Together, Christo and I embarked on a memorable journey, through a dedicated Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (ADMAF) Education Program that took us from the Liwa to the capital of Abu Dhabi and on to all the seven Emirates.
Christo shared his passion for creativity with young students by presenting the amazing works of art he had created around the world and regaling them with fascinating stories of his experiences.
Nurturing art and beauty
The success of this tour cemented our friendship and our desire to make a difference. We continued to meet, to talk, to laugh and to dream, and it was out of his hope for the future and his belief in the nurturing of art and beauty that the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award grew.
This unique award, established in 2012 here in Abu Dhabi, came to be held under the patronage of Sheikha Shamsa bint Hamdan Al Nahyan, a remarkable patron of the arts, in partnership with ADMAF and NYU Abu Dhabi. Christo wished to give young creative people an opportunity to make their own projects a reality.
He wanted to help them take an idea that is truly outstanding and expand on it to explore what could be possible. After all, this is what was at the heart, both spiritually and physically, of all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work.
For the past eight years, Christo returned to Abu Dhabi to oversee his annual Award with the extraordinary energy for which he was known.
I watched him engage students with abundant enthusiasm, yet with such great kindness and gentleness, listening to them, advising them and guiding them forward. These are moments we will never forget.
My husband and I last saw Christo at his Soho home in New York. He met us halfway up some very steep stairs, and we finally understood how he always kept so fit and lively.
We talked about his many exciting new projects and in the end, we revisited his Mastaba dream in the Liwa and how we would endeavour together to artfully find a way for it happen. He was always gently positive, always happily enthused, but above all humbly optimistic that day would soon arrive.
We were looking forward to meeting up again at this year’s Abu Dhabi Festival, as Christo was to receive the 2020 Abu Dhabi Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement from our Patron, Sheikh Nahyan Mubarak Al Nahyan.
It feels strange to wake up in a world without Christo. While he may have left us, his genius, his passionate and resilient spirit, his love for life and his dreams will always remain in our hearts.
All of us here who were touched by him will continue to carry his vision forward, because just as his life was intertwined with our country, his legacy is part of our future.
Huda Ibrahim Alkhamis is the founder of the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation