Society in Abu Dhabi is a rich, vibrant and interestingly textured tapestry of cultures and nationalities. The city is truly cosmopolitan with each of its cultures adding a different hue to its colourful way of life. When you've experienced such vibrancy, it's easy to understand why so many artists, both local and international, say the city breeds creativity. It's therefore also easy to understand why the city's artist community is flourishing.
Abu Dhabi not only has a wealth of emerging talent but boasts internationally known names, who are helping to shape the emirate into a global hub for culture and the arts. The city is home to hundreds of artworks lining the walls of its art galleries, but greatly adding to the impressive collections will be the Louvre and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which are set to open over the next few years.
Housing masterpieces by great artists from around the world promotes the domestic art scene by providing an additional source of inspiration. But Salwa Zeidan, artist, sculptor and director of Salwa Zeidan Gallery, says it also highlights home-grown talent.
"It attracts the attention of the whole world to this city that is vibrant with life and light, where peace and security are present at all times," says Zeidan. "This publicity exposes what is happening here in Abu Dhabi. The city is preparing to be the most exciting city for art in the whole world. It's an example of the new world, which breeds creativity."
Promoting the emirate
Zeidan's gallery strives to contribute to the bustling art scene and wants to show that Abu Dhabi's creative capacity is endless. "We are keen to promote Abu Dhabi as the first artistic city in the Middle East because we believe in its capacity to be the best on all levels," says the Lebanese artist.
Zeidan, the organiser of the Abu Dhabi Sculpture Symposium, was invited in 1999 by the Royal Academy of Science International in London to hold an exhibition dedicated to peace. She has since actively endorsed the cause, and in 2006 became the ambassador of the Worldwide Peace Marker Project to Lebanon.
Artist and musician Laurel Moore says inspiration goes beyond the talent that exists here, as it can be found in the landscape, too.
Moore was chosen this year by the artists' collective, the World Art Foundation to represent Abu Dhabi internationally. "It's wonderful to be representing Abu Dhabi overseas. It gives me a chance to showcase my art through UAE culture and landscapes. I adore the desert landscape, it really gets inside of you."
Moore, who was born in southern England, is passionate about jazz, loves playing the saxophone and piano, and singing. Charity is important to Moore as she looks to contribute to society as well as the art scene. One project is a piece she painted for this year's annual Puppy Ball, a charity event organised by K9 friends.
Similarly to Zeidan, multi-talented Sumayyah Al Suwaidi is also looking to show that Abu Dhabi's creativity is unrelenting. Al Suwaidi is the UAE's first female digital artist — her works ooze feminity, and fantasy. The Emirati is also curator at Ghaf Art Gallery, a fashion designer and the owner of the boutique Grafika.
There is the misconception that artists in the UAE are creatively limited because of the country's religion, she says, adding that this especially concerns Emiratis. "I would like to show the world how creative Emiratis are, and that there aren't any limitations. We can be as creative as we want and tackle any subject that pleases us," she says, adding that self-expression is not restrained because you are respectful of peoples' sensitivities.
"I never feel restricted. Yes, there are some subjects, nudity, for example, that we are sensitive about. But if I present this in a tasteful manner, no one would object."
Al Suwaidi has displayed her works in numerous exhibitions across the country and around the world. She represented the UAE in a group exhibition in Washington DC in celebration of the UAE's 39th National Day.
Assumed limitations on UAE artists are a source of creative agitation for Jalal Luqman, Abu Dhabi-born digital artist and owner and operator of Ghaf Art Gallery, together with artist Mohamed Kanoo. Art need not be a medium to offend an audience, says Luqman, arguably one of the most provocative artists in the UAE.
"There are many ways to tackle issues but there is also a wrong way. Art is the most amazing way to express your views, attitude and mood. If you read the things they write about me and see the words ‘aggressive, eruptive, volcanic and unflinching', then you'll see my work has a dialogue with the audience and that I am not limited in communicating this," he says.
Luqman has been dramatically impacting the art scene over the last two decades, especially in digital art where he's pushed the boundaries and forced audiences to acknowledge this medium equally to other traditional art forms. He's represented his country internationally, showcasing his work in a plethora of exhibitions.
Another misconception about artists in the UAE is that they need to represent their culture, religion and region in their artwork. "I don't hear people asking Americans why they don't paint cowboys and Red Indians, or why Japanese don't paint Samurais," says Luqman. "Everyday people think if I am an Emirati artist, then that means I am a calligrapher. People think that my subjects are supposed to be timid, but then they are shocked by my work."
Al Suwaidi has also encountered the same mindset. "I often face this misconception because my art does not reflect my religion or culture. After seeing my art so many people think it's done by a westerner. Sometimes people ask why I don't have Arabic-looking women in my art, or why I don't paint the desert and camels," she says.
"My artwork reflects both local and global themes," says Saoud Saeed Al Dhaheri, who was born in Al Ain and has displayed his work at numerous exhibitions.
Al Dhaheri has been attracted to art since early childhood, and during his tertiary education, he followed his interest in photography by joining a club at the Higher College of Technology in Al Ain. He then became a member of the Emirates Photography Society in Sharjah.
"My artwork [is varied] as I tackle different issues and express different ideas. I don't have to represent my region," he says, adding that he focuses on collage and mixed media.
Echoing this view is Emirati landscape and portrait artist Nabeel Khalfan Al Mehairbi. "I believe that it is more important to express yourself and what motivates you to grow and improve," says Al Mehairbi, who was born in Wales. The artist, who lives in the UAE capital, has exhibited his work at galleries in the UAE and has represented Abu Dhabi at last year's Assilah Art Festival in Morocco.
Compatriot Hamdan Buti Al Shamisi, a native of Al Ain who has shown his work at dozens of exhibitions, shares a similar stance. Art is not limited by geography and culture, he says.
"Art is a language that the whole world speaks and understands. Some of the issues or the ideas that I could be dealing with may represent the geographic area and country, for example, if I am expressing an idea about UAE traditions or heritage. But this is not the case for every artwork," he explains. Al Shamisi's work ranges from photography to graphic design and includes writing.
"Each culture can learn from another when it comes to art," says Al Mehairbi, in an attempt to explain why Abu Dhabi is the ideal location for a global arts and culture hub. "There is inspiration to be found everywhere, each day in our lives."