Mohammad Mandi, prominent UAE calligraphist, feels the art sector has come a long way from its modest beginnings. Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: To observe the capital's art scene, with nearly year-round exhibitions, fairs and dedicated projects, it may be astonishing to learn that 40 years ago, there were only a handful of exhibitions organised throughout the year.

Those who were hoping to showcase their works had to contend with hosting exhibitions in their homes or in hotels before the Qasr Al Hosn began organising arts-related activities and events in the mid-1980s, earning it the name ‘the Cultural Foundation' before it was closed for renovations by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) in 2010.

"I remember that there weren't any dedicated venues for art… my first exposure to art actually came from my schoolbooks. I was fascinated by the Arabic calligraphy that was present in them and would go home to practise for hours… I eventually left in 1975 to study calligraphy in Cairo before returning in 1977," Mohammad Mandi, the UAE's most prominent calligraphist, said. His work is featured on the UAE's currency, passport and within the Shaikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

"At that time, there were some challenges to organising exhibitions whether you were an Emirati or expatriate artist. At first, we did group exhibitions if we wanted a better chance to show our work and even then, we were always concerned about their success," he added.

Saeed Ali Sowafy, an Ugandan expatriate who is an oil and gas engineer by profession but a figurative painter by passion, agreed, noting that artists sometimes turned to alternative opportunities to showcase their artistic skills.

"There weren't many art-based avenues when I arrived in 1988. We had the Cultural Foundation, which hosted some classes, but it wasn't enough. It was difficult finding places to exhibit or even to find supporters or patrons.


"So I created designs for shop signs, advertisements and even wall illustrations in schools while working on my own paintings at home," he recalled.

However, he, along with fellow artists noted that while there are still some challenges being faced in the community today, the art sector has certainly come a long way from its modest beginnings.

Read special coverage: 40 years of the UAE

"When I first arrived in the mid-seventies, there were no centres or galleries…since then, I've been amazed to see how Abu Dhabi's art community has changed and developed.

"The government has really grasped just how important art is for any society and have really begun to educate Emiratis about it...as a result, they are now not only more knowledgeable but also have begun investing by building collections, which is wonderful," Salwa Zeidan, a Lebanese expatriate who is both an artist and owner of the Salwa Zeidan Gallery, said.

Dramatic change

Summayyah Al Suwaidi, who is the first Emirati digital artist and artist liason supervisor at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), noted that as a result of the surge in art-related events, artists now are able to exhibit, sell and even be approached for commissioned projects.

"When I started back in 2001, I did not know where to go or whom to talk to, all we had back then was the cultural foundation and they always had a very long list of artists waiting to exhibit their work..." said Al Suwaidi, "[but now] it has changed dramatically... every government sector wants something to do with art, or has a project to include artists, also now we have private galleries in Abu Dhabi," she said.

The success of high profile events in recent years, such as Abu Dhabi Art, and the current development of the Saadiyat Island's Cultural District, which will house branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim, have also contributed to the rising interest in the capital's art sector.

Combined with the increasing awareness of dedicated art galleries and venues, it seems that the capital's art community is poised to fully explore the potential of this vibrant sector.

"Art is the breath of life in any society... it is through the generous support of the government and members of the UAE ruling family as well as the establishment of organisations such as the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), that people, especially Emiratis, can have access to this rich world and be encouraged to have an active role in it.

The current projects on Saadiyat Island will also serve to continue enhancing this fledgling community," Mandi said.