Lead culture
Swedish artist Jacob Dahlgren at the A.R.M. Holding Children’s Programme, organised in partnership with Art Dubai Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

From its environment to the generosity of its famously multicultural society, the UAE inspires resident Swedish creative professionals in many ways – often alongside nods to their native country.

“The fantastic mix of Emirati people and expats amazes me. Nature and wildlife are also very different from where I come from,” says contemporary artist Madeleine Kurtsdotter. “Moving to Dubai has made me expand my artistic palette to more bold colours and more local motives, all while keeping my own signature style which is clean distinct colours, dots, patterns, golden details and clear lines.”

Madeleine Kurtsdotter, Artist

The Dubai-based Swedish national has exhibited her work around the world, including at the storied Salon d’Automne in Paris. While UAE residents may be familiar with her Drama Queen Camels series, it is her response to the climate emergency that has won her several commissions. One painting on the subject, commissioned by the incubator ZeeArts, now hangs at the UN’s Abu Dhabi office.

The theme also echoes through her Mother Earth collection. Her newest painting in the series is dedicated to the 500th anniversary of Sweden’s founding, and to the Scandinavian nation’s efforts in building a more sustainable future. “To the next 500 years!”

Kurtsdotter is one of just a handful of Swedish creatives living in and visiting the UAE. With around 5,000 expats in total, cultural events are typically organised by the Swedish Embassy in Abu Dhabi and the Swedish Business Council, usually around holidays and traditions such as Midsummer, the Lucia feast each December, and Swedish National Day on June 6 annually.

For Swedish-born soprano Luiza Formenius, who grew up in the UAE, it was these cultural events that exposed her to the traditions of her birth country.

Luiza Formenius, Vocalist

“When I was younger, I attended the Swedish school which took place once a week and exposed me to Swedish culture as well as developing my reading and writing skills in the Swedish language. As part of that we used to put on a Lucia concert and dinner every year, which I believe is still taking place,” she says.

A third-culture child of Indian and Romanian parents, Formenius was immersed in the UAE’s diverse society early on. “Living in the UAE has an impact on both the music I create and listen to. Living here for so many years I’ve had the privilege to be exposed to both local music and artists, as well as the many artists who visit and perform in the UAE. The UAE’s vibrant music scene has played a huge part in my development as an artist, whether it's the nuances of the voices heard here or the beautiful beat and sound of the tabla.”

That experience certainly echoes in her work. Formenius records contemporary versions and remixes of classical tracks to endear them to new audiences, often adding Swedish touches.

Cultural exchange stimulates creativity

For visiting artist Jacob Dahlgren, the UAE’s long-standing openness to the world finds echoes in its cultural scene, something he feels offers Swedish art a platform that may not always be possible in other countries. He has visited the UAE on two occasions as part of A.R.M. Holding Children's Programme, a cultural initiative of educational activities for school students organised by the multinational company together with Art Dubai.

Christian Jansson, Restaurateur

“Dubai is a cultural hub that embraces a fusion of diverse customs. Swedish art has been warmly welcomed through various cultural events such as Art Dubai. This kind of cultural exchange does more than just bridge gaps between nations. It does not only strengthen the bond between two nations but also contributes to the growth of the creative scene,” he says.

For a more tangible taste of how Swedish culture interacts with the UAE, residents might want to head over to Ella’s Eatery and The Strand Craft Kitchen, where chef and restaurateur Christian Jansson works hard to showcase his home country’s flavours. Traditional Swedish favourites, including meatballs, will be on the menu at Ella’s Eatery this National Day.

Seafood and hearty dishes are common to both countries, but Jansson is a convert to another aspect of the UAE’s culinary culture.

“One of the parts I have grown to love about meals in the UAE is the concept of traditional communal dining and sharing a meal with others,” he says. “I love weaving this into my own dishes that I create so that many are designed to share with others – which really brings an Arabic influence of hospitality to a Swedish table.” ■

Swedish culture 101
Start your Swedish cultural education with these recommendations

• Philosophy
Lagom, a Viking concept of balance that has shaped Swedes’ moderation, social awareness, and sustainability
– Christian Jansson, restaurateur
• Music
20th-century classical soprano Birgit Nilsson, best known for her renditions of Wagner and Strauss
– Luiza Formenius, vocalist
• Art
Olle Baertling, seminal abstract painter and sculptor during the post-war period
– Jacob Dahlgren, visual artist
Carl Larsson, 18th-century painter of idyllic family scenes representative of the Arts & Crafts movement
– Madeleine Kurtsdotter, artist