May 6, 2016

Portrait of a Nation: UAE Artists Explore Unity

Emirati artist Sarah Alagroobi discusses her work with Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, UAE minister of culture, youth, and social development.

On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation (ADMAF) is offering visitors to the “Portrait of a Nation” exhibit an opportunity to view the work of 20 Emirati artists reflecting on the organization’s legacy, as well as the unique culture and identity of the United Arab Emirates. Among those commissioned for this exhibit are two leading contemporary Emirati artists, Amna Al Dabbagh and Sarah Alagroobi, both featured in the “Nation & Unity” section of the exhibit.

Sarah’s “The Desert Rose” is a sculpture made out of sand sourced from around the UAE. She is a graduate of the American University of Sharjah, graphic designer, and filmmaker. In this interview she discusses how her return to the UAE after living abroad has impacted her artistry and how she uses her art to generate discourse with and among her audience.

Amna’s piece “United” is a mirror mapped into the shape of the UAE with the word “united” printed in various languages and sizes. A graduate of the American University in Dubai, designer, and artist, she discusses her passion for using language to connect to a broad audience as well as how she considers her art a way to give back to her country.

AGSIW: Tell us about your contributions to the “Portrait of a Nation” exhibit. What do you want visitors to see in them?

Sarah: The exhibition’s underlying theme and concept addresses the nuances of what it means to be Emirati – what it means to be an Emirati on Emirati soil – and so I thought that it would be a great idea to take a concept or a living phenomenon that exists in the deserts of the UAE, the desert rose, and apply a thematic component within that structure that revolves around UAE culture. “The Desert Rose” is inspired by the phenomenon of the desert rose that can be found in the UAE. I collected the sands from the seven emirates and used those different sands to basically be a geographical as well as a geological mapping of the adjacencies of the cities in a structure that can be associated to the desert roses that exist in the UAE.

"Desert Rose" © Sarah Al Agroobi

“Desert Rose” © Sarah Alagroobi

Amna: The exhibition basically asked what does “portrait of a nation” mean to each artist. It came at a perfect time as over the past year patriotism in the UAE has been at its peak. The UAE does not only consist of Emiratis but also all the different nationalities that coexist in harmony. Both the Emiratis and the other residents helped to develop the country, and many of my non-Emirati friends consider the UAE their second home or homeland. My piece “United” was research based. I researched all the nationalities that live here; I went directly to consulates and embassies and spoke to people, looked at newspaper publications.

If there is a word to describe us, the people of the UAE, whether we are nationals or residents, is that we are united, all of us together. So I took the word “united” and translated it to all the languages spoken here and these are the words you see on the mirror. The size of each word on the piece corresponds to the percentage of the population that speaks that language. My work is the first piece you see when you enter the exhibit and I chose a mirror as the material for the piece because I wanted visitors to look at their reflection and see an essential member of this nation. I wanted people to relate to it, each in their language.

"United" © Amna Al Dabbagh

“United” © Amna Al Dabbagh

Sarah: Both our projects directly relate to the heritage or the patriotic significance of the UAE. The way that Amna beautifully designed her work to reflect the populations with one simple connectivity through the linguistic component is also reflected in my work in terms of the sand. The sand comes from different structures but my work shows how they transition into each other, different cities mix and mingle and bleed into each other. That reinforces the idea of unity: Even though we are different emirates, we are the united emirates.

AGSIW: Both your commissioned pieces fell under the theme “Nation & Unity” and incorporated the theme of diversity. Why did you feel it important to draw attention to this particular aspect of the UAE?

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Artist Sarah Alagroobi works on her piece, “The Desert Rose.”

Sarah: I am Emirati but I was raised abroad, and when I was brought back I learned about my country secondhand. It was a beautiful way to learn my culture. What I found so interesting about the country was that no matter what emirate you go to, you get a different feeling there – there is a different ambiance – and I found I wanted to reinforce that idea in “The Desert Rose.” We tend to focus predominantly on Dubai but we fail to recognize the other cities such as Ras Al Khaimah or Fujairah. I am trying to invite people to look at it not just as an aesthetic execution, but also an informative execution; to show that these sands exist and they are distinct in terms of their quality and color and the way the light hits them. I joined them together to show people as a unified visual exploration. Together they create something beautiful, and as isolated components they are a reflection of their own identity and I think that’s what the UAE brings together. It is a beautiful melting pot, an eclectic body of humans from all walks of life all over the world yet somehow together they create this unified identity that is the UAE. I wanted to reinforce that in my design approach.

Amna: The main inspiration for me was that the UAE is home to 200 different nationalities; it is the only Arab country of its kind that is cosmopolitan in this way and our leaders even say this. When His Highness Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak opened the exhibition and heard me explain my work he said, “We are proud to be home to these nationalities. We take pride in it and we love it when other nationalities find a home in the UAE.” To me the language is really important and so it is present in all my work. The power of written work can reach people as much as visual; I believe that they are equally powerful. I wanted to build a direct connection. I wanted the artwork to be alive and for all visitors to become part of it to see themselves in the art work and connect to it in a deep way.

AGSIW: How are you incorporating the UAE as a nation and culture in your other artwork?

Sarah: In terms of my artistry, I tend to focus on things that are important to me or are some form of my identity, so I never like to design or create work that isn’t a reflection of who I am or at least a design question that I am posing myself in order to find an answer through the design process. When I created the film “The Forbidden Fruit,” I tackled the duality that exists within our culture – how people can opt for a Western way of living while still retaining the sense of culture and heritage that they have been brought up with. It was an interesting dynamic that I wanted to uncover through a short narrative. I did an infographic piece that uncovered the genealogical studies behind marriages or intermarriages, within the UAE, based on tribes. I found through research that there are social stigmas that exist in the tribes that allow a separation between marriages. And of course highlighting this can raise a few eyebrows and can be somewhat controversial. All of my work has one purpose and one purpose alone: It is there to showcase or create a discourse between the work and the audience. If my work creates a visual dialogue, I have achieved the goal I set out for myself.

Artist Amna Al Dabbagh with her piece, "United." Photo courtesy of Chiragh Bhatia.

Artist Amna Al Dabbagh with her piece, “United.” Photo courtesy of Chiragh Bhatia.

Amna: I don’t really plan for it to be part of my work, it just happens. It is a reflection of what I think of and am interested in. I work a lot with language because I am interested in literature. So in my previous work, I did a series on the wind. It was about the wind as a natural weather phenomenon that happens in the UAE, which has had a deep connection with the Arab people. I researched names of the wind, or poetry that was written about the wind, and that research resulted in two artworks. One was part of the Sikka Art Fair in Al Fahidi, a historical neighborhood. The context of Fahidi inspired me to create this; I am inspired by the environment that I live in. The core of my work is research – my number one passion. The data that I find through research becomes my artwork… same with the work for “United” – the data are translated through the words. My work connects with a broader audience. They don’t have to be artists or have an artistic background because I use language. This is why I believe in the power of the word, because it can reach a wider audience. What gives me satisfaction is that people learn about the UAE culture through my work; the research I do becomes education for those who see my work.

AGSIW: How has the strong support from the government impacted local artists and the art scene in the UAE?

Sarah: Right now the UAE is allowing for this amazing artistic boom, which is promoting and providing platforms for young artists to immerse themselves in whatever they want to be part of, whether it is women’s rights or social or political issues. Their talents are encouraged and supported and I think that is what is encouraging this new wave of artists coming forth and being recognized locally, regionally, and internationally. This has everything to do with the platforms we have been provided. Because we are given this context or this voice to speak with, it is given significance and these platforms such as ADMAF are providing these platforms to do so.

Amna: You can’t escape what happens around you. As a country we are known to be very patriotic. The exhibition, “Portrait of a Nation,” came at the right time. It is a celebration of 20 years of ADMAF as well as of a period in which everyone had a strong sense of nationalism. Like Sarah said, when we are given the opportunity, whether through media coverage or a budget to create or we are commissioned… 10 years ago it was really hard to come through as an artist because you had to take care of everything yourself. But now with all the support you can get, it is our responsibility to make art. I see this support as a chance to give back to this country, because the support comes from organizations like ADMAF and our leaders. I ask, “How can I give back to those who support me?”

Portrait of a Nation is part of the Abu Dhabi Festival at the Emirates Palace and will run until May 10.

Samyah Alfoory is a contributor for Millennial Gulf and can be reached at samyah.alfoory@agsiw.org.