Abu Dhabi’s cultural DNA is evolving – the work of emerging artists proves it

Neither Sam Bardaoui nor Till Fellrath, co-curators at NYU Abu Dhabi, the Art Dubai fair and the United Arab Emirates pavilion at the Venice Biennale, are from the United Arab Emirates. But their international curatorial practice, Art: Reoriented, finds a natural home in this very international nation.

“Abu Dhabi is an example of a 21st century city,” Bardaoui said, describing the bustling and futuristic capital of a country that only turned 50 this year. Considering expatriates to be 75 percent of the population, he adds that “people of diverse cultural backgrounds” – from Asia, Africa, the Arab States and beyond – “are here to find their way, and the result is a close proximity of different ways of life and cultural affinities. It’s a formula that has a clear affinity with Art: Reoriented, a platform of Lebanese origin Bardaoui and Fellrath of German origin (who now both live in Munich, as newly appointed directors of the Hamburger Banhof) co-founded in 2009. regions often excluded or downright simplified by the history of Western art, they often turned to under-represented artists from the Middle East.

Maïtha Abdallah, Too close to the sun, 2021. Photography courtesy of Abu Dhabi Art.

The region has undergone a “radical transformation” in the last decade or so, says Fellrath; Louvre Abu Dhabi, various art institutions and the Abu Dhabi Art Fair are all located on the man-made Saadiyat Island, a stretch of land that simply didn’t exist 15 years ago. As a result of the UAE’s efforts to present itself as a major cultural hub on the international stage, “I think we are seeing the benefits of these initiatives and investments in art,” Fellrath said, referring to the small local art scene. to seize.

Having established a strong relationship with the region’s rapidly expanding art scene over the years, he and Bardaoui co-organized the “Beyond: Emerging Artists” exhibition during the last edition of Abu Dhabi Art, which offered to three local artists the opportunity and mentorship to create their own installations. This year, the co-curators have chosen Christopher Benton, Maitha Abdalla and Hashel Al Lamki, three multidisciplinary talents who express feelings both specific to life in the United Arab Emirates and, at the same time, very universal to the human condition, favoring the stress that art should not be categorized into boxes as narrow as region or medium.

hanging date palm
Christophe Joshua Benton, The world was my garden, 2021, to Beyond: Emerging Artists. Photograph courtesy of Abu Dhabi Art.

Benton represents the great melting pot of the United Arab Emirates, says Fellrath, as “an American who has lived here for 10 years and is now back in the United States in graduate school at MIT,” while the Emirati artist Abdalla’s work has a surreal feel, invoking folk imagery from Arab legends, as well as more mundane memories of adolescence. His Emirati compatriot Al Lamki uses his art to meditate on the rapid cultural and architectural development of his country.

Hashel Al Lamki, NEPTUNE, 2021. Photography courtesy of Abu Dhabi Art.

Each artist’s installation for Abu Dhabi Art has a critical side, some more overtly than others. Benton’s “The World Was My Garden” focuses on the date, a ubiquitous fruit whose cultivation coincides with forced labor and lingering race and class issues in the Gulf and Coachella Valley of California. Like all of her work, Abdalla’s “Too Close to the Sun” explores themes of women’s empowerment – the overlapping of multiple worlds and embracing wild tendencies. Meanwhile, Al Lamki’s “Neptune” contemplates the possibilities of quitting the industry and returning to the nomadic, Bedouin way of life that was the origin of the nation.

The themes presented by emerging artists at the fair are a marker of a society that can evolve towards greater tolerance for artistic license. “Every cultural intuitive that we have seen evolve here in recent years has helped change the cultural DNA of the city,” explains Bardaoui. “It’s an exciting time to be here.”

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